Jonathan Zimmerman: Beware China's Role in US Chinese Classes

Roundup: Talking About History

[Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century,” which will be published in the fall by Harvard University Press.]

Let’s suppose that a cruel, tyrannical, and repressive foreign government offered to pay for American children to study its national language in our schools. Would you take the deal?

Actually, we already have. Starting this fall, the College Board is offering an Advanced Placement course in “Chinese language and culture” in U.S. high schools. Developing the course and its exam cost about $1.4 million. And half of that sum was picked up by—you guessed it—the People’s Republic of China.

That’s right. The same regime that has brought us public executions, forced labor camps, and Internet censors will soon be funding a course about its “language and culture” in a school near you.

Given what we know about the Chinese rulers, it’s fair to ask what’s in it for them. And to answer, we might examine the last time a dictatorial foreign government tried to influence our language instruction.

The era was the 1930s, and the regime was Italy. Fascist Italy.

Shortly after he seized power, the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini began a broad campaign to promote Italian-language instruction in American schools. Mussolini sent agents from his “Bureau for Italians Abroad” to the United States, where they lobbied parochial and public schools to teach the language. Fascist agents also mobilized Italian-language newspapers, which urged readers to enroll their children in the subject.

To provide a further lure, meanwhile, Mussolini’s government awarded medals to American students for “excellence in the study of Italian.” The top five scholars won free trips to Italy, where they attended state-run summer camps. They wore fascist uniforms, received military training, and learned how to hail the Italian flag. Several students even received audiences with Il Duce himself.

Not surprisingly, the Italian-language curriculum in American schools reflected this same pro-fascist bent. In 1935, an Italian newspaper in New York proudly reported that the city’s curriculum required students to “explain the Fascist Salute” as well as “the great changes for the better which are evident in Italy”—including disability pensions, maternity hospitals, and “the settling of labor difficulties.”...

Just like Mussolini’s agents in the 1930s, I suspect, the Chinese regime will try to use to the new AP course to play up its economic achievements—and to paper over its crimes. But if any Chinese citizens protest, they’ll risk prison, or worse. So it’s up to the rest of us to monitor the program....

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