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Log on, tune in, drop out (3)

By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)

16:32, May 06, 2013

There is no doubt that dumbing down is a worldwide phenomenon. Because we have run to the fore, we are more mired in the morass of tech-enabled factoids and populist pursuits. I once mentioned the origin of Christmas in a college lecture and met with a rejoinder of: "We know. It's in an episode of The Big Bang Theory". Well, it's certainly a positive thing that the entertainment we watch embodies educational elements. But should all useful knowledge be repackaged as sitcom material to make it stick with the target audience?

I guess I'm showing my age when I ask such questions. I used to criticize the old, rigid way of imparting knowledge. I still do. Both teaching and learning should be more fun. But not every Shakespeare play can be transformed into a 15-minute "webisode" rich with up-to-the-minute slang and cyber phrases. Some parts of learning will never be as enjoyable as tabloid news and celebrity gossip.

Compared to the self-programmed slate of Web content, American TV series hold a high standard of professionalism. They are more grounded in reality and, as such, are more enlightening than most Hollywood franchise movies - to a typical Chinese college student, that is. Shows like The West Wing and House of Cards are inadvertent textbooks - albeit exaggerated for dramatic purposes - of the American political system. Although they are not supposed to be the single source of knowledge, they can be invaluable as companions to academic study.

Consciously or not, many Chinese have always looked to the West for a roadmap in terms of social development or economic growth. When something goes wrong in China, experts will write about how the Americans have done it. If China's education is a minefield of dashed hope and shattered talent, the system in the US must be a miracle, so goes the public assumption. Little do people know or care that America's educational system has its own unsolvable headaches, which happen to differ drastically from those in China and therefore are not relevant as a precedent.

There are indeed many things an advanced nation can be a role model for, but China has leapfrogged, for better or for worse, in many areas. Yet, we are not in a position to judge what developments are good and what are bad. We tend to swing from self-intoxication to despair in one fell swoop, often depending on the breakout news of the day. Just look at the news, never verified, that a "mainstream" US television company is acquiring the rights to China's most popular palace drama. It's invariably interpreted as American recognition of the excellence of Chinese soap opera. Guess what? Even if it turns out to be true, one swallow does not a summer make.

China may produce tens of thousands of TV episodes each year, but in quality and salability we are far behind the US. Of the things we can emulate, creativity should probably be the top priority - and everything associated with it. Whether the content is spoon-fed or gorged is really beside the point.

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