Professor Ben Liebman Working to Get More Information about China into High School Lessons


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New York, March 22, 2010 – When Professor Benjamin Liebman was growing up in Newton, Mass., he took part in the first full exchange of students between high schools in the U.S. and China.
That experience 24 years ago effectively began what has been a continuous journey to learn more about issues that affect China and impart that knowledge, which Liebman does now as director of the Center for Chinese Legal Studies at Columbia Law School.
More recently, Liebman has reached out beyond the Law School to educate high school teachers as they develop curricula that reflect developments in China.
“[The student exchange] changed my life, and I feel an obligation to try and use some of the expertise I’ve developed to help teachers out there today,” Liebman said.
Liebman’s efforts are part of the Public Intellectuals Program (PIP) sponsored by the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, which works to promote understanding and cooperation between both nations.
Jan Berris, the committee’s vice president, said one aim of the program is to “encourage a younger generation to put themselves more into the mode of a public intellectual, speaking out at the local level.”
As a PIP fellow, Liebman worked on the outreach program to high school teachers, and spoke at two sessions last month, one each in New York and in New Jersey. Both were organized through the China Institute. The New York session focused on environmental law and policy; the course for New Jersey teachers addressed Chinese legal thought.
“To understand what’s happened in the last 32 years since reforms started in 1978, you need to understand the role of the law,” Liebman said. “What I’m also trying to convey is the complexity of the roles law plays in China, but also the centrality of it. But I think you need to understand the legal system to know contemporary China.”
Liebman said one challenge was boiling down the essence of a complex topic into a one-day course for an audience unfamiliar with the Chinese legal system. “It pushes us to think in a way to speak to an audience that we usually don’t speak to,” he said.
Toward that end, Liebman said the program was an unqualified success, as his audience– mostly social-studies teachers–was already interested in finding new ways to integrate China issues in various classes.
It’s a far cry from when he was in high school, where prior to his first trip to China, his education about that country consisted of one hour a week of Chinese-language class after school.
“Part of what the National Committee wants to achieve is to think about how we convey our general knowledge about China to the public,” Liebman said.
Another component of the program, which is funded by The Henry Luce Foundation and The Starr Foundation, is to allow China scholars in various fields to meet and hear about developments outside their areas of expertise, Berris said.
That includes meetings with other fellows in Washington and San Francisco that feature visits with policymakers and opinion leaders. Liebman will cap off the program this summer with a 10-day trip to China to meet with leaders in a wide range of fields.
“I think if you boost education about China generally, it’s going to strengthen the level of understanding about China, and also the level of debate,” Liebman said.
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