KEN DE BEVOISE'S class in American foreign policy trampled on many sensitive political toes, especially since he was teaching Chinese graduate students on their own turf. His assigned reading included a vivid first-hand account of repression by the Marxist regime in Nicaragua as well as reports sympathetic to the ruling Sandinistas. He then asked his class what United States policy should be toward Nicaragua.
The answers came in extremes.
``Pull out the advisers, stop aiding the contras, and give money to the Sandinistas,'' said one student. The view was a logical extension of editorials in the Chinese Communist Party newspaper, the People's Daily.
``Any more options?'' asked the teacher.
``Increase support for the contras and, yes, use nuclear weapons if necessary,'' said another student with a mischievous look on his face.
De Bevoise, a historian from the University of Oregon, cast about for more moderate alternatives and presented his own views. The lesson was not so much what the US ought to do in Central America as it was an introduction to the complexity of political issues and how to examine more than one side of a problem.
Such freewheeling discussion, taken for granted in American graduate schools, is almost unheard of in classrooms at Chinese universities.
De Bevoise is teaching at the Center for Chinese and American Studies near the campus of Nanking University. His class, one of the most popular at the center, is part of an educational experiment sponsored jointly by Nanking University and the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. With an academic program of one year, the center offers a fully integrated curriculum for students specializing in Chinese-American affairs.
Since opening last September, the center has had a challenging first year. Sparks have flown from both the Chinese and Americans as they have tried to bridge a wide cultural and educational divide. The program is small, with 23 American and 40 Chinese students and faculty drawn from several universities in China and the United States.
Thirteen Chinese professors teach Chinese history, politics, and economics to Americans. Five Americans teach Chinese students graduate-level courses on American culture, government, economics, and international relations. There are many sensitive topics, but the faculty has been given a free hand to choose course materials. An open-stack library, well stocked with books provided by both university sponsors, is a focal point of the center.
Inside the comfortable, newly built facilities where teachers and students live and study together, there have been skirmishes about course content, reading material, grading criteria, and debates about the program itself. As expected, one problem is language.
``This is not a language school, but you can't separate language training from other course work,'' said Denise Carolan, assistant to the program director.
Finding qualified students who have both the language skills and a genuine interest in social studies has been a problem and looks to be a continuing challenge in student recruitment.
Language courses are offered on the side, but students are expected to have a high proficiency in Chinese and English before admittance, since all course work is in the instructor's native tongue. Even so, during the first semester, American teachers had to cut reading assignments by two-thirds to about 50 pages a week, and it was a major victory when all the Americans completed their term papers in Chinese.
The program carries no degree, which is a drawback for everyone. The Chinese are sent by their work units and would like to take back some concrete evidence of their studies; the Americans are paying between $10,000 and $14,000 for course work similar to that offered by other Chinese schools at a much lower cost.
The joint living arrangements - exceptional in China, where foreigners and Chinese are usually segregated - have brought the usual irritations but have proved to be less troublesome than some people anticipated.
The Chinese say they like the Americans' energy and openness and their willingness to admit that they don't know something. But they also criticize them for being too aggressive and lacking discipline.
``American students have a strong attitude that everything should be done in the American way. This is a problem,'' said one Chinese student.
Grading system problems
During the first semester, Chinese students complained that their American counterparts didn't study hard enough and that their Chinese professors were ``too generous.'' Leon Slawecki, the American co-director for the program, took up this problem in a meeting with the Chinese faculty last fall.
``Then the ax fell,'' said Lara Schisgall of Chevy Chase, Md. The teachers tightened up the grading system and assigned more papers.
For the Chinese, the biggest adjustment after English has been the Western approach to education. Their American teachers still have to work hard to encourage their participation in class, but progress has been evident.
``The students are clearly much more at ease with us now and much more willing to express differences of opinion than at the beginning,'' said Robert Fogarty of Antioch College, who teaches a course on problems in American society.
Some students are quite outspoken, including Fu Xi, who says he is now critical of the Chinese teaching method.
``Chinese teaching is not really learning but reciting,'' he said. ``The Chinese way of teaching always tries to tell you what's correct. Here, the professors don't tell you to believe what they're saying, but they help you to develop your own opinions.''
``I'm encouraged to find myself, so I feel more confident,'' Mr. Fu said. He hopes to be one of four students who will be chosen to go to the US for one year to continue their studies. This opportunity makes the program extremely attractive to the Chinese, who have difficulty financing study abroad.
There have been complaints that American professors have been too strict toward Chinese students. In the first semester, two Chinese students received a ``C'' in one course, an unacceptable grade in American graduate schools.
Cultural Revolution course a first
One innovation in the program has been a course on China's Cultural Revolution (1966-76). The course was added in the spring semester, at the Americans' request. As far as anyone knows, it is the first time the subject has been taught in China.
``This is a very sensitive and painful subject,'' said Mr. Fu, who is a teaching assistant in the class. ``Up to now, no one has had the courage to give a precise and accurate analysis of the Cultural Revolution.''
He said the course has been very difficult to teach and has no real textbook. The students are reading published documents, articles from the press, and texts of the big-character posters mounted by Mao Tse-tung's Red Guards in the late 1960s.
American students have complained that their courses are often one-sided, that the reading materials are repetitive, and that some professors are not open to class discussion. But now, well into the second semester, students say they are less upset.
``Now we've become used to the course content and don't complain so much,'' said Ms. Schisgall. ``We're learning subjects as Chinese learn them. You could get more objective truths about China from courses in the States, but you couldn't learn what we're learning here,'' she said.
``This is a much better program than any other foreign students have in China,'' said David Decker of Bethesda, Md., who studied at several Chinese schools before coming to Nanking.