An interview with Gaston Caperton, former President of U.S. College Board: “Now Chinese is the fastestgrowing of all the languages. And I think someday it will be our largest foreign language program in terms of the number of students participating in”.
He was the Governor of West Virginia, and now chairs the U.S. College Board (2011). He could not read like a normal child at 3rd grade, and now he has helped make fair and quality education available for millions of students. He does not specialize in Mandarin, but it is him who historically made the Chinese language a part of the Advanced Placement Program in collaboration with Hanban. This is Gaston Caperton, an advocate for the importance of excellence and equity in education, a leader provides access to studying Mandarin and learning about China for the next US generations. Why did he place education as his First-priority policy? How was he connected with Asian cultures? Does the passion for Mandarin in US will continue in the future? What have been the impacts of Confucius Institutes on US society?… The editorial office of Confucius Institute Magazine presents you below an exclusive interview with Mr. Gaston Caperton, who will be addressing these issues.
Gaston Caperton: First of all, my background is that I was a businessman from 1963 until I was elected as the Governor of West Virginia in 1989. I know personally from looking at society that no culture is any better than an education system. In my state, the education system was not in good shape at that time. I led a big education reform program. I increased teachers’ salary and teachers’ training. I built new schools, a program that still goes on. We want more people in this community to come and see. We had rundown schools at that time when they were not interested in education. So I really believe that the education is the key to progress for any society and for any individual. So that’s why I focused on education. I was a leader in the country using technology in education, receiving some big rewards for that. I have a passion for education.
I first time went to China in 1983. So I’ve seen it through remarkable growth and improvement of lives of Chinese people. I think the relationship between China and the United States is the most important relationship in the world, and our two nations must work together.
My early personal experiences could probably explain my passion about education for our students. I was dyslexic; I couldn’t read in 3rd grade. I was seeing things backwards, that’s what you call dyslexia, and they didn’t have a fancy name for it in those days. My father took me to see a doctor. Every day before I went to school, my father would sit down with me and showed me how to memorize words, how to say words and how to spell words, that’s how I learned to read. I was not a great student because it’s hard to be a great student when you’re dyslexic. But I went to great schools and I always graduated, not at the top of my class.
Reporter: As the President of College Board, foreign language education has emerged on your policy agenda. Why did you choose Chinese language and culture as a new foreign language disciplines on AP program?
Gaston Caperton: Because I believe these languages and cultures are two extremely important parts of our world, and we were living in the old time not to have Chinese and Japanese being treated as importantly as other languages. Now Chinese is the fastestgrowing of all the languages. And I think someday it will be our largest foreign language program in terms of the number of students participating in. I’m sure that it will be.
My mother was born in Japan. So I was exposed to Asia. My grandfather was a missionary in Japan in 1898. So my mother and my aunt and uncle were born there. My aunt was also a missionary. She came back from her mission and lived with us for many years. Both my mother and my aunt love Japan. They talked about it often. So I was always interested in Asia. I first time went to China in 1983. So I’ve seen it through remarkable growth and improvement of lives of Chinese people. I think the relationship between China and the United States is the most important relationship in the world, and our two nations must work together. I think it is a very important language and very important connection.
Reporter: What changes has AP Chinese brought to American students as well as their schools and families involved?
Gaston Caperton: First of all, it’s just a very loud voice saying China is important, language is important, being able to communicate in Chinese is important. And it’s opened great opportunities for Americans who can speak Chinese. China is an important trading partner for the U.S.. China has an old and very important culture. The American students who understand China and respect and appreciate it will have better opportunities. And it’s also intellectually interesting.
Reporter: What explains the everincreasing demand for Chinese language and culture in the U.S.? How would you identify the forces that push this trend?
Gaston Caperton: I think people recognize that China is one of the important nations in the world. There is a great opportunity for the individual who understands and can be a part of those two cultures working together. People recognize that it is next to U.S. and maybe equally important as the U.S., is one of the most powerful nations in the world. When I came over to China as a businessman in early 1980s, there were only bicycles in Beijing, everybody dressed basically brown and grey. Now I don’t know if there is anywhere there are more cars and traffic. That happened in a pretty short period. It’s a reflection of the progress that China has made. My dealing with Chinese has been very positive. I like the Chinese people. I encourage everyone, especially young people to learn the new language. I hope more and more will. Reporter: What do you think of the prospect of Chinese language in the next decade and in the long run? Gaston Caperton: As we have more and more qualified people to teach Chinese, more and more people speak Chinese, more and more people ask to expand their businesses or education and expand their opportunities as they see China is a great advantage and opportunity and intellectually interesting for people to learn about China.
As we have more teachers and students and older brothers and sisters learning Chinese and being successful in their lives, and more companies demanding more employees who are teachers, intellectuals, things will get better in the future.
Reporter: What we can do to maintain the current trend?
Gaston Caperton: I think progress is made in continuing steps. The hardest step is to get started. As we have more teachers and students and older brothers and sisters learning Chinese and being successful in their lives, and more companies demanding more employees who are teachers, intellectuals, things will get better in the future. Even though my mother was born in Japan, we have pictures of Japan and my grandfather, people from Japan came to visit us at home, it still seemed pretty distant to me. But when I started business in Japan, travelling to Japan, and I got interested in it as I did in China. China will be a very important part to future generations in America. I think people who are in education leadership positions, like I am, are emphasizing its importance. The support from Hanban has been critical to making this happen. They’ve done a fantastic job. Xu Lin is the one of the greatest education leaders I’ve ever met. She’s just all out to do the job and does it well.
Reporter: Do you think in the long run we should increase the number of Chinese guest teachers to U.S. schools or we should focus on training local Chinese language teachers?
Gaston Caperton: Both. It will be a great loss if we don’t have those teachers. They are so critically important. But I think we should begin to teach on our own. The U.S. President made a statement that he wants 100,000 U.S. students to come to China. I think that’s another big step in the relationship between U.S. and China. And I think these things will continue in the future. There is also a big influence of outstanding Chinese who go to America every year to get education. They are great ambassadors. In most U.S. engineering universities, they are excellent students with PhD degree majored in math and science students. They added a lot to the education in our country.
Reporter: e mandarin instructions are offered directly by Chinese guest teachers, who were born in a different cultural background. How are they found adaptable to U.S. host schools where they teach Chinese?
Gaston Caperton: We’ve had very few bad situations. You always have someone who doesn’t work for the community. But most of these teachers are well-received in the community. It takes a lot of courage for a teacher to go to a whole new culture for a one-year term. Most of the people who do that are those people who really want to do it. Some of most successful teachers are people going to really hard schools, and turned the kids around. I know a story of kid in California, who often disrupted the class. By the end of the school, he came in and said to the Chinese guest teacher, “I just want to thank you.” and handed him a piece of paper, the Chinese teacher opened it up and it was all written in Chinese: “I want to thank you for all you’ve done for me, this is one of the best courses I have ever had.” So now we really know what’s happened. Of course we have some teachers who were not happy, they have problems at home and so on, it can happen anywhere. By and large, I think the program has been universally appreciated by both sides.
I think we’ll see that the Confucius Institutes will become more and more important. It’s like anything else, like the car we drive today is better than those we drove 20 years ago, they’ll get better and more effective. As time goes on, as more and more people are interested in China, there will be great demand and changes.
Reporter: Since the first Confucius Institute in U.S. was established at the University of Maryland, what kind of significant influences and impact, direct or indirect have you ever felt and sensed in communities and government, private and public sectors in the U.S.?
Gaston Caperton: I think when we started Chinese language, it was good to have the Confucius Institute Programs that gave us a group of people that were pro-Chinese and were recognized by communities, and were supported by Hanban, and in most cases were very strong advocates. I think we’ll see that the Confucius Institutes will become more and more important. It’s like anything else, like the car we drive today is better than those we drove 20 years ago, they’ll get better and more effective. As time goes on, as more and more people are interested in China, there will be great demand and changes. Some people don’t necessarily like change; they feel comfortable with old ways. But there are just more important matters than what they experienced. Confucius Institutes are a landing-place for those people in the West who have great interests in China. They are growing in importance. is is the reason the College Board is so pleased to now be working with Hanban on the establishment of Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms in the United States.
1. In 1996, Caperton received the Computerworld Smithsonian Award. Award sponsors called Caperton a “visionary” who “fundamentally changed the education system in America” by using technological innovations.
Published in Confucius Institute Magazine
Magazine 17. Volume 6. November 2011.
View the print issue in PDF