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The plot of ‘Whiplash’ posed my Chinese students an unsettling question: Why, exactly, do you work so hard?
As an instructor at an elite Shanghai university, I push my students. I push them to read and to analyze complex literary texts. I push them to write thoughtful, evidence-based arguments. And I push them to think critically about the world around them. Other instructors and professors at my institution do the same. Academic rigor is seen as a tool for growth.
“Whiplash,” written and directed by Damien Chazelle, is a film about a gifted drummer who is pushed by his conductor. Or, more accurately, “Whiplash” is a film about a gifted drummer who is abused by an obsessive tyrant. The beauty of the film is watching the escalating conflict between the two men. How much pain will Fletcher, the conductor, inflict on Andrew, his student? And is that pain necessary for Andrew to reach his potential?
China scores 66 out of 100 on Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede’s Masculinity Index, which means the country is “driven by competition, achievement and success.” The U.S. scores 62 out of 100, which means it also views success as “winning” or being “the best-in-field.” According to Hofstede, this is the value most shared by Chinese and American cultures. Both see competition as a healthy way to distinguish success.
I begin my lecture on “Whiplash” by asking if the "gaokao (高考)" — China’s grueling college entrance exam — is healthy. The students’ answers vary considerably. Some students argue that the gaokao “pushes students to their potential” and “gives students goals.” Others argue that it “imposes too much pressure” and “limits development.” As one student puts it: “The gaokao is hell.”
“And yet,” I tell my students, “You succeeded. You worked hard enough to gain admittance to one of China’s top universities.” The students reply with sheepish looks. “You’re successful people,” I tell them, wondering if anyone has ever told them this before. “You made it.” The students perk up.
“But what did that success cost?” The answers come quickly: sleep, time and health. I make a list on the board. One student explains that her parents spent money on tutors and English lessons, and I add “money” to the list. Knowing China’s discouragement of high school dating, I ask about personal relationships. Students giggle or grin. One student explains that a friend in high school had a girlfriend, but that their teacher had to “educate them” on the potential pitfalls of dating. The relationship, sadly, was not long for this world. I add “personal relationships” to the list.
“If you could go back in time, would you study just as hard? Would you trade all these things” — I tap the list on the board — “for a successful gaokao score?” The students are torn. They’re not sure.
“What about your life right now?” I gesture to the university outside the window. “Is this a healthy institution?” The students shake their heads. They tell me there’s too much homework, too much stress, not enough time. I wonder if I’m just another Fletcher — one more abusive teacher who equates pain with growth.
Storytelling is about expressing truth in the form of values. Characters pursue goals, overcome obstacles, and make difficult decisions that reveal their true nature. At the climax of “Whiplash,” Andrew is forced to make a decision about whether to go onstage and confront Fletcher, or to give up his dream of becoming a world-class jazz drummer. Or, put another way, Andrew is forced to choose between achieving success at all costs and returning to a normal life.
I write “lifestyle balance” on the board. “You succeeded in high school, but look what it cost.” I return to the list. “Time. Money. Personal relationships. You’re succeeding in university, but look what it costs. Sleep. Health. Hobbies. And, as a reward for working hard, everyone here will get a great job and make lots of money and work 30 hours a week.” The students laugh at the absurdity. Some, beginning to understand, look concerned.
I walk to a clean part of the board and write three numbers: 45, 55, 65. “If you want to succeed, you work 45 hours a week. If you want a promotion, you work 55 hours a week. If you want to run the company, you work 65 hours a week.” I ask how many hours Andrew practiced the drums. A student mentions the scene in the screenplay where Andrew drags his mattress into the practice room. He proceeds to practice every waking hour.
“Did Andrew make the right decision at the end of the film? Is being the best jazz drummer worth your family and your romantic relationships? Your health? Your sanity?”
A young woman in the front row says she wouldn’t have made the same mistakes Andrew did, that she could have avoided Andrew’s all-or-nothing crisis at the end of the film.
“You think you can have it all?” I stride across the room and pound the list of costs on the board. “You think you can work 65 hours a week and have a family and friends and maintain your mental stability?” I shake my head with the painful knowledge of life experience. “You can’t. You can’t have it all because the universe makes you decide. It makes you choose which values are the most important.”
My students are teenagers. They see life as something in the distance, something like the gaokao, something you should prepare for now so you might succeed sometime in the future.
I ask again: “Did Andrew make the right decision at the end of the screenplay? Is being the best worth sacrificing a healthy lifestyle?” Almost every student answers yes.
Perhaps they’re young. Perhaps they don’t yet realize the true cost of obsession. Or perhaps it’s inherited. Perhaps their cultural influence is so strong that it overpowers everything, including their own desire for a balanced life.
Maybe one day the Chinese middle class will take a collective look in the mirror and determine that material wealth is not the ultimate goal of society. Maybe a new breed of Chinese lifestyle gurus will urge them to slow down and unplug. Or maybe one day my students will burn out so completely that they will snap. They will step back and see late-stage capitalism as American millennials do, as a rat race where no one ever wins.
I push my students. I want them to succeed. But perhaps that means they should sometimes push their homework aside and go out into the wider world. Perhaps they would be happier on a date instead.
The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published on Sixth Tone here. Sixth Tone covers trending topics, in-depth features, and illuminating commentary from the perspectives of those most intimately involved in the issues affecting China today. It belongs to the state-funded Shanghai United Media Group.
Editor: Olivia Yang