Things I Talk About When I Talk About Education in China

I’m back in the US for a while after 2 years in China and I realize I’ve started to develop a standard line on some topics, especially education. In the spirit of Haruki Murakami, these are the things I talk about when I talk about education in China.

ROTE LEARNING. I usually start by upholding the stereotype that Chinese education is all about rote learning. It’s exactly like you imagine, and probably worse. Kids don’t have art classes. They are all required to study Mao Zedong thought, in high school and again in college. Teachers talk, students listen. There is a right answer to every question, no matter how gray, which must be memorized.

BURN OUT. What this means for students is that they are told to study the right answers on everything from math and science to history and literature for hours. I’m often told about elementary students that study 10 or more hours a day. They have a study session before school then school from 8 to 5 then evening lessons or private tutors. Students are expected to sit quietly and diligently memorize.

My experience has been that students don’t respond well. Much of their study time is spent pissed off, bored, and out of focus. It’s cliché, but the kids have no investment in their own education. If they were really studying there wouldn’t be students in University, who have taken English classes for 7 to 10 years, that have trouble saying ‘my favorite sport is basketball’. That is active resistance. That kid is not just not studying, he’s rejecting the whole system.

PUSH OUT. It’s not just the amount of work and inflexibility of learning styles that drives kids away from education. There’s also a culture of success that discourages all but the very top students. China has a superlative culture; the system is set up to encourage an unrealistic desire to achieve narrowly defined success. Starting in elementary school, kids test into their school, and schools in any area are ranked from ‘No. 1 School’ on down. To add to the pressure, students class rank and grades are published publicly. As a result each kid knows exactly where they fall in the pecking order.

And parents, fitting the Tiger Mom stereotype, add hugely to the pressure. I’ve heard from many students that their parents rewarded them for their class rank, and refuse to accept anything but the best. In one way this is an extremely optimistic, self-actualizing attitude. It’s a belief that anything can be accomplished with the right effort and determination. But it’s also extremely unrealistic and creates expectations that necessarily leave the vast majority of students frustrated and fatalistic.

Perhaps the greatest example of this is China’s college entrance examination. Once a year every high school senior sits for a 2 day test that alone will determine their ability to get into college. This year more than 9.3 million students took the test, and they all want to get into the same few prestigious schools. As a measure of the pressure: it seems like every year a couple students show up too late, can’t take the test, and end up committing suicide.

HOPE, DESPAIR. Teaching at a not prestigious school last year, I learned that much of the freshman experience is coming to terms shrunken prospects for social mobility. One of the realities of development in China is that the height of wealth and success on par with any developed western country sits alongside extreme poverty. The difference between going to Tsinghua or to Jiaxing University can be the difference between living like the international jet set and working as a secretary at a factory. There’s a lot at stake, and the college shake out inevitably dashes hopes.

Between that and the difficulty of finding a job after graduating I think a lot of young people try to hide from reality. To me, a big part of the China computer game obsession thing is escapism; it offers control in an uncertain world. In the same vein are the internet novels that are hugely popular among young people. They’re usually overly idealized kung fu or romance stories that read a lot like displaced wish fulfillment.

MASSIVE GROWTH. Part of why there is this massive cadre of college students and graduates with frustrated expectations is the massive growth of higher education in the last 10 years. The Chinese government, and commendably so, is spending buckets of money to develop a better higher education system.

To this end entire new university suburbs are popping up outside major cities, and enrollment is soaring. In 2000, 1.3 million students were admitted to college; this year, an expected 6.75 million, and that doesn’t count students studying abroad. US enrollment, by contrast, hit a 40 year high of 2.6 million in 2008 (most recent year I could find).

High enrollment means high graduation rates: 6.3 million students graduated from college in China in 2010. That’s obviously a huge stress on the job market, and a social stress to for those that can’t find the white collar jobs they expect. A Chinese scholar even wrote a book called Ant Tribes, describing the lifestyle of unemployed graduates congregated in impromptu communities in the cheaper outer suburbs of some major Chinese cities.

Another stress of this massive growth is on the Universities themselves. They are trying to educate 5 times as many students as 10 years ago. This means huge infrastructure development, which is actually China’s strong suit, but also finding a lot of qualified teachers, which is more problematic. The salient background is that Universities in China were essentially shut down for 10 years during the Cultural Revolution. In addition to the fact that schools were producing no new graduates and scholarship was curtailed, many of the well-educated fled the country or were persecuted.

Add to that a relatively low level of educational opportunity for people of professor age (35-60), and the effect of political considerations on academic promotions, and you have a recipe for teacher shortage. Anecdotally my experience testifies to this. In the only academic field I have a right to judge, English, It’s not uncommon to find professors who barely speak the language, the best students are usually far better.

REFORM. I usually end my personal soapboxing on Chinese education with a suggestion that it’s ripe for reform. For one, the government is already spending a bunch of money on it, and they know their weaknesses. On the teacher shortage for example, there is a huge push to fill the expertise gap by encouraging professors to spend time abroad at foreign Universities. My job is in fact part of this; I give professors a brush up on English before a stint abroad.

In addition, the social climate is right. It’s not an overtly political topic and so permissible to debate, and it’s such a fundamental part of so many people’s lives that there is broad interest. The result is that education is one of the few policy topics where there is actually something like a real public debate.

The college entrance examination for instance, is heavily criticized. In fact, a University just opened in Shenzhen under the auspices of the provincial government there that is acting outside the purview of the central Ministry of Education in an explicit protest of the stringency of the college entrance exam. I think there’s more to come.

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This entry was posted in Armchair Theorizing, Politics, Government, Law, Etc., Social Phenomena. Bookmark the permalink.

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