Day 27: We Don't Need No Education

For most young people, education is a privilege. Though certainly not in the same way that it was in the forlorn years of the Cultural Revolution, most who are in school still regard it as their primary lot in life. The pressure that students face in China is almost inconceivable. As my friend Margaret put it, a lot of it is due to the extreme degree with which Chinese culture values academic success. Beginning in elementary school and climbing straight through college is the strain for students to perform well, pass the requisite standardized tests to advance to the next grade level, and appease their face-starved parents and relatives in the process.

Students routinely endure 10-12 hour days before they even hit high school. Students at the Taigu middle school where I taught part-time had to put up with my 2-hour English elective on Sunday afternoons last year because nearly every other conceivable time slot had already been carved out by other activities—gymnastics, martial arts, music lessons, drawing. The director of the school admitted that his students were overworked, but there was really nothing that could be done about it. Students who aren't that busy risk falling behind and getting upstaged by their overachieving classmates. Lingda, our neighbor's daughter who just turned seven, is in school until 7:00pm every day except Sunday and is up until 10:00 most nights doing homework.

The most immediate consequence of all of this is that it leaves little time for children to be “kids.” And if anything, the hardship only increases as they get older. The mother of all tests is the nationwide gaokao, or college entrance examination, administered once a year to high school seniors. Though similar to the SAT, the gaokao is much more serious, as it can be the sole factor in determining a student's future. Due to China's burgeoning population, of the over 11 million students who apply to college each year in China, less than half score well enough on the gaokao to be accepted, and only another 20% of those test into first and second tier schools, of which Shanxi Agricultural University belongs. In fact, the bell curve looks strikingly ­un­-bell-like in its distribution—the curve is past its apex and actually well into its descent by the time it meets the acceptance cut-off line.

For Chinese students, no time is more intense than during this exam season. China's best schools are public and require a formidable score for entrance. Coupled with the pressure to test well that spurs dozens of student suicides per year, cheating also runs rampant. Since most students already cheat, others do it, ironically, in an attempt to level the playing field. One friend admitted to wearing tiny ear-buds that receive answers via satellite on test day. In lecture classes, some students have classmates show up to forge their exam. Indeed, corruption and fraud are unfortunate realities of Chinese education. Those who don't pass the gaokao either have to rely on a wealthy or well-connected family to foot the cost of private or vocational school which can be up to four times the price of public school, wait a year to re-take the exam, or simply, not go to college.

But even for those lucky enough to attend college, the reality of the situation can be disappointing. Students essentially sacrifice their youth for the sake of studying. Every kind of extracurricular activity or creative outlet including art, dance, music, and athletics—ironically, the very skills that parents had their child clambering to learn in elementary school—is suspended indefinitely during the middle and high school years. In addition, romantic relationships and any shred of personal freedom are scrapped in preparation for the “big” test (as it is commonly known). It would seem, though, that the payoff is not worth the reward—once they finally get to college, students are faced with overcrowded classes, 8-student-per-room dormitories, and teachers still prying on their every move.

Drab walls, fixed desks, and airless windows—the kinds of conditions that high school students have to look forward to in college.

Not surprisingly, most students growing up in this culture have very little real world experience outside of schooling, leading to our frustrations about lack of creativity and free-thinking in the classroom. Students aren't motivated to learn because, ostensibly, that's the sum-total of all they're allowed to do. Almost no one works a part-time job and few are involved with student clubs or organizations. But this mentality is problematic for many other reasons too. In an increasingly global economy, rote memorization is scrapped in favor of creative thinking. When the time comes to graduate, most have less of an idea than even the most bright-eyed American liberal arts college graduate of what they want to do next. The answer I most often hear is “get a job and earn money,” but inherent in that is a seemingly resigned acceptance of a joyless working life.

Despite the hardships, more Chinese students every year are attending and graduating from college. This makes for an incredibly large pool of applicants scrambling for jobs in a bear economy. As a 2007 Time magazine article put it, “As China's economy booms, job competition has become ferocious — and the pressure to land a prestigious degree can be unbearable.” Most put the Chinese education system at fault. Such a huge emphasis is put on test-taking and getting into a good college that finding a job becomes an afterthought. Indeed, most high-level jobs require additional competitive specialized testing, whether they be in accounting, public service, or business. Instead of settling for lower-level jobs, students fall into the trap of the “examination madman.” Most Chinese look to government-subsidized graduate study as an easy way out, a consolation for not being able to find a job.

Still, generalizing the behemoth that is the Chinese education system has its dangers. For starters, not all of China's 1.3 billion people have the same experience. A handful of my students may be more likely to buy a degree or bribe their way to a scholarship, even if the vast majority of them come from predominantly lower class farming families. But perhaps the biggest indicator of wealth is the opportunity to study abroad. Increasingly, more Chinese students are flocking to the West, touting the benefits of the American education system. However, from a strictly post-graduate perspective, the situation is eerily similar. According to a NYT article, over 40% of recent college graduates in America are unemployed or underemployed, comparable to the job woes plaguing China.

Higher education in China, like in America, is getting re-looked at, as thousands of unemployed question whether they need college degrees to climb the ladder. Increasingly, students are coming to terms with the reality of the job market—that instead of relying on the “iron rice bowl” jobs of their parent's generation (essentially, life-long tenure), most are finding it better to set aside their dreams and join the workforce at a younger age, whether that be in vocational jobs, internships, or entrepreneurship. Whatever happens, it's almost certain that given China's slow bureaucratic track record, large-scale education reform won't be arriving any time soon. Of course, that's not to say anything about bricks in the wall, thought control, or dark sarcasm in the classroom.


Like others that have come before it, this too is of the 1200-word variety.