Four thoughts (three of them I agree with) on education in China

No, views of Britain in language textbooks doesn’t make the cut.

The firstcompulsory political thought classes comprise much too much study time – I’ve pretty much covered before. To clarify, my point has nothing to do with what is being taught in those classes. Let’s simplify things by leaving competing ideologies and above all the patronising word “brainwash” out of the debate. I only argue that the long hours students must spend in these classes every week is way out of proportion to their benefit. It’s an unjustifiable waste of study time: if a student spent two hours a month rather than two hours a week studying Marx-through-Jiang, that free time could be put to so much use.

The second: access is far from equal according to where you are and how rich you are.

This is the one criticism which an average Chinese person would agree with above all the others (that’s an educated guess … if you’ll forgive the pun). The money side of it is obvious: besides bribes and so forth, more money (or abused influence) gets your kids into the better schools and the better schools get them into the better universities.

But it’s also unfair by location: a top university like Peking University (PKU or Beida), where I study, accepts different quotas of students from province to province. Take Marie for example, who’s from Yunnan in China’s less-developed south-west. In her subject’s year, she tells me, there are 100+ students from Beijing, 100+ from Shanghai … and only 30 from Yunnan. Mind, I don’t have the figures on these quotas so this is anectodal for the moment. But it’s well known that this inequality exists, and Beida certainly takes more students from Beijing than from countryside provinces. Marie thinks the inequality is only worsening, and assumed things were the same at Oxford – she was surprised and delighted when I told her it isn’t.

Like Leonidas says, “the fact is that students in different provinces and cities have different opportunities to be educated”. He and I both wonder why the government isn’t pumping more money into scholarships and bursaries to address this problem, but I’ve no numbers to back this up so I’ll again zip up for now. I should also mention that we’re not talking about ethnicity here: in fact, students from ethnic minorities in China get an automatic percentage increase on their college entrance exam scores, helping them get into the best universities.

The third is more of a side-note than a productive criticism: the idea that China must educate its population better before it can be democratic. It’s Leonidas’ idea not mine:

“In a country whose population has [a] high education [standard], democracy is good. But if a people’s education is not high enough, it isn’t. If I’m not educated, I don’t know how to choose which opinion is right, which is wrong. … I would prefer to listen to only one opinion, and do it. Now, of course, it’s the government’s opinion.”

I disagree. High standards of education is necessary for a democracy to function well, but shouldn’t be taken as necessary to have a nascent democracy at all. And unless I’m misrepresenting Leonidas, he’s implying that until China’s education gets up to scratch (we’re mostly talking about the countryside here, which is comfortably over 50% of the population), democracy would be create more problems than it would fix. But that’s a great excuse for a single power to postpone indefinitely the ultimate curbing of its power. And surely the bigger stumbling block in choosing which opinion is right and which is wrong is not how educated you are but … there only being one opinion you’re told about.

Of course, the other point Leonidas is making is that education must be a priority for China. He thinks of it as China’s “biggest problem” and better education as the first step to freedom of speech. Well first step or no, freedom of speech tends to be more productive if the free speakers know what they’re talking about.

For the fourththe system and teaching methods it promotes can stifle creative thought – I’ll let an email from Tony suffice to begin with. He’s in America at the moment doing a summer school at Yale, taking a Foreign Policy Decision Making course taught by a Yale professor. I asked him how the experience compared to the teaching at Beida. Here’s his word or two:

There are two interactive seminars each week, quite different from the lectures in PKU, which involves more people and less discussion. In Yale, we have more opportunities to raise questions and debate. …

I appreciate the learning style here. Students step into a specific field of study through reading the first-hand publications instead of learning from powerpoints prepared by their teacher. In PKU, too many courses are squeezed into one semester (7-8 for me, maybe more for students from other schools) so that students prefer to memorize the main points during final weeks rather than read the original writings. And many Chinese students have lost their interest in discovering. They want to know “what it is” or “what it should be” more than “why was that”. I guess the education system is responsible for this. Yet there are many factors standing behind it, including a large population, a planned social framework and a big government, almost equal to the size of the society. I understand that it’s easier to blame this system than to revise it.

But blame – lots of blame – is necessary to convince a bureaucracy to revise itself. Otherwise the system, like many of the over-pressurized and under-stimulated students it seems to produce, will continue to resemble this Ming dynasty civil service hopeful:


  1. Apologize for my bad english, I deliberate on its a nice vent one’s spleen of your writing. Famously I obtain faced alot of difficulties in this term but your article will definately eschew me in future. Thank You

  2. Just some comments.

    2) I agree that location matters a lot. Not to be super contrary, location matters in the US too (inner-city versus suburban; Kansas versus California), so it’s not a uniquely Chinese problem, although it is possibly much more pronounced in China. Now about money. Bribery does occur a lot. THAT is definitely wrong on the part of the parent, and unethical on the part of the school. However, I don’t think that the correlation between money and education is inherently wrong. Money can buy tutoring hours and beyond-public education; it can reduce the pressure of the family and child in many ways that affect education/development. This is unfair, unequal, unbalanced, but not inherently wrong. All that being said, regardless of whether it’s wrong or not, a huge imbalance between groups of people is unhealthy for any society, so I would like to see the state taking up the responsibility to level out the playing field a bit more. But I think that the money=education will be hard to deal with. Unless you can somehow outlaw parents spending money on their children (!), then no matter how “equal” you make public education, you can’t stop the flow of money to “beyond-public” opportunities, which, by definition, is unequal. I’m not talking about the bribes and “back-door” tactics that you mentioned, because I think that’s only a very small part of the money-education package (I think parents in general care about actual education of their kids, and don’t resort to the “pampered dummy” route by choice). Anyway, I just think that there should be a lot more thought that goes in to these social inequality. We need to think about what kind of equality we want (ie. opportunity vs. result, and sometimes the line is fuzzy because our opportunities may be our parents’ results). We need to think about what is “equal enough”, what is “natural”, what is “unfair” and what is “wrong” and how those things are similar/different. I don’t think it’s a simple problem and it needs very careful consideration.

    3) I think the education isn’t just literacy and current events, although those are necessary too. I think that it’s true that “with great power comes great responsibility”, thus with the individual power, there needs to be some idea of civic responsibility. Of course, in no existing “demographic country” can we claim that everyone, or even most, has perfect sense of civic responsibility. But in some countries, throwing punches in parliament is less shocking than in others. I’m a bit hesitant to say when and how China should develop its democratic apparatus because I can see problems with everything (sigh). However, many “democracy-advocates” frankly terrify me because I see the same, or worse, ideologically-driven intolerance and hatred as I see from any dictators and authoritarian governments, past and present. This intolerance, I think, is nurtured through the society which is authoritarian and hierarchical, but also through the school system, and most importantly through the family, in which kids can be spoiled but can’t think or argue for what they truly want and need. Kid learn, growing up in that kind of family, that the way to get things is to whine, to wheedle, to trick, and to throw tantrums, it’s not by “jiang dao li”. Thus the “laozi thinks, laozi says, laozi does” philosophy essentially means that whoever is the strongest, loudest, and most powerful is “right” by default. I think the sometimes admirable but often scarily vindictive presence of not just Chinese, but Asian netizens in general, is a symptom of this. As for whether this all should change top-down (political apparatus -> education -> family) or bottom-up (family -> education -> political apparatus), or whether I’m just an obnoxious fart and it shouldn’t change at all, I honestly have no idea.

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