After being in China for half a year now, it is clear that the Chinese student couldn’t be any further apart from the Western student. Leisure is unheard of. Alcohol is something the poor drink to forget and academic failure is synonymous with desolation. When asking a student of mine what will happen if she fails, she replied light-heartedly ‘I won’t’. The mantra ‘practice makes perfect’ can be seen in every student’s face in China, and it is something worth envying, for they take this attitude into whatever sector they decide to enter. However these long hours – something I will talk more of later – and the abrasive dismissal of childhood come at a grave cost. Their obedience to schooling will surely result in their obedience to society, and with that comes a disinterested and disassociated middle-class who don’t really care about what’s going on over at headquarters. The children are learned, that’s unquestionable, and perhaps some of their subject areas may rescue them from any mechanistic arguments that can be launched in their direction. Yet the hours are troubling, and the pressure seems crippling, but perhaps the end game is worth holding a question mark over.
The focus of the education is on rote learning, and this is definitely something worth criticizing. As humans we have many capacities that need nurturing at a young age, otherwise they become dormant: when education ranks memorization over other faculties such as judging, philosophizing, generalizing etc. then in my opinion it fails. They are equipped to pass their exams, but beyond simple rote learning their education begins to crumble. Although there is of course the obvious argument that it all depends on what they are memorizing.
China’s education system has had huge swings throughout the past century, especially within the last thirty years we have seen reforms that steadily move in one direction ironically echoing that of Lenin’s famous spurt: learn, learn, learn. The main subjects are the Sciences, Math, Chinese and English. At university level, the main focuses are on bio-technologies or anything computer based, which has actually led to a number of bio-tech universities opening up. But anyone who has artistic leanings – and the money of course – will travel to Europe or America for their education: this has the obvious pitfall of the students then finding a job in that country rather than contributing to Chinese society. So we have a country that only focuses on the sciences and is happy to do so for the sake of its economy and technological advancement, both words seeming synonymous in China’s case. This isn’t necessarily bad, but the knock-on effect of having a low tolerance towards all things artistic leads us back to these mechanistic arguments. And all those students that don’t make it to university, or even do well in High School, fill in the cracks – as can be expected of every country.
Unlike every country however, the hours are gruelling. For a high school student who doesn’t plan on going to university it normally lies around 12 hours on weekdays, which is considered almost minimum in China. With the one-child policy we have so much pressure on the only child that their parents expect nothing less from them. For those who do intend on going to university it can be anything up to 18 hours a day. We also have those students whoare humorously called the Immortals, whose schedules far exceed any Greco-Roman God I’m aware of. These working hours are vicious, and they will continue on throughout their life, certain elements of their existence being cast aside for a greater good – ‘dogged faithfulness’ Nietzsche called it.
China’s whole society seems to start with the role of the worker’s hand, and it works outwards from there. This inside knowledge of how industry operates from the bottom-up leads to children having mandatory experience in these areas, a policy that has now began to lax, although the importance of it is still being drilled. As long as China doesn’t reach a certain snobbery that chooses “correct” education over credible ideas, and it doesn’t leave behind those who are inevitably going to enter manual trades – in fact, the opposite, it educates them thoroughly – then China will indeed continue to prosper.
As late as the 90s children from mainland China would move their schooling to fit in with the harvest period, or if there was no school close by, a teacher – who would be picked from the bottom of the barrel – would come and teach in a village for a few hours and move onto the next place. Over the past ten years there has been an exponential boom of inland schools that have 9 year mandatory education, a wonderful bit of policy that is often taken for granted in the West. I am not saying that farmers’ sons and daughters are rolling off to bio-tech universities in Shanghai; however they are receiving a better education than they once were, this surely qualifies as ‘progression’.
There are obvious highs and lows with the education system, and it is difficult to sum it up in a thousand words. China has made many amendments to their education over the past few decades, and I’m sure it will continue to be fine-tuned. It is clear that they are definitely playing a different sport than the Finns: paintball against croquet if I was pushed for comparisons. In China they have the dreaded Gaokao (a brutal end of school exam that the streets go silent for) and a cut-throat schedule that spits at the feet of complacency. It is early days however, and we may either see a rocketing of suicide rates, or just an increase in earth-shattering technology, either-way, it’s in motion.