Thursday, 3 May 2007

An anecdote on the Chinese education system: Any lessons for the West?

One of the primary goals of this blog is to document China's growing presence in the increasingly "flat world". The role of education in China is of particular interest as, in an increasingly globalised world, it means large multinationals will hire the best whichever country they come from.

The question is whether current UK students will be able to compete with the Chinese. Even at undergraduate level it is clear that Chinese students are more mathematically able.

For any US or UK readers, I believe this anecdote from Chinese Appreciation is telling. Remember that similar stories are playing out across the whole of China on a vast scale.

There is something faintly disturbing about this well written article.

Olympic Education
I rent a set of rooms from a single mother and daughter who live next door. Only after moving in did I realize that my apartment made up the bulk of their former living space. They live next door in single room, barely large enough for a bed and a desk at which ungodly amounts of homework is completed. They nonetheless live a relatively comfortable life: receiving regular income from two rented apartments in a booming part of town. My landlord, originally from Chongqing, often invites me over to taste her extremely spicy and devastatingly salty Sichuan dishes. Last night while dropping my rent off for the month I stayed for dinner and we began talking about her daughters education. The Chinese education system has been in the news a lot lately, most recently profiled in this week's New York Times Magazine. My 小妹 (little sister as I call the daughter), is no where near the top of her middle school class, but routinely spends 6-7 hours a night doing homework: she usually starts at 5 often finishing after midnight. I made the mistake last night of asking the poor girl if testing into high school brought as much pressure as the infamous 高考:the college entrance exam that pretty much defines a student's life in China. The test, among other factors, is suspected of being a cause of China's terrifyingly high suicide rate among young people. (see Useless Tree's article on youth suicide in China here).Her face dropped immediately explaining quickly to her rice bowl that if you don't get into a good high school, you cant get into a good college, and you cant get a good job. (and there are few fulfilling alternatives in hyper capitalist china).
While China's education system has always been known for its draconian or rather Confucian enforcement of learning by rote, I was nonetheless surprised to find out that local government officials had doubly burdened 小妹's class of Beijing middle schoolers. As they are to graduate on to high school (high school being perhaps the darkest period of any young Chinese life) in 2008, government standards were upped to make these middle schoolers shining examples to the world of China's education system during the Olympics. According to my 小妹,teachers were ordered not to give out the study aids traditionally given to the middle schoolers, while competition was made more cutthroat by raising the cut off scores for the best high schools. I asked incredulously why anyone especially foreigners here for the Olympics would be concerned with middle school test scores... 小妹's remarks are especially surprising given the CCP's increasing awareness of the disturbing consequences of applying intense academic pressure on the generation of 小皇帝 (little emperors) promoted by increasing affluence and the one child policy. Just another shining example of the insanity that seems to generally grip local officials in China: especially those in any way remotely connected to the Olympics. I only hope the expected post-olympic recession does not leave Beijing's students as empty as its condominiums.


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