Chinese Education

From Hallowed to Hollow

For the third straight year in row, the number of college hopefuls taking the national university entrance exam, or gaokao, has dropped. Analysts trace the decline to a corresponding drop in the number of children born at the beginning of the last decade due to China’s one-child policy. However, the decrease also suggests two realities facing young people in China today.

The promise of college education is not what it used to be. Whereas a college education has traditionally been seen as a ticket to a well-paying, stable job, a growing number of college graduates are unable to find work. As of the fall of last year, one quarter of 2010 college graduates were still unemployed.

The other reality is a growing awareness of the inability of the Chinese education system to truly educate. In contrast to the relatively recent drop in high school graduates taking the gao kao, the number of students going abroad for undergraduate study more than tripled from 2004 to 2009.

At stake is not only the ability to find a job after graduation, but, more fundamentally, the ability to compete in a global marketplace that values critical thinking skills, creativity, and effective social interaction competencies that are overlooked in China’s current education system. By focusing almost exclusively on test taking from kindergarten through university, Chinese schools promote a culture of rote learning that offers little incentive for developing life skills. Nor, contrary to thousands of years of educational tradition, do schools today provide much in the way of moral guidance. As Beijing university professor Jonathan Li writes in this issue of ChinaSource, the once hallowed goal of learning for the sake of contributing to society has been replaced by the hollow goal of passing tests in order to get ahead.

With the explosion of private schools in China has come an emerging opportunity for the faith-based community to offer an alternative to the current lopsided system. By taking a holistic approach to education, these schools can prepare students for life, not simply the next exams, and can also equip parents to fulfill their vital role in the academic, emotional, social, and spiritual development of their children. C. H. offers the idea of a “learning community” as an environment where parents are active participants in the educational process. Variations on the traditional home schooling model developed in the West are also being pursued in China by believing parents who choose not to send their children to public schools.

However, as H. points out, all of these approaches are still in the beginning stages; if they are to become more widespread then much more needs to be done in the areas of teacher training, curriculum development, and accreditation of programs, to name a few areas. Still to be addressed is the question of whether or how the official educational establishment will accept these innovative approaches. Nonetheless, organizations already working in the field of education would do well to consider the newly open doors for partnership with Chinese believers who are pioneering these educational models.

Another possible area for contribution is found within the larger task of educational reform, which, as several writers in this issue mention, the Chinese government has prioritized as a national concern. As new proposals are researched and considered in the coming years, believing education professionals may have a unique window of opportunity to speak into a process that will have far-reaching implications for generations of Chinese and for the community of faith as it plays a greater role in seeing China’s children develop into all they were created to be.

Image credit: Joann Pittman

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Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding …View Full Bio