Education: For Whom? And Why?

Red or expert?” has been the central question in the ongoing debate over Chinese education for the past 50 years. “Redness” was a recurring theme in China under Mao, who, in addition to favoring political correctness over educational excellence, also promoted education for the masses and opposed programs aimed at raising up an educated elite. Deng Xiaoping’s policies during the 1980s signaled a radical shift, as “key point” schools were reopened and thousands of the finest students sent abroad for study.

With the dawn of the new millennium comes a third alternative—market-driven education. The marketization of education conveniently answers both the government’s desire to cease being the sole underwriter of education in China and the growing demand of a new class of consumers willing to pay for educational alternatives outside those provided by the traditional government-monopolized system.

This market approach appears to be a win-win solution for all involved. China’s leaders can potentially have their cake and eat it too by balancing the need to extend basic educational opportunity to as many people as possible with the desire to focus resources on the development of highly trained “experts.” “Red” becomes less of a concern as the government loosens its grip on education and allows others to play a role. Meanwhile the proliferation of new educational institutions and programs opens up a host of new opportunities for those seeking to serve China through the avenue of education.

However, allowing the market to direct the course of education in China has a negative side as well. The most obvious problem is the growing gap between those, primarily in the cities, who have both access to education and the means to pay for it, and those, often found in the rural areas, who have neither. Groups that have traditionally been on the fringes of society, such as minorities and students with disabilities, are particularly hard-hit.

Given this growing gap, the question that Huo Shui asks in this issue of ChinaSource is critical: What is the true nature of education? Who is to be educated? Why? How we choose to become involved in addressing China’s educational challenges will offer clues to our answer, even if we do not state it explicitly. Certainly a strong case can be made for the strategic importance of investing in the “experts,” the most promising students who will potentially shape their nation’s future. Yet the case can also be made historically that the almost exclusive emphasis of some Western educators upon China’s urban elite and their perceived indifference to the needs of the masses contributed to emerging leaders’ conclusions during the 1930s and 1940s that the Christian gospel had little relevance for China’s future.

Granted, different ones will be called to make their contributions in different areas. However, as we confront the marketization of education and its ramifications for our involvement, we would do well to think through the “who?” and “why?” of education in China and, taking a cue from history, pursue a balanced approach.

Image credit: Journal Entry (Joel Montes de Oca) by Chris Lott, on Flickr.
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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