View from the Wall

The Missing Goal and the Absence of Freedom


Only recently, when asked "What is education?" a model teacher in the central part of China replied that education should make students sleep well and keep them from attempting suicide—that is by jumping off a building. This comment may sound stunning as the lofty ideals of education in people's minds are reduced to the fulfillment of the basic human needs of physical and mental health. Yet, in the contemporary Chinese context, I think this comment is serious. Statistics show that over the past ten years the average sleeping hours of primary and secondary school children are 13 percent less than the target set by the national authority. On average, students have to spend 30 percent more hours than the target set in order to finish their homework. Although sleep deprivation may not necessarily lead to suicide attempts, the reported cases of early-age suicides are increasing. Some of the suicide notes stated that the kids were simply too tired to live because of studying, or they were unable to cope with the disappointment of their parents over their academic failure. How could all this become the reality of education in China? How can parents keep on supporting the system while acknowledging the absurdity of it? There is no easy answer. The missing goal and the absence of freedom may serve as clues to figure out the problems of education in China.

The Missing Goal

It is difficult for people to accept that they are fighting for the wrong goal. Since the founding of new China in 1949, the government, the leaders of the country and the official law of education have all openly advocated for the goal of cultivating talent for the great cause of building up a richer, stronger, more modernized nation and for the renaissance of Chinese civilization. To study for the rise of China, to acquire talents that your country requires, to go to places where you are most needed—these are slogans from a time when China was suffering from turmoil and humiliation in its search for status as a modern nation. Yet nothing in the content of these callings has really changed over the past few decades since "reform and opening-up" when people began to develop awareness of personal welfare and freedom. Grand and noble as these goals are, they all stress "What you can do for your country," and pay less attention to "What your country can do for you." Moreover, these goals may not lead to the knowledge of "What I can do for myself." When there is no clear guidance from a specific code of conduct for the daily contacts and engagements with one's fellow beings, when children are not taught in a definite, formative way about what they can do for themselves or what others can do for them, the only sensible choice is to do what they see fit.

When new generations are brought up with the awareness of personal welfare, yet educated in the selfless goals of national welfare, hallowed goals become hollow. Parents need simple, direct and workable goals. They find one for their children: perform well in the college entrance exam and gain access to one of the best universities. For most kids, this goal must be accomplished by the end of their twelve-years of schooling that begins at the age of six. To increase the capability and probability of reaching their goal, parents target the best of everything: food, toys, kindergarten, primary and secondary education, school district and so on. They naturally assume that everyone thinks the same. Well-to-do parents think it makes perfect economic sense to rent out their own homes to use the income to pay for a rental home in another location they consider premium so as to gain access for their children to the dream primary and secondary school, all leading to the dream university. Unfortunately, the children may not share the same goal as their parents. As mentioned before, they are not properly taught what they can do for themselves or what one should do to make a living and become a useful member of a healthy society. They are simply told to prepare to do their best in the nationally uniform college entrance exam. All else becomes nothing. No wonder they cannot sleep well. No wonder they do not like school. They are not studying for fun, for growth or for their own well-being. Once they enter their dream university, their goal is reached. The young students, full of hormones and vigor, suddenly become aimless and feel lost. When the goals upheld by the universities are the same as those above, which is to cultivate skills for the country, it does not help.Students do not feel ownership of their studies. They cannot link their academic endeavors to the quality of their lives. Now they invent a simple, direct and workable goal themselves: to pass the exams. Again, it is an exam-oriented goal. To reach this goal, the less effort it takes, the better economic sense it makes. Years of "positive" education do not reform their minds but make them become crude economic agents.

You may wonder if I'm exaggerating and over-simplifying the situation. Does every student think and feel the same? Well, the fact is that they are all feeling and seldom thinking—critically thinking. They are simply told to think, to try to imitate the mindset of the adults, to "think" for their country, for their parents, and sometimes, for their own future. However, they are not trained to think critically to view things from various perspectives, to take different and controversial opinions into consideration and to make their own judgments, because to be able to do this they need a prerequisite: freedom.

The Absence of Freedom

Chinese culture encourages conformity. When my son approaches his kindergarten age, people around me will begin to ask if I have done anything to find him a good kindergarten. They will worry if I tell them my plan to use the Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) home schooling program for my child. How dare I be different? How can I survive if I'm different? How come I'm different when everyone else is just the same? Sameness provides security while difference can often be associated with dissidence. People in China do not wear identical clothes any more. Yet, the educational system designates the same dates for the college entrance exam every year: June 7 and 8. No matter on which days these two dates fallweekdays or weekendsthe exam dates are the same. This so-called "high exam" (high for higher education) is a national, uniform ritual. Working towards it, school-age children all read the same set of textbooks, follow the same exam-preparation procedures and guess together with their teachers at how the testers may surprise them this year. If Forrest Gump's mother could invent the motto "Life is like a box of chocolate," then Chinese teachers are more than ready to echo that "Life is a series of exams." By passing the "high exam" with flying colors, students gain access to the top-notch "first-tier" universities. They find themselves studying the same courses again: the same set of required political courses, the theoretical foundations in certain disciplines, and a variety of elective courses to help them earn enough credit hours. Classes are big and teachers are young, all because of the ballooning size of higher education. Both the central government and regional ones have the authority to decide the size of college intake every year by the state-owned universities. Less than 10 percent of higher education is privately owned, so basically higher education in China is a state-controlled, planned economy, with the classic features of bureaucracy and top-down management.

A planned economy does not encourage freedom, and neither does higher education that is run that way. Even academic freedom is replaced by academic "performance" which is evaluated in terms of publications. Teachers are often asked to pay for the opportunity to get their papers reviewed and published. They have to take it as serious business instead of contributing to the body of knowledge. If teachers feel pressured to "publish or perish," how will their students feel in class? Freedom is the soil of critical thinking and real creativeness. Freedom also nurtures the real sense of duty and responsibility. The absence of freedom finally leads to rampant absenteeism, which is punitive for those who behave dutifully and obediently. When the punishment of absenteeism is ineffective because of the traditional Chinese idea of "law won't punish the masses," there is less and less incentive to have a good attendance record. When students are not present physically, college has nothing to offer them; there is no contact made in intellectual terms.

Japanese management guru, Kenichi Ohmae, mentioned in one of his books about "low-IQ society" in which people are obsessed with getting information instead of seeking knowledge and truth. The collective IQ of such a society is low, and the "dumbing down" of its citizens is the quickest road to a society's decline. This comment is not far-fetched from the current Chinese context. The role of education in nurturing a healthy people and a healthy society is essential. The missing goal of Chinese education is to enable the educated to live a healthy life and to build up a healthy society. The Word, the Wisdom and the Good News are relevant to help people in China find knowledge and truth which will set them free. Christian educators can help with this by having knowledge and truth in mind, by acting in the most upright way and by readily sharing with others where our power comes from.

Image credit: Graduation Day by Kevin Dooley, on Flickr

Jonathan Li

Jonathan Li is a university professor in Beijing. View Full Bio