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Inside Education in China: Students & Learning
Monday, 18 May 2009 20:50
by James L. Secor, Ph.D.

Inside the halls of academe, reside students who are dissatisfied with their lot: either their ideas and desires for college life are not met or they become well-aware that they're not really learning anything. Of course, these are the better sort, for there is a preponderance of not caring one way or another: all that's important is the piece of paper. And. . .once into a college or university, a student is guaranteed to graduate, no questions asked, no work required. Just pass a test. College course life is similar to high school and middle school minus the immense time commitment. In middle and high school, the school week is around 80 hrs, sometimes with one day off, sometimes with none (Sunday evening taken up by coursework). In middle and high school, students learn that what's important is passing the next test, with greatest pressure on college admission, for the more who manage this, the higher the school's prestige--and many of these schools take in private, out of town students, so the tuition can also increase with prestige. . .though the teaching quality will not. Why bother--they are successful as it is! You cannot improve on success.

So, a routine is learned: cram for this test, forget it, cram for the next, don't worry about performing in class or even paying attention, for all that matters is cramming for the next test and passing it. The course material is simple beyond measure: if you memorize the facts and standpoints given you, you will pass the test; the course content is geared to the test, knowledge or the testing of knowledge is of no account. Indeed, it appears that armed with facts and information, students are incapable of relating any to any other: everything is isolated. With Bush's No Child Left Behind, this is where US education is headed: no one will know anything more than a bunch of isolated facts, no one will be able to use that information. . .except on a test, a special test assessing one piece of information: science is not related to life or the humanities or psychology or history--and none of these is related to any other. In fact, I had an entire class of graduate students in economics tell me that economics has nothing to do with humanity. . .or people. So it is here, in China, the paranoia- generating behemoth from the East Americans are supposed to fear unto death.

Herein, too, lies the observation that Chinese are such good studiers. True, they must study all the time but it's not because they know how to study effectively; it's because when you cram, you forget soon after the test and when you cram for the next test you must reinvent the wheel, that is, study everything you've forgotten from before plus everything new. It's a never-ending process. They know no other way and are resistant to change, though mouthing the need for something different. Even the colleges say they want something different but don't want to do anything about it: there's only one way to satisfy government directives. . .even though the government wants alternative methods. For teachers, like students, there is only one way.

Unlike the States, corporal punishment is rampant in Chinese middle and high schools. Children are beaten with broom handles or other implements of destruction, they are kept standing in hallways for hours, they are yelled at and debased in a kind of Stalinist manner. In general, they are treated fairly badly, as if they're not worth very much--a few crumbs of goodwill alleviating the grind. I worked with one teacher who beat a student about the head so badly that he had to be taken to the hospital. When the father showed up to get things settled--700 RMB (about $100)--all this teacher did for the rest of the day was complain about having to hand over all of his savings: what a bastard this father was. He saw no wrong. When the school was alerted, nothing was done, not even a reprimand. Another teacher at this same school enjoyed beating his students on the legs with broom handles, making sure he hurt them and made them cry; he enjoyed telling me this, smiling and laughing at the pain inflicted. He's considered one of the better teachers. The result is to turn out well-trained, mindless clones, all life and creativity crushed. In general, this is a success.

In colleges, head teachers, teachers in charge of sections of students (like US high school homeroom teachers) are verbally abusive and intensely strict, often requiring their charges to show up for study in their classroom. Roll is taken and if they happen to not be there--even if they find the library more conducive to working--they are punished. I've not heard of any corporal punishment on this level. Students are forced to take elective classes, though in some schools there is a nice selection; in some schools, however, the entire class must take the same course, the one most students want. They are given a grade for these extra-curricular classes, as they are called. I was stuck with 100 students in one of these extra-curricular courses: drama. What am I going to do with 100 students who only see drama as acting? I found out most were not interested but had to take something and this course sounded the least offensive. I solved my problem: everyone not interested in acting or directing did not have to come as long as I had a class list. If they showed up for the production, I'd give them a good grade. My cast and crew amounts to 11, four of them from my freshman writing classes (this drama class was only for sophomores). I told the dean when interference from another teacher caused concerns; he found nothing at all wrong with this solution to the problem of too many students.

Although I've dealt with students in the sciences and economics/business and though what I've got to say can be generalized to these subject areas, I am speaking from the humanities end of the spectrum, specifically foreign language learning. As this is more especially English, I will dispense with the other language choices in short order: they are considered "second" language choices (there is only an English or a Chinese language major) and, so, are only indulged in to the point that the student can pass a minor proficiency test. No other ability is needed. Discovering someone who speaks and handles Japanese, French, German, Russian is discovering someone who has done it on their own, out of their own self-interest. So. . .to work. . .

The structure of the English curriculum, ending with a BA in language and literature, is multiple year long courses in writing and speaking and what's called culture--all repetitious. There is a year of literature: one semester of British, one semester of American. There is a semester of linguistics: I've yet to meet a student who thought this course was anything other than boring. It is, after all, geared to the mandatory linguistics exam required of all English majors. There are no standard course offerings for the inner workings of Western culture: Greek and Roman mythology or Christian stories/influence, unless a special offering, by an exceptional foreigner, i.e. someone with the requisite knowledge. That is, occasionally you find someone doing a special course but students are totally unable to see the relationship between these things and literature and culture and the department smiles benignly at a nice course offering that really has nothing to do with anything--but it looks good. Although I taught a semester in one college, I did not do a good job; I met an exciting foreigner who was a classics major. Not even top 10 universities have such an in-depth offering.

Within these various English courses, the job is to memorize alot of facts, as given by the professors, who come into the classrooms, lecture didactically and leave: no interaction. They are told, "This is what this story or novel means." As in, War and Peace means "war is hell." That's why Tolstoy wrote it. Let's move on. EM Forster's The Road to Colonus is just a little story of an old man on vacation in Greece who has an odd experience and then returns home to banging pipes and irritation. Jane Eyre is a love story, a feminist love story. So is Pride and Prejudice, though there is a social comment involved. . .centred on love, of course. Doris Lessing's stories are about class issues--class conflict. Metaphor counts for naught. Symbolism is an unknown, unmentionable. . .thing. And there is no theory of literature. Ah!--I feel Edgar Allan Poe writhing in his Baltimore grave.

What it all amounts to is simply "this is the way it is, this is what's going on, this is what it means" so this is memorized for the semester's end test. Et voilà!--passing grade. In fact, the teacher says nothing different from what's written in the textbook, virtually reading the commentary and not bothering with whether students have read the selection. Because it's not important. Teachers say it is boring. Students say it is boring. But there's no other way to do it. The test! The test!

Writing isn't much different. They've been instructed to write a specific way and any other way is not right, dammit! Even if the knowledge comes from a professional writer. This "way" is simple: three paragraphs. . .introduction, discussion, conclusion. The end. Everything is a generalization or a cliché--the Chinese are overly fond of clichés!--or the summary of what someone else has said (as found in the book). Or just plagiarism--the best students do it. I know of one student whose senior graduation thesis was 100% plagiarized: I was the reader. The English School Dean passed her with the lowest grade (60)--to save face. Can you imagine the message that would be sent round about cheating and competence? No. What's important-- face--is 100% graduation, on time. This was at a top 10 university. My mentored student did an analysis of Billy Budd based on Suzanne Langer's theory of literature, graduated #1 in the school, didn't have to test into gradate school and went on to a Fulbright Fellowship Lecture on American literature at the University of Hong Kong--a year before eligible. She was the grossest of exceptions. She is the highlight of my teaching career, though all who have been mentored by me garner "best thesis" awards, sometimes to the chagrin of some department officials. (Ahh--the tales I could tell!)

What it all amounts to is: this is the only information we want you to have. It is purposefully limiting knowledge--to use the word lightly--because any more would be threatening. It is politically and socially necessary for people to know not very much of anything, particularly of the outside world. My students of business and international trade majoring in English too have no idea what's going on in the rest of the world, believe whatever the press says and tell me I'm lying when I give them US statistics and start talking of the bad loans, mortgages and bundling that all countries have bought into. They write off the poverty and beggars on their streets because--gosh!--the economy is growing at 9-10%! Their teachers tell them all they need to know. End of discussion.

I, however, teach differently; and my students come out better performers all around, showing the school off to good measure. . .and then I'm dumped. Alternative methods are verboten. There is no instant gratification. What about the test? Well. . .

I taught, my first semester in China, graduate non-English majors. Engineering Master's students. The name of the course was Oral English. I was filling in. It was supposed to prepare them for their upcoming English competency test, a test they must pass in order to graduate. There's no oral component to this test. So, I restructured the course, giving them more listening and writing. They complained but, in the end, I had an 88% pass rate. The average passing score usually is in the low 60's; my students' average passing score was over 70. I was relieved of this job and it was handed to someone more conventional, teaching the same old way--and the scores fell back to "normal." The Vice-Dean of Graduate Education would not talk to me, would not even acknowledge my presence. I'm still in touch with many of those students.

Pretty much the same thing happened in my English major writing and literature classes: test scores were higher and more managed to get into grad school. However, I was told by one vice-dean that a literature final that was a paper was not about literature but about writing: what was I doing?!

But, though I've sent several abroad for further study, they have a difficult time getting into the better schools because the depth of literature knowledge I can give them is so very limited: two semesters. They don't read well, either, not going beyond the surface, the words on the page; two semesters doesn't cut it. There is little to no knowledge of how metaphors work or, for that matter, that literature is metaphor-- unless they take my class. Not one Chinese teacher I've spoken to has any idea of a theory of literature or critiquing (outside of The New School--and that's only via a glossing mention). As noted above, it means "this." Some have even questioned me, "What are you teaching?" Well, I teach thinking and skills. No, no. What's important is the test, the next nationally standardized test. "The students can't see past this. What are you doing?"

So. . .I gave a multiple choice exam for literature one semester. It required thinking and having paid attention to what I said in class. The staff were flustered and demanded, as if I was fucking stupid and didn't know what I was doing, that I support my reasons for giving a test they could not answer the questions of. I gave them the answers. My students averaged 78 with one failure (a surprise). All passed the course.

Example question:

11. Although the terms regionalism and local color are sometimes used interchangeably, regionalism generally has broader connotations. Whereas local color is often applied to a specific literary mode that flourished in the late 19th century, regionalism implies a recognition from the colonial period to the present of differences among specific areas of the country. Additionally, regionalism refers to an intellectual movement encompassing regional consciousness beginning in the 1930s. In The Awakening Chopin frequently focused on the Creole culture of Louisiana. Unique regional features included a heritage that drew from French and Spanish ancestry, a complex caste system, the settings of urban New Orleans and rural vacation retreats like Grand Isle (located on the Gulf Coast). How does Chopin cast cultural differences into sharp relief?

a) By the outsider, Edna Pontellier, who is from Kentucky, not the Louisiana south

b) By switching the story from one place to another

c) By the changes in Robert

d) By the almost eternal absence of Edna's husband

This questioning of method even applies to my writing class. How dare me teach them what writing is or how to write! There is a way to write and teach writing and it's out of this textbook, so I should lecture them on this material; there is no need for them to write so much--or even write a final exam. A multiple choice question test is appropriate. Never mind my history of success. The students need to pass the next test. What use are skills?

There are knowledgeable professors. I've met them. I wonder how they escaped educational blight. But, by the same token, how did I escape high school with a love of reading and language? But they are caught in the net and if the students complain they are forced, under threat of firing--which mean the end of their careers--to do it the old way. . .even when they are sent abroad for alternative method training. Teaching in China is a popularity contest: the more our students like you, the greater your salary and climb up the ladder to full professor--even without a Ph.D. Popularity. Who cares if performance and ability is enhanced. This is one reason foreigners give high grades. As one foreigner told me: teaching in China is a dream as long as you're not interested in teaching them anything. I'm a slow learner. No. Obdurate. I worked by butt off, being told I was too stupid to get a four-year degree and find slackers disgusting insults.

In China, it is not a little knowledge that is a dangerous thing but any knowledge. The political leaders come out of Beijing University (Peking University) or Renmin University, as America's "best and brightest" (who have brought down the world) matriculated from Harvard. And this is where US education is headed. It will be a long time before the newer generation of America produces an intellectual giant.
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Comments (1)add comment

Michael Pyshnov said:

The most dangerous knowledge in the West
I get sick to see complaints about China. China is more open about fraud in universities than the West. Western media is completely corrupt and is concealing the terrible state of affairs in the universities. The most horrific fraud that was ever perpetrated in any university is this: "University of Toronto Fraud" at http://ca.geocities.com/uoftfraud/ This crime has never been reported in the media. Reading the documents posted on this site will be an eye-opener to anyone who belives that universities are trying to be "ethical".
May 22, 2009 | url
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