what’s the point of college?

last night, went to cameron indoor stadium to watch the lady blue devils defeat the nc state wolfpack. well, we watched the first half and then returned home. mascot basketball at halftime was a bit much, even for my father who was thrilled to be there because (rumor has it) cameron is a shrine of sorts. certainly, yang qian found the pageantry fun. in contrast, nico (by way of italy) was somewhat nonplussed: how is such a display possible? he seemed to wonder and this was only a women’s game?! yes, those were students camping outside the stadium to purchase tickets for men’s home games, which do sellout. every time. i mentioned that in “utopian verses” wang anyi described her sense of alienation and acute loneliness when attending a university of iowa football game. nico nodded wisely, but remained silent.

watching a duke basketball game with two non-americans made me viscerally aware of the distance between the cultural meaning of “preparing for college” in the u.s. and china.

when i advise my shenzhen students about where they might want to go to college, i mention the importance of extra-curricular activities. my students usually nod and mention something about hobbies. no really, i repeat, in u.s. college parlance “well-rounded” does not mean “likes to collect stamps and play pick-up basketball after school”; it means something on the order of “takes more time than my classes and may lead to a professional career in football”. many scie students then explain that in order to keep up with their high school studies (including college level coursework in mathematics, physics, and chemistry), they have cut back on their hobbies.

but, i say, don’t you miss playing the violin, or painting, or dancing, or competing in badminton?

but teacher, they reply, doing well in school is more important. implicit in this rebuttal is the qualification – “more important than what i want to do.”

and there’s the rub. for my chinese students, one gets into a “good” college by being a good student – it is a purely academic category that is tested with regular monotony and culminates with the gaokao. once in college, however, students relax and have fun, there futures more or less determined by the relative rank of their school. thus, getting into beijing university does not only mean top student in the gaokao, but also means relative advantage when looking for a job. and not just the first job out of college. even ten, fifteen years after graduation, where one went to college still matters when looking for jobs in china.

in contrast, “good” u.s. colleges are designed to prepare youth for future careers in many different fields, ranging from academic research to athletics, music, and general office work. thus, most u.s. colleges and universities encourage thedevelopment of non-academic and many pre-professional skills. indeed, many universities are training grounds for professional and olympic atheletes, musicians, and writers. moreover, relationships cultivated through participation in cheerleading and dance squads become the foundation of future careers and, more importantly, professional networks.

thus far, i have set up two ideal types:  u.s. students “do what they want to” and chinese students “excell at taking tests”. in life, these categories are blurred and often unmade; many u.s. students don’t do what they want and just as many chinese students are poor test takers. nevertheless, i believe these categories have the same cultural function: organizing the education of young people with respect to a cultural ideal or goal. in the u.s., that ideal is to succeed by expressing oneself, while in china it is to succeed by mastering important forms of knowledge. thus, in the u.s., teachers and parents encourage students to “like” subjects (including sports and the arts), while in china, students are exhorted “to study bitterly”.

i conclude with the simple observation that although the u.s. and china organize college differently, nevertheless the social function of college in both countries is distressingly similar.

implications of the “different form, same function” conundrum of the u.s. and chinese educational systems.

first, in both the u.s. and china, the ideal fails children as often as it helps them. many u.s. children don’t like to study and are thus often left to their own pursuits. not unexpectedly, many of these children graduate high school with abysmal reading and math skills. likewise, many chinese children are not great test-takers and are thereby weeded out of the chinese educational system. as predictably, many of these children lack the confidence and social recognition to do more than manual labor or service jobs.

second, in both the u.s. and china, getting into college (or not) organizes childhood. in the u.s., students participate in extracurricular activites, especially sports with an eye to getting into a top school. similarly in china, students sign up for cram schools like new oriental in the hope of getting the points they need to get into a top school. moreover, in both systems students end up valuing the end result (making the team and getting the grade), rather than the process of getting there – practice and study.

third, i think most of the parents and teachers and politicians organizing the educational systems in both the u.s. and china hope to improve the lives of students. however, given points one and two above, the social importance of college in both countries means that american and chinese childhoods both function as means to separate students into academic haves and have-nots, rather than as opportunities to explore and cultivate human potential.

so remind me, what’s the point of college?

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