more thoughts on education

Having published on the zhongkao and with Hu Jintao’s visit to the US, my father and I have been discussing education. Here is an excerpt from the dialogue.

Dad: China is in the news as Hu Jintao bops around the states. Since China is our banker, he is being received with open arms. Send more money please Mr. Banker! The news has also been focusing on education, and naturally we (US) suck in comparison. We are now 17th in the world and falling. South East Asia is leading the pack and putting distance between themselves and the US. Due to failing state budgets, (we are in tough economic times), we will be laying off at least 25% of our teachers! Unlike the federal govt., states are required to balance their budgets. In Moore County this means 600 teachers. No school district in the state [North Carolina] is hiring. Who would have thunk?

MA: As for education, I’m not sure we can talk about ahead and behind when both systems reproduce conditions of inequality. Both systems need not only to produce underpaid workers, but also “acceptable” reasons to legitimate inequality. Clearly, the US system is getting really good at it; can’t do math go into service. China is also very good at it, when you keep in mind that they have five times our population; can’t pass the zhongkao go to a factory; can’t pass the gaokao be an underpaid clerk. Consequently, in China the cream that is rising is proportionately much, much smaller than in the US. So maybe what’s actually happening is that China is setting what Marx would have called “acceptable living wage” for the world. Importantly, the acceptable living wage in China is much lower than in the US, so our wages are shrinking because we need to lower our national acceptable living wage in order to compete globally. I think at Harvard business, the unsinkable call this “economic adjustment” and then go out for a Michelin starred meal.

Please join the conversation. How we educate is the expression of why we teach children; clearly, all of us everywhere need fresh inspiration.

2 thoughts on “more thoughts on education

  1. Mark Mason, a philosopher of education now at HKIED, used to make a very good point in class: testing is not designed to pass students, it’s designed just as much to fail students. We need to be very conscientious in who we’re designating as the failures.

    Having done some grading at HKU awhile ago and told to go soft on the freshmen I found myself enraged. These were the kids who’ve been tagged with all the social capital they needed to get ahead in Hong Kong society at the expense of a lot of other students who would have killed to get in – but went to the wrong kindergartens, so got into the wrong primary schools, and then the wrong middle schools. Though I find the US high school system detestable, I like the US tertiary system that gives far more students a chance to study and pursue academic interests. At the state school where I studied for my undergraduate degree the student population was 50% freshman. The school offered a lot of support for students who really wanted to get ahead but wasn’t in the business of needlessly handing out degrees to those who don’t deserve them. I can’t help but think China (and most of the world) might be a more equitable place if it gave more people a chance of passing AND failing in an environment where wealth and social capital have limits. How many Qinghua or BeiDa kids every have to worry about not graduating?

    • Hi Trey,

      I agree; I like the fact that the US tertiary system is relatively open and seems to offer more opportunities than other systems. The problem, of course, is getting there. In NC, which has one of the oldest and best public tertiary systems in the country (UNC oldest public university in the country), my brother taught at a middle school where students had to stay home because they had lice. And this wasn’t an isolated event. Moreover, lunch programs have been gutted, which means many poor kids aren’t learning even when they’re in school because they’re hungry and hungry kids think about food, not math or poetry.

      As for pushing kids through at Hong Kong universities, despite questionable scholarship, my understanding is that this is part of the social contract throughout post-confucian Asia; get into unversity and society will take care of you. Certainly it’s the justification for the college entrance exam system. That said, Qinghua and Beida graduates are also “waiting for work” and Shenda graduates depend upon connections and red enevelops to get jobs and promotions. In other words, we are speaking of differences of degree, rather than kind in terms of how inequality is reproduced in China. And this is precisely why so many bright Chinese students want to study abroad. (1) They want to learn (not be pushed), but also and possibly more to the point (2) They want a degree that will be respected enough to make them competetive in a shrinking job market.

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