power and authority in a chinese high school

Last night I heard a fifteen year old girl ask the rhetorical question, “Why are some suited to be a leader and others aren’t?” She had been comparing a teacher and a vice principal, both from her school. Apparently, the teacher had treated her badly and the vice principal had treated her well. Her disparaging remark neatly summarized a common understanding of power — people who treat others well deserve to be leaders. Implicit, of course, was the assumption that those who don’t treat others well don’t deserve to be leaders.

The question vexed me. On the one hand, she was correct to note the difference between authority and power as styles of leadership. The vice principal had helped her, which confirmed the legitimacy or the authority of his position. In contrast, the teacher had coerced her to do something she didn’t want to do. Coercion falls pretty unambiguously into the deployment of power category. On the other hand, these were not isolated events. They took place within a fraught social network in which the reason she had sought out her teacher and the vice principal came into play. At this level, both the teacher’s and the vice principal’s actions make sense.

In Chinese high schools, a teacher’s material well-being (including monetary raises and promotions) are directly tied to the percentage of students that test into top universities, which is of course tied to a student’s gaokao results. Not unexpectedly, teachers want top students to take the gaokao and earn an offer from a top school and want below average students to skip the gaokao and not be counted. However, when a student makes the decision to study abroad, she is simultaneously deciding to take or not to take the gaokao, which is the raison d’etre of a Chinese high school teacher. By seeking out her teacher for help preparing a US college application, the student who has the potential for a moderately high gaokao score had directly challenged and potentially undermined her teacher’s future well being. In turn, the teacher had responded by deploying the power at her disposal to coerce students to complete tasks.

Although a vice principal’s monetary well being and future promotions also depend upon gaokao results, the tie-in is not as direct. In addition, even when gaokao results factor into administrative rewards, the results for the graduating class are considered, rather than simply the results from one’s homeroom. Unlike a teacher, a vice principal benefits from all gaokao results. Moreover, the student’s evaluation of legitimate and illegitimate forms of domination in high school left unacknowledged the fact that her parents had arranged for her to see the vice principal. To large extent his treatment of her reflected the quality of his relationship with her parents. All this to say, a vice principal could evaluate the relative worth of one gaokao score with respect to making important parents happy.

And there’s the rub. Clearly skilled use of both authority and power define leadership in any institution, and vice principals, teachers and students have figured out where they fit into Chinese high school hierarchies. However, pedagogical hierarchies do not exist outside social hierarchies. Consequently, the student’s easy and dismissive turn to the rhetoric of leaders and entitlement disturbed me for two reasons. First, the student’s question reveals the extent to which learning to negotiate social inequality has structured her high school life. Her naturalization of inequality reminds us that pedagogical goals are often achieved by threatening to and the actual abuse of students. Second, her acceptance of this inequality is eerily neo-liberal; as if leaders were born and not made through the centralization of power in institutions such as the gaokao.

Such are my thoughts as Shenzhen high schools hunker down for what can only be called gaokao season.

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