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Addicted to Mediocrity: Education in China II

Several years ago, there was an American dentist who was well known in alcohol recovery circles. He was frequently invited to speak about his circuitous and hard won arrival at sobriety because he was easily one of the most entertaining speakers ever heard on any subject. One story in particular remains with me: Having been told of the death of a colleague, and to preclude public contact while “paying his respects”, he visited the grave site where his friend would be laid to rest. As he leaned over the six-foot deep hole to bid a heartfelt, albeit inebriated goodbye, he fell into the hole. Unable to extricate himself he simply laid down for a brief nap.

When mourners arrived and gathered for the lowering of the casket there was a collective gasp of horror when a figure attempted to rise up from the grave. The dentist mused, “A normal man would have been embarrassed.” But, habit had been a great deadener and he was beyond shame. It would be many years later that he actually reached a “bottom,” deeper than the aforementioned six foot resting place, that acted as a catalyst for recovery. More on this in a bit….

Two weeks ago, amidst finals, I had to quickly return to my office to retrieve a forgotten document; en-route, I passed the classroom of one of the younger Chinese teachers. The brilliant and beautiful Ph.D graduate of one of the top schools in the world was asleep at her desk while her students chattered, used cell phones, applied make-up, read books, dozed, and smoked cigarettes. It looked more like a scene out of Chalkboard Jungle, Stand and Deliver or Freedom Writers, but without hope for a happy ending. In retropsect, the most astonishing part of the experiece was my lack of surprise and concomitant emotional indifference. I guess I have seen this too many times in too many Chinese and expat led classroom–while the teacher was awake.

Students in China, unlike students in Japan, are no longer adherents of Confucian principles. Since the days of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, where teachers were shamed, beaten, jailed and even killed (1966-1976), reverence for teachers is, at best, an arguable ideal. The average Chinese college student in many schools (there are exceptions), who thinks himself respectful, would still manage to incur the wrath of most American Professors because they have not had modeled for them the manners and etiquette expected of a western scholar.

Last week the Chinese media and the Internet were alive with rumors of this incident captured on film:

Stories abounded about the perpetrators, whose names and school were quickly made public on bulletin boards nationwide, and they had to be secreted away because a bounty had been placed on them. Allegedly 100,000 RMB (about 120,000 USD or 5 years of a school teacher’s gross salary) had been offered to the person or group that would literally beat them into respectfulness. The students, who finally apologized to the teacher, reportedly are back at school and neither the school or the teacher will further comment.

What is most disturbing to me, other than the physical attack and threat of harm to the teacher, is that the scene is all too typical of what many pedants are asked to endure in China. The industrialization of education has led the spoiled offspring of one-child families (Little Emperors), especially the newly prosperous, to believe that they have a right to lord their rich consumer status over low-paid, poorly prepared, and administratively unsupported educators. Teachers are expendable, and salvaging tuition is a higher calling.

Many of us who have been here for several years manage our classrooms with strict discipline and genuine concern for student well-being. Eventually, our sincerity is believed and that, in turn, generates a certain measure of respect. This allows for a reasonably manageable classroom where the handful of students serious about language acquisition and cultural gain can actually glean something useful.

In some rural schools, where teachers might be as paid as little as $50.00 USD per month, educators sometimes resort to brutality against students in a quest for control. There are laws against such behavior, but they are not often enforced. The students, I beieve, are rebelling against a system heavily reliant on memorization, humiliation and devaluation of self. I do not absolve abuse teachers of any negligence or liability by believing that their behavior is part-and-parcel of a dysunctional system. “Chinese education has a long history of corporal punishment,” says Thomas Gold, a University of California-Berkeley sociologist who studies China. Teachers’ “social status remains low, so they may be taking out their own frustrations on laggard kids.” I could not agree more.

My last school, the one where I just resigned, caters to wealthy, underachieving children from privileged families. The school virtually sells advanced (and unaccredited) degrees to business and government leaders from the mainland; accepts known plagiarized theses from students who may or may not have attended classes; admits almost any undergraduate (these programs are accredited) with a healthy bank balance; hires raw mainland talent, looking for a foothold in teaching, at a fraction of the wages paid by government established schools, and with only ten-month teaching contracts containing no provisions for retirement; they protect a registrar who holds American and Chinese Passports and the deanship over five departments who brags about hiding his income from the IRS via a Hong Kong bank; they pad their website faculty list with professors from famous universities who are not active teachers; have investors on their board with government ties who shower the school with land and facility donations; and have a turnover rate for staff that is higher than the local McDonalds. The teachers, though better paid, feel no more self worth than those in rural environs.

It is hard for students to command respect for an education entity, such as the one I left. It is blatantly greedy and inept. But, many, many other Chinese schools, especially privatized ones, have also abandoned functional educational models in the pursuit of profit. And with only 1/3 of graduating seniors assured of work this year many students cannot muster the motivation to respect a system that does little for their future, less for their net worth and still condemns their teachers to social contempt.

It is no wonder that 40% of my former school’s Freshman class applied for transfer. And 20% of the best, brightest and ethical at the school were accepted by other institutions and thankfully will leave. Others wish they would have followed suit because they will be left behind with an even further demoralized and unruly student and faculty population. Only 40% of those students educated abroad will return to China to share the skills they will acquire. My guess is they will avoid the teaching profession if possible.

Any normal system would be embarrassed. It is necessary to examine ways to curb profiteering, improve classroom conditions and teaching methodologies by educating educators and then rewarding them accordingly. It is time to foster respect for those entrusted with educating China’s new managers.

In a country now increasingly pressured to compete globally in business–via skills and quality and not price–while tariffs, environmental concerns and increasing production fees lower profits, one would think China would sober up and ask for a ladder to be lowered to rescue a system now forty years stranded nearly six-feet under.

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14 responses so far

14 Responses to “Addicted to Mediocrity: Education in China II”

  1. University Updateon Jun 6th 2007 at 10:19 am

    Addicted to Mediocrity: Education in China II…

  2. daveon Jun 6th 2007 at 1:15 pm

    Ironic that some of the best teachers in China are not Chinese.

  3. Chris Carron Jun 6th 2007 at 6:10 pm

    Great post. Well done. Will work this into a post I will soon make on my MBA blog.

  4. SinaSourceon Jun 7th 2007 at 12:43 pm

    And idiots such as the New York Times Nicholas Kristof continue to tell everyone how great the Chinese educational system is. Go figure.

  5. adminon Jun 7th 2007 at 4:46 pm

    Thanks for the input all.


    I appreciate the sarcasm and yes,I am loathe to disagree with a two-time Pulitzer winner like Kristof, but I do on this issue… I just blog what I see and what I see is disheartening…

    I applaud China for providing infinitely more affordable educational opportunities than ever before, but I question the management and development of the new initiatives. As I said in Addicted I…promotions and assignments are handed out based less on training and ability than on party affiliations or guanxi; foreign experts are held back from green cards even after 15 years of dedicated, award winning teaching, making for little incentive for talented newcomers want to make China a career stop.

    And I have long questioned the value of rushing to build huge numbers of enormous schools only to staff them with untrained and unmotivated teachers who will do little to further career aims of students and do even less to develop talent for the private sector.

    There are some fine schools here: Zhongshan, Beijing, Tsinghua, HKU, Chinese Universiy of HK ect….And for the record: my best teaching experience to date came at an underfunded rural college with students hungry for a chance to compete with the new rich in their new privatized colleges. They suffer through 30 hours of 100 degree heat weekly listening to teachers read from power point presentations and textbooks and they work harder than any American student could under those conditions. It is going to take a lot to catch these kids up to their wealthier contemporaries, much less their western counterparts.

    And the best schools are hemorrhaging teaching talent to affluent Hong Kong, Taiwan and the west because of poor contracts, limited continuing education opportunities and harsh working conditions. With 30%-60% (depends on who you read) of foreign trained Chinese scholars studying abroad staying abroad, it should be evident that something is amiss.

    No Chinese University appears in the World’s top 100– compiled by a Chinese source– and only three (two of them in HK) appear in Newsweek’s listings.

    China’s investment in education has not been unlike the recent death sentence handed down in the drug faking scandals: It demonstrates an intention to do well, but falls woefully short….

    I want to see it improve. China is my home.


  6. chriswaugh_bjon Jun 8th 2007 at 12:40 am

    Well said. Very well said.

  7. nanheyangrouchuanon Jun 8th 2007 at 2:00 am

    “, I passed the classroom of one of the younger Chinese teachers. The brilliant and beautiful Ph.D graduate of one of the top schools in the world was asleep at her desk while her students chattered, used cell phones, applied make-up, read books, dozed, and smoked cigarettes.”

    Then this school is definitely not one of the best in the world and any listing that does call a CHinese school “tops” probably does because of business interests in China.

  8. Franklin Coveyon Jun 8th 2007 at 2:09 am

    Education is undoubtedly a huge problem in China, and I agree it with both Kristoff and you: the education system, in its entirety is corrupt and unequal.

    Of course, let us ask ourselves, if you’re an American– racial, geographical quotas at top-tier universities, legacy admissions in private universities, “corporate academicians”– I would say its dumb to compare Kristoff’s Chinese ed system with a mature and corrupt system like the US.

    I also disagree frankly with the comment on “confucianism,” I think western cultural critics always expect too many things that Chinese people do to be “confucian.”

    Every country has a philosophical “backbone”, but there’s no predictable pattern for deviation from that philosophy. E.g. Judeo-Christian Europe shows porn on public TV, Anglo-Christian American divorce rates. Its not that helpful as a reference point, that China “should be” more confucian or whatever else. Policy, and economics are the motivating factors for government entities. Religion, philosophy, ideology are PR tools to connect with the public.



  9. adminon Jun 8th 2007 at 2:40 am

    Actually we don’t disagree Franklin….

    I used the Confucian comparison only to inform those that think it to still those principles to be extant here are sorely mistaken….It would, however, be good to see more Confucian-like respect accorded teachers as in Japan where Sensei is an honorable title. Here, teacher conjures a very different sentiment.

    Yes, America has some very entrenched and sophisticated problems. BUT, a student, saddled by financial or academic problems, can still attend Spiderbreath Community College for a year or two and then transfer on to a top tier school. I am living proof of that…Chinese students get stranded at bogus institutions and cannot continue on (unless it is overseas) without giving up all the credits previously earned. And U.S. schools are prevented from holding back anyone with disabilities, ect….Severely handicapped people are rarely allowed, by law, to go to schools here and then are limited as to what they can take on as a major are of study….

  10. tamagotchion Jun 8th 2007 at 3:16 am

    Very informative post, but I would like to offer a small comment. I teach in Japan, and I’d like to say that it is not at all uncommon for students in Japan to also chat, doze, read books, play with their cell phones and generally ignore their teachers. Of course some schools are worse than others on this point, but in general this tendency starts around junior high and gets worse in high school. I cannot comment on university in Japan as I only have experience from elementary to high school, but in general I would not say that Japanese students adhere to Confucian principles. I think the situation in Japan and China may be a bit more similar than you think.

  11. adminon Jun 8th 2007 at 10:23 am


    Thanks. I did not realize things had become so bad….

    On the whole though do you agree with me that teachers, societally, are held in higher regard there than in most countries?

  12. Mr Bambooon Jun 8th 2007 at 2:30 pm

    “The students, I beieve, are rebelling against a system heavily reliant on memorization, humiliation and devaluation of self.”

    I doubt it. I think it’s more likely another symptom of Xiao Huangdi Syndrome. Take your average Chinese school kid out of the system, and they have no idea what to do with themselves. Stick them in Western-style setting, and they can neither adapt to it nor appreciate it. The change to the system needs to be more fundamental, but you’re fighting against centuries of rote learning and a mania for examinations. You’re fighting against the culture.

    “Eventually, our sincerity is belied and that, in turn, generates a certain breeds measure of respect.”

    Belied? Oops!

  13. adminon Jun 8th 2007 at 6:42 pm

    Oops be right….Thanks…

    The Xiao Huangdi Syndrome is an interesting idea and is certainly the issue at Macau University of Science and Technology where all the students are only-children…

  14. pligg.comon Jun 30th 2007 at 5:13 pm

    Addicted to Mediocrity II: Education in China…

    Professor Lonnie Hodge discusses in more depth the problems of the “industralization of education” and its effects on the students and teachers in its system….

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