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Good, Good Study. Day, Day Up.

Education has famously been part and parcel of Chinese culture for millennia.  While the Japanese were relying on their social standing and the prestige of their families to ensure a decent salary, the Chinese were introducing standardized testing, and encouraging children to get at least as far as their parents got, so that the parents could live in relative comfort during their retirement.  The idea is that you spend whatever is needed on your child to make sure they get the best job, because you’ll be relying on that job to provide financial support after you finish working.  

Most universities, indeed most high schools, focus on learning by rote, usually in classes of about 30 to 40 students.  The teacher stands at the front of the class, tells the students how to do things.  The problem is that, for some unknown reason, the Chinese look towards the top 5% of successful Chinese, and deduct that because 5% made it, the system must work.  Of course, since the system fails people 95% of the time, one can also deduce that something is terribly, terribly wrong with the education system in the PRC. 

This week, Chinese high school students will take the gaokao – the national college entrance exam where 9.15 million students will compete for 6.85 million university places.  It lasts for three straight days, and will ultimately determine the entire future of a student’s life.  Students regularly study sixteen hours a day in order to get the all important perfect score.  Competition, is, as you can imagine, pretty tough.  It’s so tough in fact that the university have instigated a kind of upgrade/downgrade system that you usually find on airlines: if the  places on a particular course have been filled, the students simply get bounced to another course – whether they like it or not.    

As part of the modernization drive to educate it’s people into the 21st century, the Chinese government has made English lessons compulsory up to the second year of university – so students typically go through nearly 7 years of language instruction, and still manage to level out at a mediocre level of second language ability.  Conversations with a Chinese English student are riddled with Chinglish – a particular blend of directly translated English that grates on the nerves after six months in the country – and other fossilized errors that students apparently show little intention of making any effort to eradicate.  

That’s not to say that some people make it.  The laws of chance dictate that at least some of the unfortunates that are forced through the Chinese higher education system make it to a decent level of fluency, but for most, speaking English is a tool, something that will get them a certificate that will get them a job – job that many thousands of other similarly qualified Chinese graduates will be competing for.  

The obsession for learning English is such that with only 59 “schools” in China, Wall Street Institute – a private language school – was bought by publishing giant Pearson for $92 million.  And it’s the money that is increasingly dictating the quality of education one receives – if you have enough you can send your child abroad to an American or, more commonly, a Canadian university (the visa application is a little less stringent in Canada), if you don’t have enough hard cash for that, you’ll have to settle for a “top-tier” university.  Chinese students are enrolling in US universities in droves, but the rote style of education isn’t preparing them for the Socratic methodology used in western countries, inevitably leading to friction between the American and Chinese students.  

Zhao Jun, in an interview with The Atlantic, says that he supports his son’s decision to study in the US – and he’s the editor-in-cheif of a government produced education journal.  He gave a fairly damning description of the current Chinese educational system, “the course design is too rigid, the method of teaching is too mechanical, and the standard for measuring talent is too one-dimensional.”  He’s not the only one, either, Gaokao applications have declined by 700,000 students since 2009, many of the students favouring the best education that money can buy – outside China

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