I just finished reading a fascinating book called Kosher Chinese—Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s other Billion, by Michael Levy. With warmth and a sense of humor, Levy writes about his Peace Corps experiences teaching in Guiyang, in the heart of China.
Levy writes, “The results of an educational system focused entirely on high-stakes tests were easy to see. Students spent six days a week, ten hours a day, from grades eight to twelve cramming information for the Gao Kao. They then spent college getting ready for the next round of tests. Anything that distracted students from figuring out how to fill in the blanks correctly was a waste of time. Sports and physical health were out. Music was out, as was sex ed. There were no glee clubs, school newspapers, yearbooks, or debate teams. All of this, along with other expressions of creativity, were mere distractions, as was critical thinking.”
When he is asked to teach a graduate class in English literature, he is told that he doesn’t need copies of the books because the students shouldn’t actually read the books they will be studying. When he questions a colleague about this advice, she says, “Why do they need to read the books for themselves?”
He explains that his class discussions will be based on the books.
“But what is there for them to discuss?” she continues. “They don’t know anything. You are the expert, so you should just tell them what to think.”
As Levy gets to know his students, he often discovers incorrect or even bizarre notions that they believe—for example, that all Americans love meat and are fat, that swimmer Michael Phelps is Jewish, that because they hate old people, Americans are suppressing a pill that allows people to live to 150, If he tries to correct them, their response is a shrugged, “We have learned it.” If he says with exasperation, “You’ve learned it, but it’s wrong,” they say, “It is in a book.” If it is in a book or they learned it, it is true. Period.
And yet there are those who understand the limits of their education system. A university president, after quite a bit to drink, admits to Levy that, “Everyone knows Chinese are good at math and science, but we are also very bad at creativity. We only build things in factories, but we never innovate and invent them on our own….No Chinese citizen has ever won a Nobel Prize. Why is this? It is because we only teach the students how to memorize, and we test them and test them, and punish them if they cannot pass the tests.” (Five years after this conversation, though, a Chinese man becomes China’s first Nobel laureate, winning the Peace Prize for promoting human rights, democracy, and political freedom in China. As Levy reports, “His reward? An eleven-year prison sentence for “inciting subversion of state power.”)
On a lighter note, though, I got a kick out what that same university president says when Levy admits he had never heard of Guanwang before arriving in China. “The man is shocked. ‘But we have a Walmart!’ he said.”
I guess that Walmart is all a city really needs.