Scholarship and education

Degrees, real life, and April Fools

Middle school diploma from 1968

News came from Pinghe County in Fujian this week that a junior high school diploma is required for county residents to apply for work permits, driver's licenses, or marriage certificates. According to the government memo announcing the rules, the aim is to cut down on dropout rates during China's nine years of compulsory education. A government official quoted in the reports said that the rules were not being strictly enforced; they are merely intended to make more people aware of how difficult things may be in the future without a diploma.

The rule first came to widespread attention when the mother of a child who had dropped out to find work in Guangzhou complained that the school demanded a 650-yuan payment or else her son would be unable to get married. According to a teacher at a local high school, a middle school diploma is contingent on sitting for the high school entrance exam, which carries a 650-yuan fee.

Disbelief topped outrage among commentators - "Nothing is unheard of in this boundless universe"*, wrote one critic. Writers commended the government for supporting compulsory education, but expressed heavy reservations about this particular tactic. A piece posted on a legal commentary website noted that the country's Marriage Law did not allow for such restrictions to be placed on people's freedom to wed. A commentator in The Beijing News suggested that the Pinghe government's action was representative of a local government strategy to push problems off onto its constituents rather than addressing the core issues of poverty, the practice of paying for diplomas, and an education system that doesn't serve students who are not preparing for further education.

An op-ed in Tianjin's Daily News compared the Pinghe government's rules to a hoax story carried in China Youth Daily on April Fool's Day, 1993:

That paper meticulously manufactured a set of "news items." Though it put up a special note reading "This is not true," a particular piece concerning relaxations to the one-child policy allowing PhDs to have a second child was taken as genuine by many readers.* We'll not discuss here whether Chinse media should or should not observe April Fool's Day; apart from the public trust in the paper, we should not ignore a second reason that this piece of news was able to spread so widely. We all admit the great and grievous error in the thought that "good people always have good children, and thieves always have thieving children," but compared to migrant workers who have not had higher education, PhD's may have a bit higher IQ, their living standards may be a bit better, their educational methods a bit more appropriate, so naturally they are qualified to have a second child. It is precisely this sort of reasonable logic in the mind of the reader that permits the false to become genuine.

These few years there has been abundant news about prejudice, and many people have pointed to "systemic problems behind many prejudices." But think about it calmly - have we ordinary people become "accessories" to that prejudice? Take the PhD's second child for example: science is thriving, the fruits of genetics research are astounding, but there hasn't been a study that demonstrates that the children of PhD's will be PhD's (or at least MA's). Our reasonable logic at many times tries as hard as possible to use the scientific method to explain our scorn for another group of people. The Pinghe memo is just this logic taken to an extreme. For this logic is rooted in people's minds; if they write this covert way of depriving citizens of their rights into a document, they still feel that nothing is wrong.

At many times we lack the most basic modern concept - equality. Taking the one child policy as an example: not long ago, to address the pressures an aging population will have on society, there were those who called for Shanghai to conditionally relax the one child policy, but ultimately the second-child policy was just a small adjustment. There were many reasons for this, but the most important was one brought up by the national government: reproductive rights should not be treated differently in different regions, because every citizen is equal.

The higher-educated may not be so better off, after all. Beijing Normal University professor Li Baoyuan wrote in a letter to the editor this week about the immaturity of many of the candidates for next year's entering grad school class:

Taking grad exams with parents in tow!

by Li Baoyuan / TBN

I attended grad student interviews the other day. During a break, from the small secondary testing area I noticed the silhouettes of several parents. With anxious expressions, several paced in the corridor, and others sat in the plaza. They looked fully "miserable!" More or less like the scene outside of the annual college entrance exam. Amid my jumbled feelings - surprise, disappointment, impatience, and anger - I walked up to several of the "anxious" waiting parents, and inquired rudely, "Are you here for the interview with your children?"

"Uh...," they vaguely replied. They appeared a bit embarrassed as they looked nervously at me (at this point I felt an unexplained self-satisfaction over the dignity of the teaching profession).

"The kids are all college graduates ready to become grad students, and you still 'love in every way possible'? You're so counterproductive! With actions like this, how can we teachers take in your kids?"

"It was our idea to come," explained one parent.

"I'm talking about you parents. Your kids aren't at fault! I beg of you, give your kids a break! I'm a parent, too - think about it: if this continues, how will your kids have opportunities to train themselves and excel?"

A few parents got up and disappeared down the corridor. I looked at their miserable retreating forms, and I could only turn up my nose, shake my head, and sigh...

During the grad student interviews, I asked why they had come to grad school, why they chose this field or research direction, what plans they had for their time as a grad student, what direction they'd pursue career-wise....the most basic of questions, to which hardly any students were able to provide a clear answer - it seemed the majority of them had never carefully considered them before! They said, "Uh, to gain knowledge!" Or, "To improve myself!" But ask them what "knowledge" or "improve" meant, and most of them mumbled unintelligibly. Some even contended, "I haven't even started here - how should I know?"

Even worse, when asked why they applied to pursue "human resource development and management," many people replied that the were very familiar with "people." And the majority of students visibly lacked skills training in human values, self-motivation, career concepts, interpersonal communication, and social interaction. Many of the students had not thought of looking for a job in the two or three years since their college graduation, but rather stayed in the warm embrace of their parents and devoted themselves to reviewing for the grad school exam. Testing for grad school just to test for grad school - questions like what testing for grad school is for, and what they'll do when they graduate, they've never carefully considered.

What is wrong with our education? These past years, our frightening test-based educational formula that emphasizes success over person-building has completely permeated even the graduate levels! If this continues, how will it end?

Note 1: "大千世界,无奇不有": This is a stock phrase for indignant op-eds. In the past week, commentators have used it for the Andy Lau suicide, twice for this middle-school diploma story, private industry workers drawing a second government paycheck, a review of a Xiao Qian biography, and a "verbal abuse for hire" company. It also appears frequently in sensational tabloid-style stories.

Note 2: The famous set of hoax stories appeared in CYD's weekly social affairs supplement, many selected from reader submissions. In addition to the PhD-one child policy story, the feature also included reports that China would return to Daylight Savings Time, the Qianmen Tower had been sold off, Jinan had installed pipes for beer distribution, and counterfeit goods could be legally purchased with counterfeit money.

The most notorious was an article by Chen Jun that claimed that the UN would provide "millennium babies" born at the stroke of midnight, New Year's Day, 2000, with immense rewards: a global passport for citizenship in any country, free college education, a US$20,000 annual stipend, and sponsorship from 26 global brands. The authorities were not pleased; section editor Yang Lang was demoted for his poor judgment, the paper repeatedly apologized, and April Fool's was right out. But the millennium baby "news" had legs - it got picked up by news digests and surfaced regularly for years afterward. Later, Chen Jun successfully sued a newspaper for libel when it called him a malicious fraudster.

How times have changed - Southern Metropolis Weekly did nearly the same thing at the end of 2006 and got away unscathed.

Links and Sources
There are currently 4 Comments for Degrees, real life, and April Fools.

Comments on Degrees, real life, and April Fools

Everything in this world serves it purpose. Just because we all like to embrace independent thinking at U.S. colleges and Stanford's entrepreunership doesn't mean that it is the model for China. There are enough independent thinkers in this country as is (in the form of Chinese returnees). But the cheap labor comes at a price - overall less intelligent society.

April 1 "Fool" stories are one of the best journalistic traditions that exist -- right up there with getting two sources for anything that sounds remotely interesting.

You have to respect a tradition started by professional writers which teaches people "Don't believe everything you read."

I happen to agree with the post in many ways. I think that it is something that only an educator will really understand.

As a teacher of graduate students at a first-tier university in China I can vouch for the lack of foresight and clear thinking that many students possess.

This is not helped by the ancient test taking culture combined with diploma mill antics that many mainland universities stick to.

There needs to be a real revolution in education. One where it is not run by party bosses and instead where the person with the best knowledge, not the party member with the best connections, is put in charge of the direction a university or department is taking.

We are creating one thing: Sheep. Helpless, clueless, imagination-lacking sheep.

The fact that there is even a Communist Politics test requirement for all graduate studies is proof that there is something wrong.

The cover story in the April first edition of the New York Times Magazine is an article by Ann Hulbert that focuses on the exact concerns Sean just raised.

It's here.


China Media Timeline
Major media events over the last three decades
Danwei Model Workers
The latest recommended blogs and new media
From 2008
Front Page of the Day
A different newspaper every weekday
From the Vault
Classic Danwei posts
+ Culture and corporate propaganda in Soho Xiaobao (2007.11): Mid-2007 issues of Soho Xiaobao (SOHO小报), illustrating the complicated identity of in-house magazines run by real estate companies.
+ Internet executives complain about excessive Net censorship (2010.03): Internet executives complain about excessive Net censorship at an officially sanctioned meeting in Shenzhen.
+ Crowd-sourced cheating on the 2010 gaokao (2010.06): A student in Sichuan seeks help with the ancient Chinese section of this year's college entrance exam -- while the test is going on!
Danwei Archives