A high school senior wrote to the South Weekend newspaper in February, "I am driven to madness by China's education system."
The student's nightmare began when he was a fifth grader, when his father began to keep track of his academic ranking in the class.
Ranked only within the top 10, he was frequently subjected to ridicule by parents and relatives.
"If you fail to enter a key university, you had better kill yourself, and I would not drop a single tear ..." he quoted his father as threatening.
Like nearly all students of his age, he was put on a quasi-military regimen.
A college can provide a brief respite from pressure, but soon the specter of employment expectations will begin to loom.
If you cannot find a good job, what's the point in a college education?
That's why a girl college student took her own life late February in Hebei Province.
While middle schools are evaluated according to their success rate in their students matriculation tests, universities are busy creating higher and higher employment figures.
Universities are increasingly like job-training establishments, with the much-vaunted objective of turning out a specialized labor force in the service of the economy.
As the merit of the labor force is measured in terms of wages, ultimately the worth of a specialty can be measured by the prospective salary level.
When education becomes market-oriented, it too degenerates into a commodity that you purchase as an investment, in anticipation of higher returns.
During the recent National People's Congress, some delegates raised the issue of some university deans behaving more as bureaucrats than educators, with many of them implicated in corruption scandals.
In actual fact, educators in general are more like businessmen, and probably they are no longer inclined to take this characterization as a detraction or slight.
One of the obvious differences between the traditional Chinese education system and the modernized system is that the new system turns out failures, because there is always one rival who scores higher or earns more money.
The traditional system centered more on moral cultivation, fostered emulation, and was much less competitive.
That's why 50 years ago you could safely expect some obvious attributes of an educated person from even an elementary school dropout.
The reason is that even brief contact with the system inculcated some moral principles, and helped lay the foundation of their outlook and attitudes.
For instance, any pupil of the past would begin by committing to memory the Four Books and the Five Classics.
The first of the Four Books is called daxue (Higher Education), which lays down the order in which the systematic study of a scholar should be pursued.
It begins with the individual, proceeds from the individual to the family, and from the family to the Government.
Although distinguishing oneself requires assiduous cultivation and the efforts of a lifetime, every educated person knows what they should aspire to.
That's why a Chinese scholar gave little weight to such externalities as professions and positions, seeing them as no more than one facet of human life.
Examples abound. A randomly chosen example is Yu Shouzhen (1897-1949), who is known for his annotation of an anthology of Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) poems.
Upon graduating from middle school, he served successively as instructor, private tutor, editor, college professor, and then an accountant at a private bank.
Professionally, you cannot see a "progressing" career path, though today Yu is highly regarded for his literary attainments.
In the past, professorships in prestigious universities were usually the venerated names of outstanding personalities who exemplified such virtues as integrity and idealism, in addition to a thorough mastery of a specialized field of knowledge. Today professorships are given to those who know how to fit themselves into the procrustean standards of a "scientific, quantitative approach."
For instance, in Fudan University the minimum requirement for a professorship is to have 10 theses published in core academic journals (two in authoritative journals) and one monograph. In addition, he or she must also have been responsible for two provincial-level scientific and technological projects.
Considering this criteria, we should not be surprised that some professors turn out to be thieves, or clowns, just like a certain professor from Beijing University, who charged that petitioners are mostly lunatics.
At its best, the modern education system is science-dominated.
My son told me some days ago that his teachers told him scientists are among the greatest people.
Albert Einstein should turn in grave if he knew of his role in the making of nuclear weapons.
In his Three Misleading Facts about Science (Wen Hui Bao, February 26) professor Jiang Xiaoyuan questions the belief that "science and technology can solve all problems." He challenges widely held concept of scientists as selfless seekers of truth, often pursuing knowledge in material privations.
The unsavory fact is that most scientists today are in the employ of big businesses.
When we are confronted with such modern ills as environmental destruction, spiritual alienation brought about by the Internet, and addiction to video games, the common response is: The problems brought about by science can only be solved by science.
Or as Dr Tian Song from Beijing Normal University says, we tend to "attribute anything good to science, and anything bad to demons."
Classic Chinese scholar Qian Mu (1895-1990) said: "Ours is a world of science, a world dominated by machines and machine-made things."
People are lured by the profit-generating power of the machines, and in the process become controlled by the machines.
Our education system is more and more like a machine specializing in churning out standardized products for the benefit of machines.
(Shanghai Daily April 15, 2009)