Time to reform money-oriented education

By Wan Lixin
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Shanghai Daily, March 22, 2017
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Over the weekend I took a long walk with a neighbor we have known for many years. His son has shown early promise of academic brilliance, having been enrolled in a select class in a good junior middle school, which would almost automatically ensure him a place at a reputable senior middle school.

But he has been underperforming consistently and risks being at the bottom of the class. Worse, he seems to be giving himself up as hopeless. He is only 13. I did my best to be helpful to the father, and was somewhat relieved to see him more cheerful when we parted.

But inwardly I had been uncertain.

I was put in mind of one of the son's school compositions, in which he envisioned the street where he lived becoming a "state-of-the-art boulevard lined up with expensive condos and gardened villas, each priced at hundreds of thousands of yuan per square-meter."

"I will work hard, so that I could afford to buy a few units there," he concluded in his essay that came to my attention accidentally a couple of years ago.

What's the most common strategy we resort to when urging children to study? A colleague of mine recently posted a cartoon in his WeChat moments. A young mother, seeing a cleaner on the opposite side of the street, warns her son, "If you do not study, you will end up like him." Another mother, standing right next to her, however, tells her own daughter, "If you study well, you will be able to make a better world for him."

The obvious message is that all professions are equal, and deserving of fair treatment. But viewed from another perspective, both mothers suggest the undesirability of cleaning as a profession while motivating their children. We are really not very imaginative when coming to that conclusion.

I remember witnessing my mother-in-law telling off her granddaughter for not taking her studies seriously. "You will end up being a cleaner, making do with a couple of thousands, while your cousin is earning tens of thousands of yuan!"

She is not vulgar. She is just not being hypocritical. There is no call for that in the context of immediate family.

When I was younger, "to afford to be well fed and clad" could be inducement enough for me to study, for children at that time still had the advantage of healthy appetites. But today's children are spoilt for choice when it comes to food and clothing. Thus we begin to use inducements more fit for adult consumption, such as success, as minted in dollar signs, elevating, but often too abstract for children to conceive of.

It has to be handled with the greatest subtlety, for there is the danger of the children retorting, "I do not mind being a cleaner!" I begin to envy those capable of thinking in absolutes.

We would continue to define educational success in terms of admissions to good majors in good schools, which then translate into lucrative jobs and competitive salaries, with the brightest students being wooed and captured by MNCs, or investment banks. In the mind of many, education is at its best when it has evolved into an art of self-enrichment.

Highest excellence

You would not obfuscate about this in private company. But if you articulate this in public it would reflect negatively on your cultivation, or upbringing.

No matter how we try to rationalize this, we are in many ways a society that takes pride in deepening the division of labor, or the difference between you and me. Increasingly we take this difference as the defining feature of our existence.

As Greg Cusack observed in "In memory of communal rapport" (March 20, Shanghai Daily), "… people are increasingly sorting themselves into like-minded communities, through their online communities, the media they follow, the clubs or associations they join, and even in the neighborhoods in which they choose to live."

We are drifting away from the egalitarian moorings we took for granted a few decades ago.

Philosopher Hanfei Zi (c 275-233 BC) observed that "those with their hands and feet thickly callused, and those with swarthy complexion are actually those who have done an eminently useful service."

But it is better to take refuge in long-standing confusion, for clarification threatens to crumble the edifice called civilization. Safer to equivocate, like the second mother.

On Monday evening, when my son came to me with his homework for my signature, I asked him, casually, "What's the purpose of study?" He was taken aback, and shot back, "I will not be bothered with such a boring question!"

It should not be boring. It is set out at the beginning of Confucius' "The Great Learning" (in James Legge's translation) as "What the great learning teaches, is to illustrate illustrious virtue; to renovate the people; and to rest in the highest excellence."

The education minted in gold, the world over, is in need of redemption, in light of the above Confucian tenets.

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