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February 26, 2010

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Virtues of a good education

A World Expo is the sum total of its exhibits. There were over 100,000 exhibits at the first World Expo hosted in London in 1851. The most successful exhibit displayed at that time was the Crystal Palace, the exhibition venue of the host country.

For World Expo 2010 Shanghai China, Britain will build a pavilion. At the invitation of the Chinese organizers, the pavilion will be carbon-free. It will be constructed by British company ZEDfactory Ltd, and unlike many other pavilions, it will remain as a permanent building in Shanghai. Incorporating the energy-saving and emission-reducing technologies invented by the University of Nottingham, this pavilion will be a model for future residential buildings. It consists of two four-story buildings that accommodate six duplex apartments on their upper two floors. Each unit can provide occupants with daily data of energy consumption and emissions to reduce consumption and achieve zero emissions. The pavilion will stand not only as a tangible concrete exhibit but also as an example of the intangible concept of a "Better Life."

Like its predecessors, World Expo 2010 Shanghai China will showcase the latest achievements in the progress of human civilization.

The outstanding exhibits are presentations of the dreams emerging today that may become the realities of tomorrow. They are designed to help people understand a maxim of this knowledge-driven era: "More than ever, insight into tomorrow is the difference between success and failure."

I agree with another saying: "The top exhibit at World Expo 2010 Shanghai China will be the manners of the Chinese people." The World Expo will last longer than the Olympic Games and thus test our manners to a greater degree. While enjoying the fruits of this extraordinary event, we also face an extraordinary challenge. This will be the first time for a developing country to host the World Expo, and since Shanghai will host the event, we are endowed with a great responsibility.

After experiencing the vicissitudes of the past 60 years and the unprecedented growth in the last 30 years, Shanghai has grown into an international metropolis. The wealth and prosperity I noticed in Denmark 45 years ago, in Germany and the United States 30 years ago, and in Tokyo 22 years ago have become omnipresent and even greater in Shanghai today.

If you stand at an intersection in Shanghai and watch the flow of people and traffic, it soon becomes apparent that pedestrians and even vehicles ignore red lights.

In a country of good manners, vehicles give way to ambulances and other emergency vehicles, whereas in Shanghai, most drivers just ignore sirens. More often than not, commuters jam into buses instead of queuing up courteously.

When we see people around the world smoking or making noise in public places, we can almost always be sure that these people are from China, a fact that embarrasses many Chinese working abroad. Even worse, some run up overdrafts on their bank cards and don't pay off those debts. Some Chinese students studying abroad are expelled from school for cheating and return home with falsified diplomas or transcripts. There has even been a case in which the president of a prestigious university plagiarized a foreign paper to apply for awards and gain membership in the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

In terms of the overall quality of its citizens, China still has a way to go to reach international standards, and the gap is widening.

On the one hand, our economy has now come close to its peak after sinking to its bottom 30 years ago. The Chinese people have truly stood up and taken a more elevated place in the world. On the other hand, the quality of manners has dropped. Can we try and boost them to a level that matches our status as a "nation with a 5,000-year-old civilization." The Chinese deserve to stand on the world stage with greater dignity and confidence. To do that, we must adhere to the principle of "setting a priority on the development of education." Only by improving our education can we improve ourselves and make our nation stronger.

The development of education has one central task: improving the quality of our people and cultivating them into upstanding citizens. Premier Wen Jiabao said, "Everyone hopes that our country can soon achieve modernization and come to be respected everywhere in the world. But for what? For a developed economy, advanced science and technology, total democracy, a sound legal system, noble moral standards, and great quality of our people. Among those, the quality of our people is most fundamental." (September 9, 2007)

Our attention should be focused on two basic points: ensuring equal access to education and improving the quality of education.

To develop China's educational system, we must focus on three issues. First of all, vigorous efforts should be devoted to nurturing outstanding talent in every field. Secondly, we need to adopt proper attitudes toward academic achievement levels because it is the interest of students that determines the academic levels they most hope to attain. And lastly, we should discourage blind preference for the most prestigious colleges and universities because fostering a variety of institutions of higher education better meets the individual needs of a variety of students.

Four factors are of key importance: financial and material resources, human resources, culture, and education systems. Of these, culture takes center stage. In one sense, the progress of a nation is based on its cultural progress. A first-rate country is one that boasts a first-rate economy. More importantly, it must also have a first-rate culture. The same, of course, is true for universities. What is the difference between an ordinary college and an elite university like Princeton or Harvard? "Maybe there is no big difference in terms of knowledge or skills they teach. The biggest difference lies in their humanistic education and cultivation of students," noted the parent of a Chinese student at Harvard after attending the 2007 commencement exercises. The real strength of an elite university does not come from any grand buildings on its campus, but rather from its culture, such as the "beautiful mind" of Princeton or the "ideology over authority" of Harvard.

Among the 2009 rankings of US colleges, one list singles out the top five as follows: the United States Military Academy at West Point, Princeton University, California Institute of Technology, Williams College and Harvard University. At West Point, students must go to bed at 11:30pm. School officials ensure that their dormitories are alcohol-free and absolutely neat, that hairstyles are kept trim, that shoes are shined and uniforms neatly ironed. The academy provides tuition-free education on the condition that its graduates must perform military duties to the nation. All these constitute the culture of West Point. To make our nation stronger, we should both cherish our outstanding culture and also seek to absorb some of the splendid practices of other cultures.

To advance its education, China also needs to reform its college entrance examination system, its evaluation system, its teaching methods and curricula and its structure of education by launching some pilot projects.

Without reform of the college entrance examination system, achieving all-round development of education will be an empty goal. The key issue is the separation of powers. The Ministry of Education should formulate policy and exercise supervision, independent institutions should administer examinations, and colleges and universities should stick to duties of admission and enrollment.

The key issue for the reform of the evaluation systems is to sever the chain of vested interest between the evaluating authorities and the colleges or universities being evaluated.

The central task for the reform of teaching methods and curricula is to get students to the fore. Aristotle once said, "Plato is dear to me, but dearer still is truth." Teachers should not only pass on knowledge to their students, but they should also teach them how to think and how to conduct themselves. They must recognize and nurture the potential of each student.

As a crucial approach for the reform of the structure of education, educational institutions should be treated with equal importance, although it is necessary to differentiate their rankings in line with our national conditions.

Under any reform of the education system, attention should be paid to the following issues: policy formation and decision-making by the Party and their execution, balancing of powers through emphasis on collective roles, separation of administrative and academic authorities, and a greater voice for professors. "We must respect the right of educational institutions to operate independently, and trust education to people skilled in education." (Wen Jiabao, Wenhui Daily, January 5, 2009). We must also adopt systems for quality control and incentives for teachers and students, which are of equal importance.

The six criteria for evaluating the results of our education reform are as follows:

Whether students in every grade, especially primary school students, are enjoying their study;

Whether students in every grade, especially college students, are studying diligently;

Whether students from poor families worry about their tuition;

Whether any citizen can find a viable access to further education if he or she seeks it;

Whether the quality of our people has seen any considerable improvement;

Whether our people are satisfied with education.

China is now working on a "Medium and Long-term Plan on Education," which we hope will be promulgated soon. As one of the best exhibits at the World Expo to be hosted in our country, it will show the world a steady rise in the quality of the Chinese people.

In "A Tale of Two Cities," Charles Dickens began his 19 th century novel with the words: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness ?" We are supposed to present the world with our best progress and help it understand that ours is a nation rich in wisdom. At the same time, we are not afraid of revealing our worst sides and most foolish problems. Through the World Expo, we shall show everyone that the worst and most foolish problems are being successfully tackled and that the Chinese people are joining people from around the world in the march toward a better tomorrow.


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