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January 21, 2015

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With Shanghai students topping world in homework, it’s time to reassess education

A recent survey puts Shanghai teens atop a global list of students doing the most homework (“For overworked students, no relief in sight,” January 14, Shanghai Daily).

The survey said that according to a study by a European agency, middle school students in Shanghai spend an average of 13.8 hours per week on their homework, ranking them first among the 65 countries and regions surveyed.

As the father of a 12-year-old, I could not agree more, though I could only imagine the kind of joy my son would experience if he needs to put in a mere 13.8 hours a week on his homework.

Take last Thursday as an example. My son had dedicated the whole evening after supper at 6 to his homework. He complained of fatigue several times during his engagement, and exclaimed with victorious relief well after 10pm.

Unusual for him, while tackling his homework he insisted that both I and his mother peruse his composition. His piece was penalized only four points out of a total of 40 points — one of the best efforts in the class. Some poorer writers, we were told, were required to rewrite the article. The next morning, when I went to wake him up at 6:40, I asked solicitously if he was short of sleep. I said he could make it up that evening. I could promise this because it was Friday. To my surprise, he replied he had never slept better, for no sooner had he rested his head on his pillow than he fell into a deep sleep.

The costs of distinction

After supper that evening, he declared to me, “In our times, the IQ of us children are way too high, particularly for the girls.” The academic excellence of local students had been widely cited lately, often in light of national pride and power. But when local educators and authorities talk glowingly of how Shanghai students distinguish themselves in international primary or middle school mathematics contests, they never feel compelled to dwell on the costs of attaining this distinction.

Childhood years are generally associated with carefree simplicity and innocence. But many of our children are already anticipating the cares and anxiety proper to adulthood, so much so that many of them have little time to take a leisurely stroll about, to stare and stand, to horse around, even during the weekends.

Their after-class hours have been so regimented and usefully dedicated that their images have been effectively sanitized from the urban neighborhoods and parks. You are more likely to see them rushing to the next training session.

About a decade ago, during an interview with Zha Jianying, well-known writer A Cheng recalled his teenage years in the late 1960s when he spent huge amounts of time devouring the second-hand books in Liulichang in Beijing, dangling, trying to sort out his adolescence and aspirations.

He felt very indebted to this period, and observed decades later that childhood is ideally a period where children should be let loose in the open, so long as they know how to guard against myopia. “Why do we confine them for six years in primary school and six years in middle school? Because they are technically children before that, and as children they cannot be exploited as labor force.”

Employment training

In a capital-dominated world, this childhood is inconveniently awkward.

Given the legal hurdles in employment, they are called to demonstrate and show off their potentialities to function competently in the future workplace.

We have come to take this intensive employment preparation as “education,” and parents insist on subjecting their children to this education, “for the sake your own good.” We have taken so for granted this bondage to employment that we do not honestly believe in the nonsense of our life having any other aspiration or purposes.

Children are impressionable; they easily take the cues and get into our clutches. If not, they can be easily bullied, bent, broken into the harness. With rare exceptions, they generally give up the fight. In school they soon find that their respectability and worth at class is directly pegged to their ranking in scores. For all the diversity and versatility of the students, they are conveniently classified into a few xueba (straight A student) and many xuezha (dregs).

When I first heard this from my son, I was rather tickled by this funny idea about dregs. Not so fun when the same word was uttered by a parent describing his abhorrence at the prospect of his son ending up in a school peopled by these dregs. This is directly contrary to the Confucian tenets about education being an instrument to bring out the best in people, rather than an establishment certifying their future profit-enabling ability in the marketplace.

Education as we know now is no longer conducted in reference to any moral or larger principles, to our culture, or values. It is exclusively driven by the immediate dictates of the marketplace.

There is an urgency to reassess the state of our education, and subject it to a healing process.


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