Archives - Education: Page 7
Author: paul carson (Tue Apr 17, 2007 3:54 pm)
Title: Re Education in China
By ANN HULBERT
I. The Student
Students do hands-on work at a top Shanghai high school.
“Definitely wake me up around 9!!! I have an important presentation . . . wake me up at that time please. . . . Thanks!! Meijie.”
The e-mail message, sent to me at 3:55 a.m. under the subject line “yeah!” was my enthusiastic welcome to Harvard from a freshman named Tang Meijie. That was last May, nine months after she arrived on campus from mainland China. Except for the ungodly hour at which the message was dashed off, you wouldn’t have guessed that its author had come to Cambridge trailing accomplishments and expectations that were impressive even by Harvard standards. Nor was there obvious evidence of a student superstar in the tousled figure in a sweatshirt and khakis who appeared at the Greenhouse Café in the Science Center at around 10 a.m. Greeting me with a reflexive bow, as she had at our first meeting a couple of months earlier, Meijie apologized for taking a few minutes to finish up the talk she had been assigned to give that morning in one of her courses.
Her topic gave her away. What Meijie was editing between bites of a bacon cheeseburger and sips of coffee was a short presentation for an expository-writing class called Success Stories. The questions addressed in the course, which focused on “what philosopher William James once called ‘our national disease,’ the pursuit of success,” have become newly urgent ones in Meijie’s own country. “What is ‘success’?” the course introduction asked. “Is it a measure of one’s financial worth? Moral perfection? Popularity? How do families, schools and popular culture invite us to think about success? And how are we encouraged to think about failure?” At Harvard, she and her classmates were discussing those issues as they read, among other things, “The Great Gatsby” and David Brooks on America’s résumé-rich “organization kids” and watched movies. In China, a nation on a mission to become a 21st-century incubator of “world class” talent, Meijie is the movie. As she progressed through her classes in the cutting-edge city of Shanghai, spent a year abroad at a private high school in Washington, D.C., and came to Harvard, she became a celebrated embodiment of China’s efforts to create a new sort of student — a student trying to expand her country’s sometimes constricting vision of success.
Downstairs in the computer room of the Science Center, Meijie showed me the thousands of Chinese citations that come up when you Google her name. “That’s very crazy,” she said with a laugh, a girl all too familiar with the Chinese ardor for anything associated with the name Harvard. Getting in “early action” in December 2004 set off a media frenzy at home, where it’s still relatively rare for students to enroll as undergraduates at elite American schools, and study abroad promises to provide a crucial edge in a jammed job market. A packet of press coverage her parents gave me — Meijie rolled her eyes at the trove — portrayed her as every Chinese parent’s dream child. Child magazine accompanied photos of Meijie and her parents with counsel on how to “raise a great child.” The winner of no fewer than 76 prizes at the “city level” or above, as one article marveled, she was a model that top Chinese students themselves were dying to emulate. “What Does Her Success Tell Us?” read a headline on an article in The Shanghai Students’ Post. “Meijie Knocked at the Door of Harvard. Do You Want to Copy?” asked The Morning News Express in bold Chinese characters. For months, she was besieged by journalists begging to profile her; publishers, she recalls, clamored to sign her up to write her life story and companies asked her to advertise their products. A director of Goldman Sachs’s China division wanted her on the board of the private school he recently helped found, which was then under construction in an erstwhile rice field outside Shanghai.
But what was truly exceptional about Meijie was how she responded to the adulation. The fervent worship back home made Meijie uncomfortable and anxious to clarify what she wasn’t. “Don’t call me ‘Harvard Girl,’ ” she told one of many magazine interviewers. She was referring to a student six years ahead of her, Liu Yiting, whose arrival at Harvard in 1999 made her a huge celebrity in China when her parents published a book, “Harvard Girl,” describing the meticulous regimen that produced their star. It quickly sold almost a million and a half copies and inspired numerous how-to-groom-your-child-to-get-into-college-abroad knockoffs. For all her triumphs, Meijie wasn’t obsessed with being at the head of the class and didn’t want the well-programmed-paragon treatment. She excelled in assorted subjects, but her school reported that her overall ranking wasn’t in the top 10 percent. Her parents had stood by, a little stunned, as their intrepid daughter won distinction in an unusual way, by accomplishing all kinds of things outside of the classroom.
Amid the hoopla, Meijie insisted that the last thing Chinese students (or parents) needed was to be encouraged in their blind reverence for an academic brand name, much less be told there was some new formula to follow and competitive frenzy to join. That was just the kind of pressure they had too much of already. It was everywhere in a culture with a long tradition of rigidly hierarchical talent selection, dating back to the imperial civil-service-exam system more than a thousand years ago — and still there in a school system driven by a daunting national college-entrance exam. The Chinese call it the gaokao, a three-day ordeal for which the preparation is arduous — and on which a single point difference can spell radically different life options. The cramming ethos, which sets in before high school, was what Meijie had tried hard not to let erode her curiosity. In her experience, America had come to stand for a less pressured and more appealing approach to schooling. “There is something in the American educational system that helps America hold its position in the world,” she told me. “Many people will think it’s a cliché, but there is something huge about it, although there are a lot of flaws — like bad public schools and other stuff. But there’s something really good, and it’s very different from my educational system.”
New School Xiwai International School in Shanghai, one of the new breed of Chinese private schools with a distinctly Western-looking curriculum.
Once at Harvard, in the fall of 2005, Meijie figured out what she wanted to do. She would try to make liberal education’s ideal of well-rounded self-fulfillment “more real in China.” She plunged into conceiving a summer exchange program run by and for students. Meijie named it the Harvard Summit for Young Leaders in China, or Hsylc — pronounced “H-silk,” evoking the historic trading route. In August 2006, on the campus of that now-completed private school outside Shanghai whose board she had joined, a cosmopolitan array of Harvard undergraduates would offer a dose of the more freewheeling American campus and classroom experience. Meijie and an inner circle of organizers (similarly on-the-go Harvard women, all of Chinese descent, some reared in the U.S.) envisaged nine days of small-group discussions on wide-ranging issues outside of math and science. Hsylc would also offer extracurricular excitement and social discovery — chances for students to try new things and connect with one another, rather than compete for prizes. The participants that Meijie had in mind were several hundred promising Chinese high-schoolers, to be chosen in an un-Chinese way. She and a selection committee would pick them on the basis not of their G.P.A.’s but of their extracurricular activities and their essays in response to the kinds of open-ended prompts they never encountered at school. On her list was a question that might be a banality in the U.S. but was a heresy at home: “If you could do one thing to change the world, what would it be?”
Meijie’s answer to that question — help shake up Chinese education — puts her in step with the latest wave of a 30-year-old government effort to overhaul China’s schools and universities to keep pace with “socialist modernization.” After the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, when schools were closed and cadres of students assaulted “enemies of the state,” Deng Xiaoping resumed the National College Entrance Exam in 1977, marking the start of a radical expansion of the education system. A developing economy demanded it; the implications for politics were less clear, and after Tiananmen Square, there was a brief slowdown. The continued growth since then has been a success in many respects; educational attainments and college attendance have surged. Yet in the process, some prominent government officials have grown concerned that too many students have become the sort of stressed-out, test-acing drone who fails to acquire the skills — creativity, flexibility, initiative, leadership — said to be necessary in the global marketplace. “Students are buried in an endless flood of homework and sit for one mock entrance exam after another, leaving them with heads swimming and eyes blurred,” lamented former Vice Premier Li Lanqing in a book describing his efforts to address the problem. They arrive at college exhausted and emerge from it unenlightened — just when the country urgently needs a talented elite of innovators, the word of the hour. A recent report from the McKinsey consulting firm, “China’s Looming Talent Shortage,” pinpointed the alarming consequences of the country’s so-called “stuffed duck” tradition of dry and outdated knowledge transfer: graduates lacking “the cultural fit,” language skills and practical experience with teamwork and projects that multinational employers in a global era are looking for.
grow and be kind