Chinese Auditorium

Chinese education leads to narrow career paths [Global Times commentary]

Global Times, Nov. 1, 2009

Update: Later, this article even made it into the Chinese edition (translated, of course – and not by me)… kinda funky.

Chinese and foreign commentators, often at odds with each other, are of one mind when it comes to China’s younger generation.

Raised as single children, the sole center of attention for the whole family, and in a society that values children very highly, they are seen as having become spoiled.

Moreover, growing up during a time of rapid economic growth, many hold that they did not learn to push themselves or to endure hardship.

Looking at my students, I must say that the picture looks very different. The comparison between younger people in Central Europe and in China is particularly interesting.

If one went by levels of development or cultural backgrounds, one would expect few similarities. In fact, however, the basic problems of the young generation are strikingly similar.

Take education and job prospects for example. There are obvious differences in education, of course. What is seen as the normal way of treating the young in China, pushing them to study hard and forget about most other things – love and relationships, in particular – would in Europe be seen as a form of coercion that infringes on teenagers’ rights and personality.

Of course, this is a mixed bag: It gives more freedom and, as the younger generation and their parents are rather similar in many respects, causes fewer quarrels than might be expected.

On the other hand, it has resulted in some children and teenagers who can hardly be controlled anymore, even when it would be for their own good.

Where European teenagers are encouraged to start making decisions for themselves, especially in working toward a career of their choice, Chinese children are pushed along by parents and teachers.

Still, the focus on choice and individual freedom only hides that in both cases, the school often determines future education and (partly) careers. In China, parents use every resource to attempt to get children into better schools, knowing it will lead to better universities.

In Central Europe, whether a child attends a more academically-oriented high school (the German Gymnasium) or a standard Hauptschule usually determines whether he/she will get a university education or start working immediately – in a learnt job requiring less qualification, of course.

When it comes to choosing careers, there are again two very different – and yet somewhat similar – approaches.

In Europe (as in the US), the idea is to plan your career, to find something to study and then to work on that you are good at and want to do. In practice, it also takes a lot of knowledge and experience, and often comes down to who you know and whether you get a lucky break.

On the upside, there are many choices and those who choose to study something out of interest know what they are taking on.

It is still seen as something of a failure not to find employment in the field you studied, but even more flexibility is required.

More and more “normal” careers, more and more, are not even expected anymore. With this, insecurity is on the rise, but so are the creativity and thrift necessary to make a living working on what you want to do.

In China, guided by parents who grew up in difficult times, and following the notion that marriage is out of the question if the male partner doesn’t have stable employment, the young seem to be chasing after a dream that is (outside of government employ) even more elusive.

Things are rather similar in that connections (guanxi) and luck are needed to find employment. However, with the focus being so strongly on stability, both parents and children are looking for fixed career paths.

The idea is that if you can only get into a good school and university, study hard without question, and then find a little help, you will get that job. As a side effect, opportunities are missed, diplomas count more than actual knowledge, and creativity is stifled.

To develop the country further will take well-educated people willing to think outside standard career paths, able to apply and deepen the skills and knowledge they are gaining through their college education.

As a teacher, and a foreigner to boot, I can bring in new perspectives. Ultimately, however, it is up to the new wave of students to find their own strengths, and to the society to at least allow them to thrive, and better still to support them.

At the very least, we need to supply young people with practical skills as well as theoretical knowledge during their studies. We also need to help them find out what their strengths and interests are, and how they could use them in new and growing fields.

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