Teaching at university is at both a rewarding and a challenging experience… which is where that commentary grew out of. The editor went over it quite heavily, I must say (I did not speak of morons – but the article does have more flow now).
We begin learning from the moment we’re born. As soon as we hear the first words spoken by our parents, our brains begin processing language. We look around, seeking to take in the world we’ve been so unexpectedly thrust into. It’s a joy for children to learn as anyone who’s seen a six-year-old with a book about dinosaurs knows.
But the initial delight in learning can fade when we find ourselves constrained by the limits of school, when what we study is no longer determined by ourselves. Although our choices open up as we progress through the educational system, it’s harder to recapture that raw pleasure in discovering the new that we once felt.
In China today, a university diploma is seen as one of the best steps to improve oneself and to increase the chances of finding a good job and having a good life. It is one of the great aspects of China’s long history that scholars were held in such high esteem.
Education is still prized highly, and a village boy passing the gaokao (national college entrance exams) will be the pride of his community. Going to university isn’t just about the job opportunities it opens up, but about the social capital accumulated during those four years.
The downside, especially during this time of increasing competition and reckless profiteering, is that it often seems not to be the learning, but only the certificates, which are valued. As a result, we see problems like schools which are created more to make money than to give an education, cheating on tests, and a general focus on exams that harks back to the civil service examinations that once determined who got to be an official and who didn’t throughout China.
All too often, the focus on certificates is so strong that nothing else is seen. Often, I get asked what advice I had for taking the TestDaF, the German equivalent to the TOEFL or IELTS. Students usually learn, and look for, strategies for how to do well. The result of their diligent preparation is answers according to the scheme the exercise books suggest, whether they truly fit or not. What seems not to be understood is that the test means nothing, and it is the knowledge and skill it is meant to measure that counts. My advice to them is always simple: Study the language.
The same misplaced priorities sometimes seem to apply to the universities themselves. They care about their social image, e.g. how the students are behaving, whether they conform to society’s expectations such as how many of them successfully graduate or find employment, more than they care about whether the students are actually learning.
We can see this too in the choice of subjects among students, increasingly drawn to engineering, accountancy, law, business, and other subjects with a clear career path rather than to the humanities or to the pure sciences. In the short term this can be useful, but in the long term a lack of cultural capital and blue-sky research caused by low numbers of students picking the right subjects can badly damage a country.
Universities in China seem determined, once they get hold of a student, to just push them through, regardless of how well they study, whether they write their thesis themselves or copy it entirely. As a result, you get some graduates who get a real education, but also many whose college degree means nothing more than that they spent four years as students. They learn nothing but how to pass exams, fool professors, and get certificates.
In a rapidly changing world, this isn’t good enough. It’s a calamity from the point of view of personal development; if your only idea of learning is what it can get you, you become stunted.
It’s a worse problem for the country, which needs graduates capable of grasping new things and grappling with problems that their college teachers may never have anticipated.
Universities need to be places where students learn how to take delight in learning again, not just sausage factories churning out certified morons.