China issues report card for 2005 college grads
China's supposed to be school crazy. Student uniforms. Getting whacked with rulers. Segregated kindergartens for over-achievers. Success-or-suicide exams that decide where next, Hell or New Haven. To test these stereotypes, the Society for Academic Performance Standards issued this report card for China's university class of 2005:
Students come in four grade levels, all passing.
Level A. They respect our stereotypes. They sit in the front rows and pay attention. They have an above average but not class-topping scholastic aptitude, to use a term from the Portland (Oregon) Public School system. Any aptitude deficiency is compensated by attitude: never skip class, delay homework or tune out a lecture. Memorize the answer to anything that might show up on the final exam. Parents, some teachers and the rest model Communist Party members, have taught their children study is the safest route to success. These students may be cloistered to the point of occlusion. They follow the path of state propaganda, which they can usually recite down to the last piece of subtext, such as, "Beijing's tall buildings are a sign that China is advancing socially." (I heard this line from a senior student applying to U.S. grad schools.) Though they score in the 90s, they don't have a feel for what it means to work, a concept written off as "entering society," or understand the dirty unfairness of human relations off campus. They don't intern or even hash in the dining hall to earn a few extra yuan. So they tend to get dusted after graduation, unless they head off that embarrassment by getting into graduate school.
Level B. They sit just behind the front rows, come to class late if at all but usually pay attention once in their seats, though not always. They score in the top 30 or 40 percent of the class, say around 80 or 82 points total. Most want to learn the subject but realize endless study won't get them where they want after graduation. Career-related work off campus explains their absences and lapses in attention. (One student I had worked past midnight at China Central TV; during our 8-10 a.m. classes she'd sleep on the desk until called on to answer a question.) Scholastic aptitudes vary, but an understanding that only experience teaches -- and establishes connections for future jobs -- does not vary. A dash or a dollop of counterrevolutionary thought addles most of their minds. Conditioned to think past the four classroom walls, they ask themselves why some of their teachers skip class to earn money outside school, wonder how scholarships get awarded to academic under-achievers (the answer can be found in little red envelopes) and realize through off-campus jobs that modern China has departed from the principles of force-fed Marxist-Maoist lessons they've attended 18 months total since middle school. These observations, sometimes parentally confirmed, suggest that reality deviates from academically induced expectations, a strong hint that not all's right side up in Chinese society. An after-class beer with many of them brings comments such as "you know, teacher, China is a dark place."
Level C. These students sit in the back of the classroom, unless their friends happen to sit somewhere else, read papers, send mobile phone text messages or just talk over the teacher. They have advanced scholastic aptitude but don't take school seriously because school once took a crap on them. Maybe a teacher routinely humiliated them in class, or they lost a scholarship to someone less qualified on paper. A guy I taught last year just resented the school's random class planning, and sudden changes in plans, and disputed a series of dorm-dining hall details, such as planned but unannounced power outages and rising food prices. You could tell from his occasional outbursts of interest in particular lessons that he used to care, but he couldn't make passion a routine anymore. A number of class-C students have anti-scholastic attitudes, meaning they're smart enough to see cracks in lesson plans and confident they can challenge teachers. A guy asked me last year at the end of our class's first lecture, "Excuse me, you never introduced yourself. Who are you?" (A teacher can kick some of these students back into fair territory by being competent or responsible.) Smart but cynical, this level scores in the 70s or so by cheating their way through high-value assignments.
Level D: Also sit in the back of the classroom, unless their friends happen to sit somewhere else, read papers, send mobile phone text messages or just talk over the teacher. But they never cared about class or ever will. These students intentionally score about 65 or 70, enough to pass, and don't work anywhere part time, because influential family members have already secured a stable entry into society, such as a desk job in daddy's government office. The only hitch, baby needs a college degree to make the desk job hire look legit. For babies whose college admission test scores didn't add up to scholastic aptitude, parents might buy the school a Mercedes, as one did where I teach, to ensure enrollment. Set loose with no academic pressure but a continuing allowance for designer clothes, 20-dollar hairdos and camera-equipped mobile phones, these students somersault through fours years as playboys, pretty boys, mama's boys and their female equivalents.
Level F: Doesn't exist. Those who fail are later assigned passing grades by the university administration.