This summer, I had the pleasure to visit China for twelve days traveling from Beijing to Shanghai. As part of the trip I visited a school in the city of Xi’an, the site of the Terra Cotta Army, one of the seven historically artistic places in the world.
China is about past and future, one foot in the 20th century and one foot in 21st century, I saw a farmer selling cherries from a bicycle rickshaw in front of an Apple store.
My visit was not just a sit and watch; it involved shared discussion with students, teachers, and parents, including a personal conversation of two high school students and a teacher. By talking and discussing education in China we got to discuss current issues facing them as students. As we talked, I was interrupted by one of them checking their cell phone for a text. I guess fourteen-year olds are the same everywhere and everywhere mobile communication is an important.
The school I visited was the The Atlantic Studies Center, a summer school that “focus(es) on English language knowledge and culture, which helps students… adapt to the international society.” They view being able to speak English the ticket to success, not only in China, but being able to adapt and compete in a global world. Everywhere you look all signs are in simplified Chinese AND English, making English as important as Chinese. Learning English and learning for learning sake is the upmost concern for Chinese parents, students, and teachers.
The push for education and learning there is staggering. In Xi’an, chool goes from 8:30 to 9:00 at night in XI’an, China. They go home for lunch and dinner for an hour each. No meals are served at the school. Students do have homework, but on a limited basis since they attend school too late in evening. The average class size is thirty-five, though it is not uncommon to have a class of forty-five students. School is for learning and achieving, with college as the goal for all students. In Xi’an there are over sixty colleges, with students living in dorms up to eight in a one room. Once they start higher education, due to their strict schedule, course load, and money, they rarely go home. One of the students expressed her goal to attend college in America, more specific Columbia University. The students love learning and what education brings to their families in terms of money and status, since many are only children, given the one-child policy of 1979.
When asked how exciting it is to be so close to the Terra Cotta Army, the students just shrugged and sighed, ‘Yes, I’ve have been there on a field trip.” Many of the older Chinese in XI’an have not been to the excavation, considering it “too commercialized.” They long for the peaceful small farming village before the discovery of the statutes in1974. The young yearn for the big cities and what a global society has to offer to them.
Of course this is not happening all over China, since 70% still live on farms. But with 1.3 billion people, 30% of 1.3 billion exceeds the entire population of America. That is why we need to step up, transform education, and make education an important goal for all our children. If we don’t, we risk going back a century watching the Chinese place their foot proudly within the 21st century.