International Opinion

Of China, Nicholas Kristof and leisure

By Deborah Meier — June 13, 2007 6 min read
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Dear Diane,

I’m home at last. I survived our three-week jaunt with great pleasure. Shanghai to Hangshou, to Guilin, to Xi’An to Beijing—combining “business” with pleasure with my son Nicholas Meier (also an educator) and my colleague Eleanor Duckworth of Harvard. The hardest part was the leg from San Francisco to Boston, which took nearly 15 hours and required flying first to LA!

It was all amazing. I feel as though I have seen the future and it leaves me both troubled and curious.

I spent time with wonderful, kind, gracious and interesting people. Including people from a wide range of middle-class backgrounds and ages and prior experiences. We talked extensively with a woman who spent the Cultural Revolution “exiled” with her family who had surprisingly mixed views about the experience.

Her pain in part comes now from the fact that the valuable part of it has been abandoned and the worst ignored. She feels the experience forever changed her insight into poverty and the plight of most people—but that in fact present-day China is more oblivious than ever to the gaps between rich and poor.

A controlled media gives the Chinese an advantage when it comes to confusing data. I was told that education is officially universal from 1st to 9th grade, that kids are not left back, and also that many kids never go to school due to various conditions in the countryside, being “migrants"—and thus “uncounted’’ in the cities—and/or not being able to afford school fees. When pressed about what happens if you can’t afford the fees, some insisted they were low enough to make no difference and others that the kids just didn’t go to school.

I met a wealthy Chinese philanthropist—whose husband is both a Communist Party member and a private investment banker—who was impressed by the idea of publicly-funded free school breakfasts and lunches for the poor. Her private foundation is now providing it on a small scale as a charity.

The schools I visited were model schools, although I’m not sure they accept all children. (As in NYC, it’s hard to get straight answers to the question of entrance requirements.) Class sizes were huge—45-50.

Although these particular schools are working with the local university on introducing “western” progressive ideas they haven’t gone very far. The idea of Progressive that we saw practiced was presently limited to doing things in smaller groups using one’s hands—even if everyone was doing the same thing (like copying pictures of butterflies from books). The children were delighted to meet us, open and friendly, and had command of some decent English.

Half of the kids who take the final high school exams—which were occurring while we were there—pass them to go on to some post-secondary schooling. (The streets were filled with parked cars around high schools as the more privileged parents hovered there to pick up the kids at the end of the day’s exams.) However, the exams are praised as an essential anti-corruption tool by many we talked to.

But I don’t trust the numbers any more than (Mayor Michael) Bloomberg’s claims for NYC, or (Jack) Jennings’ claims for the effect of NCLB.

Nor am I clear whether the announced 50 percent pass rate is based on a pre-fixed rate or the outcome of a pre-fixed score. I think it’s the former. To my surprise I was told most of the tests are now multiple-choice. The focus on memorization is considered a real crisis and the reason people like me were invited to China. However, since the exams remain based on memorization Government talk about innovation is not taken too seriously, some educators told me. Sounds familiar!

Nicholas Kristof’s account in The New York Times is certainly different than what I heard from those I talked with. (Note: Kristof’s column is available only through TimesSelect.) They claimed that rural schooling was of very low quality, sometimes barely existent. There’s a teacher shortage and it’s particularly hard to get teachers to work in rural schools. Fewer resources and school fees have a greater impact in the countryside as well. The biggest incentive for many to move to the cities is to get their kids educated, and even then.... Both anecdotal stories and official data make arriving at conclusions difficult. E.g. While the official population given for Shanghai is 12 million, I was told it is actually nearer 21 million if one includes foreigners and migrants—the latter rural Chinese who are in Shanghai semi-illegally.

Why the futuristic image? It was my first reaction to Shanghai. It seemed like something out of “Star Wars” or some other sci fi movie with its bizarre and amazing skyline, the variety of skyscraper shapes, the lighted buildings in which advertising reaches a scale unknown anywhere else (as yet), and an amazing system of above-ground highways. Elevated highways criss-cross the city in every direction with huge ramps curling and snaking everywhere. Underneath cars, taxis, buses, bicycles—including rickshaw-style truck-bikes piled high with everything imaginable—competing in a wild semi-rule-less and ruthless fashion. Plus smog. A woman I met who grew up in Beijing says that in her youth there were blue skies in Beijing of a sort she never sees anymore. (Still there was enough sun for me to get a burnt nose.)

The historical sights—Great Wall, terra-cotta soldiers, gardens, temples, mosques, the Emperor’s palaces, boat rides—were one more glorious than the next. We traveled by train, plane, boats of all sorts, subways (in Shanghai and Beijing) and cars. And walking, walking, walking. Plus eating, eating, eating. We visited a friend at her “country” home on the outskirts of Shanghai, and had a home-delivered Chinese dinner in the midst of a bamboo forest.

All of this reminds me again that one of the purposes of life is leisure. So I’m less worried, Diane—from a moral viewpoint—about the fact that industrialization, modern technology, strong unions, democracy and extensive education have led to, and been fueled by, a longing for leisure. (For context, see Diane Ravitch’s piece in The Huffington Post.) I think leisure and security—for ordinary people—is one of the great triumphs of human history. The purpose of a strong economy is precisely that it enables more and more of its citizens to enjoy the pleasures of the mind and body, without fear of losing out in life’s race. I realize such an idea—of ordinary people belonging to the leisure class, may be doomed—for a century or so. But I regret it. And hope we can keep the ideal alive, rather than be forced to retreat back to 19th Century conditions of labor.

But nothing that I saw on my trip was any more scary as omens of the future than the story I read about Bloomberg and Company introducing “capitalist” incentives for schoolchildren in NYC. No more M&Ms, but cash for improved test scores. What next?

A final note on China. The only time I was aware of “constraint” on free speech was on an occasion that reminded me of the atmosphere at local American school district meetings—where disagreement is quickly shushed—rather than of a totalitarian regime. Still, I am aware that many forms of disagreement—organized and open—are taboo; much is censored (including Wikipedia) and much not talked about. The penalty for trying to organize in the workplace is prison and torture (see Letter from China by Jehangir S. Pocha in The Nation, June 4) and income differentials outdo our own outrageous ones. Standing in Tiananmen Square is an awe-inspiring experience and a reminder.

I remain a skeptic, even about my own eyewitness account above, and yet a long-term optimist about possibilities. The latter out of sheer conviction, the former a lifetime habit.


P.S. Diane, a side note. I am not unmindful of NAEP. I just would like us to use all forms of testing honorably—to gather accurate data Re. NAEP, it’s the cut-off scores that I find most objectionable.

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