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Lessons From a Cave Classroom

By Ann Scott TysonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 27, 1992


IN a dank cave in China's windswept Shaanxi Province, two dozen elementary students sit at rickety desks chattering or turning the dog-eared pages of textbooks.

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Daylight filters through the yellowed paper of a single, half-moon-shaped window at the entrance to the dugout school, barely illuminating the blackboard mounted on the wall. There is no electricity, and only a coal stove for heat in the bitter winters. Old newspapers plaster large parts of the earthen walls where the whitewash has worn off.

Promptly at nine, Bai Gunling strides through the narrow wooden doorway of the primitive classroom.

"Good morning!" the youngsters shout in unison, jumping to their feet.

Mrs. Bai walks to the blackboard, draws a line down the middle, and chalks some simple addition problems for the first-graders on her left. Then she turns to the row of second-graders on her right. "Today's language lesson is 'Lenin at the Barber Shop,' " says Mrs. Bai in the thick tones of her native Shaanxi Province. "Do you have any questions on the new characters?"

The scene in Yangjiagou, a poor, dusty village surrounded by barren hills high on China's Loess Plateau, vividly illustrates both the challenge and the hope of lifting millions of Chinese rural youths out of ignorance. Despite China's significant progress in reducing illiteracy among adults in recent years, education officials have expressed alarm over the new illiteracy among Chinese youths, especially in the countryside. More than 180 million people, or nearly one out of five Chinese, are illiterate o r semi- illiterate, official statistics show. Of these, 72 million are relatively young, between the ages of 15 and 40, and more than 90 percent live in rural areas.

Each year, millions more children are dropping out or failing to attend school. In poverty-striken villages like Yangjiagou in Shaanxi and other northwestern provinces, many peasants feel they cannot afford schooling for their children. Poor farm families have found themselves hard-put to pay rising tuitions, since the state turned over the responsibility for funding local education to counties, townships, and villages in an early-1980s reform. Others struggling to shake off poverty view formal education

as irrelevant. Instead, parents seek to put their children to work in the fields as early as possible.

With scarce funds, many remote villages have no schools. Elsewhere, millions of square yards of rural classrooms are classified by the state as "dangerous" and prone to collapse. Basics such as desks, stools, books, and chalk are in short supply. Textbooks are outdated and bound by Marxist doctrine.

Pay for China's 9 million primary and secondary teachers is lower than that of workers in most other main professions. Morale is also low, the number of resignations is high, and the state anticipates a shortage of half a million teachers by the end of the decade.

Political discrimination against teachers lingers from the radical Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when Mao Zedong promoted the slogan "The more you read, the more stupid you become." Hundreds of teachers suffer attacks by angry students, parents, and others each year, and dozens have been killed. Chinese education officials are demanding a law to protect teachers' rights.

At the bottom rung of the teaching profession are the low-paid and academically less qualified minban, or "community sponsored" peasant-teachers like Bai, who make up 40 percent of China's primary school instructors.

Yet Bai's experience shows that even in the most destitute village, a motivated minban teacher can tap children's curiosity, instill a desire to learn, and nurture home-grown initiatives to raise the quality of education.

"I want to popularize the importance of primary education," says Bai, who frequently makes evening calls at villagers' homes to promote her cause. "People who are educated can easily use new farming technology, others can't," she says.