China schools: less rote, more ideology

"Einstein would have failed our Chinese university entrance examinations," said a scientist here recently. He went on to criticize two aspects of the entrance examinations -- criticisms that touch the core of higher education in China. Only 4 percent of high-school graduates can enter institutions of higher learning here.

First, he said, there is too much emphasis on learning by rote. Second, there is too much emphasis on politics -- on the regurgitation of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist thought.

On the first point, many educators say they are trying to get away from unthinking repetition of memorized facts, figures, and formulas.

On the second point, the government and the Communist Party seem determined not to loosen, but rather to tighten, the control they exercise.

Education Minister Jiang Nanxiang, has just given a tough speech at a nationwide conference on ideological and political work at institutions of higher learning. He stressed the importance of recognizing the leadership of the Communist Party, of strengthening and improving the teaching of Marxist-Leninist theory.

Since the Communist Party led by Mao triumphed over Chiang Kaishek's Kuomintang forces on the Chinese mainland in 1949, students and scholars have been told they must be "red" as well as "expert" -- faithful to communism as well as expert in their fields. From time to time the pendulum has swung more toward redness than expertness, or vice versa. During the Cultural Revolution ( 1966-76) it went so far toward redness that expertness almost disappeared.

Since Mao's death and the fall of the "gang of four" headed by his widow, Jiang Qing, the pendulum has gone the other way, making possible remarks such as those made by a scientist friend. However, the present leadership headed by Vice-Chairman Deng Xiaoping is anxious to turn back criticism that insufficient attention is paid to redness as a requirement for scientist and scholars.

Leaders have also been disturbed by a rising tide of restlessness among young people.As evidence they see increasing crime and what they perceive as egotism and selfcenteredness. This they contrast with the selflessness and patriotism of the generation that fought for the victory of the communist revolution.

The media have recenlty cited the case of Feng Daxing, arrested in April this year for murder, as a terrible tragedy from which students and educators should draw a lessons.

Feng, 26 years old, was a brilliant student at the prestigious Peking First Foreign Languages Institute.

An enthusiastic follower of the "gang of four" in the days of the Cultural Revolution, he became bitter and nihilistic after the downfall of the "gang". As an interpreter for the China Travel Service, he had plenty of opportunities for contacts with foreign individuals, magazines, and books -- all of which, the media suggest, increased his disillusionment and cynicism.

Eventually, lacking funds to buy tape recorders and other prized electronic goods, and influenced by Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment," he committed a couple of robberies, during which he stabbed and severely wounded an elderly caretaker, who subsequently died.

The media is pointing to the Feng case partly as an example of the corrupting influence of foreign ideas that have not first been sifted through the rigorous sieve of Marxism-Leninism- Mao thought. The main emphasis, however, is on the need for strengthened political and moral education -- the same point made so strongly by Mr. Jiang.

Yet expertness is being carefully cultivated also, as exemplified by the more exacting standards of university entrance examinations. My scientist friend has a nephew who two years ago passed with a total score of 307. He did miserably in mathematics and science, but scraped through because he got 70 in politics -- by memorizing all the Deng Xiaoping speeches he could find.

"Ai-ya [oh, dear]," he would sigh during his exam-cramming days, "Deng Xiaoping has made still another speech. What shall I do?"

Today it would be impossible for this boy to get into a university with such scores. The latest university exam results, announced at the end of last month (entrance examinations nationwide were held early in July), showed that in science, a successful entrant needed 397 points, only 100 of which could be in politics. The remaining points were distributed widely among mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, Chinese language, and a foreign language.

Would Einstein have made it? My friend still shakes his head. "Rote learning is so ingrained in us. And then we had the 10 years' chaos of the Cultural Revolution, during which we trained no teachers. In science, it's the total academic environment that counts."

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