Ethical Education: China, USA Schooling

This week, a delegation of Chinese students came to my home town (Middlebury, Vermont).   And a China Daily article described USA foreign exchange students and their observations at a Chinese recycling plant.

The Vermont article was written by Andrew Stein of the Addison Independent.   "Vermont Awes Chinese Students" sounded potentially exaggerated.   But it turns out Andrew is a returned Fulbright Scholar who taught for a year in Chinese public schools.  I shared the article with Adam Minter at ShanghaiScrap blog (who's returning now, having turned in the final draft of his upcoming book).  Adam said "This is spot on. I've been around a lot of kids who study in the US, and they all come back saying these things. They can't believe it. "

The Vermont article basically says Chinese schools are pounding the kids in a pressure cooker of catch-up-ball education.   They attend class from 7AM to 10PM, often 7 days per week.  The entire education boils down to a single test, the gaokao or "high test" at the end of the senior year which, the kids are told, will define their whole lives.
For the past five years, the Chinese government mouthpiece China Daily has regularly reported that suicide is the number-one killer of Chinese teens.
And Chinese teens don’t have much time to sleep, as 16-year-old Lingyun Zhang, who is staying with Middlebury’s Sarah Kearns, pointed out.
“In America, high school students can sleep in late,” said Zhang. “But in China, since we’re high school students, we have a lot of homework and we go to bed very late and wake up very early every day.”
With little time to sleep, Chinese youth can also forget about extracurricular activities, said Qian.
“American students have a lot of time to play and do extracurricular activities,” she said. “Chinese students don’t play much. They spend most of their time studying chemistry and physics.”
The article observes interesting differences in dating, sex education, and pride.  The China Daily article is more of a puff piece about "American students make polite and inane comments on Chinese food and culture" (it's a VOA type of government paper, after all). 

Now, as a parent of 3, and a former junior high schoolteacher in Cameroon Africa (1984-86), I have some opinions on the Chinese school model vs. the American.  First, there are some American kids (immigrant kids from the two Spelling Bee movies I watched) who are workaholics who treat high school like a grueling life-alterning life-or-death 100% grade fire drill.   And there are no doubt some Chinese kids who take the Ferdinand-the-bull approach and take time to paint and sniff the flowers.   

But the pressure is different - as it was in Cameroon, where you were lucky to get a seat in the classroom.  A teacher friend of mine in Vermont described kids in his VT public school language class as talking openly, texting, and completely ignoring the class they were in.  And many kids appear to use most of their free time playing video games.   Should American school be more like Chinese school if we are going to compete?

China is trying to play catch up, we aren't.  We can't force wartime economy rations on people without a cause.  But if you are as concerned, as a parent, as some of the columnists who deplore the decline in American schools, here's the trick.  No... it's not increasing teacher pay (sorry).  No, it's not Khan Academy, not exactly.  No, it's not home schooling.  Well, actually it is, but not full time.

My kids also learn from 7AM until 10PM.  But I would not entrust all their education to the government system.  I think the average Chinese kid may beat the average American kid, but maybe not mine.   Because I "home school" in the second shift.  

All three of our kids are completely fluent in two languages, and two are conversational now in a third.  They have been to cities in four continents.  They have broken bread at our dinnertable with asylum seekers from Burkina Faso, with exchange students from Mexico, with guests from China, and eaten in homes in Egypt.  I teach them logic (something I think is missing from the USA curriculum) and world history.  We spend time on family history, talking about friends and acquaintance's lives as lessons.  They don't read as much as I did but read a lot, and they do far more sports (gymnastics, skiing, and especially SOCCER) than I ever did.

Point:  Time out of school can be a good thing if it is time well spent.   

The challenge is to honestly measure how time is spent.  If the kid is bored to death in a classroom exposed to government groupthink from teachers who are afraid to let kids think outside the box, then they have wasted part of their day.   If the American kids come home and turn on the boob tube and only read mandatory books from school (To Kill a Mockingbird, great, but I've got 12 more classics on the shelf when they get home), they have also wasted part of the day.

I was lucky.  I had a chance to be bored, and exposure to things worth learning.  I didn't have video games or 50 channels of TV.  I experimented with drugs with other kids who were bored.  But I travelled to Europe, I worked in the garden, got a job after school, and my mom threw books on my bed like the Tao tse Ching, and Bhagavad Gita and Plato's Republic.  And thank God, I was bored enough in Fayetteville Arkansas to read them.   And when friends were competing for how much drugs they were brave enough to take, I could compete with other experiences "outside the box".

My kids have a bigger challenge because they have Facebook and laptops competing for their time, but at least those are socially interactive.  They don't have Xbox etc.   I don't consider them to be "not learning" when they are not in school, and I don't assume they ARE learning the whole time they are IN school.   

I think they will stand their ground against the army of nameless, faceless viet cong soldiers which is how the Mainstream American press describes Mexico, China, Mideast and Africa... it's something South Park gets amazingly right when they describe Canada.  No one I know gets the joke.  South Park isn't doing a parody of Canadians, it's a parody of American understanding of foreign countries.

End of parenting digression... back to Recycling policy:

The official China Daily paper works in a visit to a Chinese recycling facility where the Americans appear amazed to see plastic bottles separated from glass and tin cans says a little something about the "normalization" of recycling relations.   Most Americans have no clue what it looks like in one of their own scrap yards.   Recycling actually looks kind of the same, we all separate our HDPE bottles from our newspapers.

Headline:  Chinese put pants on one leg at a time.  Americans shocked.

It's part of the normalization of the perspectives on "Chinese Recycling Practices" which were turned by environmental hyperbole into a pariah of recycling.  Those who play the system, Chinese protectionists, rare earth supply folks, USA shredders, etc. made a lot of hay on what is basically just scrap recycling.  Proper recycling in the free market has a one-step instruction book (don't set stuff on fire, it's frowned upon).

As an experiment ten years ago, I collected 3 photos of TV repair shops... two in the USA and one in Africa.  As a trick, the African photo was a south African white guy repairing a projector screen, and the USA TV repair photos were from Alabama (one with a black repairman, the other just a mess of a shop with no person visible, looked like something out of Hoarders show).   It is interesting to see what assumptions people will state from a photo based on the race of the people.  I've also mentioned before about a Northeast recycling yard which alledgedly replaced its hispanic and black workers with Polish women in white smocks on the sorting line during tours... I know that the people touring the MRFs with me thought that looked like a "cleaner" yard than the one with the minorities.

Warning... if your kids grow up speaking French and use words like "fallacy" and "Siddhartha" and describe the history of laudromats and gas stations in the USA and how recycling will one day be just as boring, they'll be labelled a bad communicator, which can be a gateway to blogging.

* Kennedy's Children, a readers theater perfomance I played in during high school in Arkanas.

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