As a foreign teacher with six years of experience in China, I'm aware that education in the country is a vast national enterprise. The statistics are staggering. China boasts, to begin with, the largest teaching force in the world. There are about 12 million teachers, with rural teachers making up 70 percent of the total.
And the total number of 225 million primary, secondary, and post-secondary students in China approaches the population of the US.
From small and often under-equipped rural elementary schools serving farm communities to the world-class giant universities in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, China's huge education system must fulfill a large and highly diverse set of needs.
At the university level where I teach, the classroom is a microcosm of China and its development. Many of my students - often the majority - hail from rural areas where the majority of China's 1.3 billion people still live. In a class exercise, describing their goals, these students say things like: "My family members are farmers, and we were quite poor during my childhood. My parents saved all their money, and did not even buy good food, so that I could study in a university like this one. When I graduate, I want to earn a good salary, so that I can pay them back, take care of them, and give them a good life."
While teaching in the Chinese Academy of Science Graduate School in Beijing, I was pleased to see these farmers' daughters and sons studying subjects like advanced chemistry, physics, and computer science.
Another way that university classrooms represent China as a whole is that members of all the country's 56 ethnic groups can be found here. One of the most remarkable experiences I have had in China is the complete lack of racial, ethnic and religious bias among my students. I have never heard any student - or any other Chinese person, for that matter - express any bias toward any of China's ethnic communities or any other race or group. What's more, students from China's different ethnic groups mingle freely with one another, and the ultimate test of non-bias can be seen when they date or marry without any obstacles.
This experience is in marked contrast to my experience in the Western world, where racial, religious and other forms of bias still play a role in the thinking and practices of many people. I have sometimes reflected that this openness toward all ethnic groups and people must be a product of China's core socialist values, with their emphasis on universality and friendship among people.
After arriving in China, I was surprised to find that minority ethnic groups from the Tibet and Xinjiang Uygur autonomous regions and other areas get substantial bonus points in the national college entrance exam, making it easier for them to enter good universities.
The Western media sometimes reports that Chinese youths have become somewhat stridently nationalistic. But while teaching thousands of Chinese youths, I have never found this to be the case.
Though my students bear a natural amount of love for their country, I have found them refreshingly free of the "my country is the greatest country in the world" notions typical in certain Western societies. Quite opposite to this attitude, my students have generally seemed well aware that no country is paragon of only knowledge and virtue, and seem eager to embrace the best of Chinese and non-Chinese knowledge and culture.
In keeping with tradition, Chinese students are generally polite and deferential toward their teachers and the subject they are teaching. This behavior is a welcome change from classrooms in the West, where impolite, rude or impulsive behavior is common.
While personally pleasant for teachers, these respectful Chinese attitudes have a negative side, too. They may tend to block the willingness to consider new ideas - or to go against established views or ways of doing things, which is essential for innovation and creativity.
When I first landed in China, for example, I proposed to some of my students that China could slowly establish a government medical insurance program to ensure that all Chinese people, especially poor farmers and migrant workers, received medical care. I was repeatedly told by students that this new idea was "not possible", China is a "developing country and can do this only in 20 or 30 years from now", and the like. A few years later the Chinese government introduced just such a medical insurance program, demonstrating that it was "quite possible".
Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident. I have since found students, and too often their Chinese teachers as well, automatically criticizing new ideas as "not practical", rather than considering how to overcome the obstacles to implementing them.
Traditional Chinese education puts stress on rote learning and passive acceptance of knowledge transmitted from teachers and books. While such an instruction has a place, there is also a need for exercises that challenge students to develop their own views, expand their imagination, consider new ideas and learn the "constructive thinking" necessary to find ways to overcome the obstacles to making even "impossible ideas" possible.
Equally rewarding has been the experience of sharing Western culture with Chinese students, while learning about theirs. Above all, I'm glad to have had the chance - in a small way - to help students, many from modest rural homes, enhance their knowledge and prepare for a better life for themselves and their families.
The author is a teacher in Beijing's Chinese Academy of Sciences Graduate School, and was helped by his wife, Chen Lijuan, to write this article.
(China Daily 09/10/2009 page9)