China: Is there a place in education for high culture?

Is there a place for liberal education in today’s modern society, where competition for jobs is fierce, and occupations are increasingly specialized and technical?

An April issue of the Southern Metropolitan Weekend published a letter written by a Year 3 university student from Tianjin, a major metropolis in Northeast China:

我们学校有许多日本留学生。一次偶然的机会,看到他们的课表,课程有书法、京剧、太极…… 我好羡慕他们,因为我从小到大都没有机会接触这些———小学没有条件,初中没有精力,高中没有心思———到大学什么都有了,但学校把机会都给了留学生。万一有天跟日本友人谈论京剧,也许他懂得比我还多呢!

I don’t know what the essence of Chinese culture is.
In my school, there are many Japanese overseas students. By a random chance, I glanced at their curriculum, which included Calligraphy, Peking Opera, Tai Chi…… I envy them. I envy them because from childhood till now, I don’t have a single chance to study these things – I cannot afford it at primary school; I don’t have the energy for it at lower secondary school; I don’t have the mood for it at upper secondary school. Now, everything is ready at university, but the school gives those opportunities to overseas students. One day, if I talk with a Japanese about Peking Opera, perhaps he will know more than I do!

Peking Opera

Xiong Bingqi, responding to this letter in his blog, takes a deeper look at the reasons why local Chinese students lack opportunities to learn about Chinese culture:


Is it the responsibility of the university? After reading this short letter, perhaps your first reaction is that the university is biased towards overseas students such that it does not arrange classes on Calligraphy, Peking Opera and Tai Chi for local students. But it is far from the truth. In fact, some universities have started such classes and associations for students to choose from. However, very few local students take them. Cultural activities also attract little audiences, which is frustrating for organizers.


In today’s environment, students and schools alike focus on technical education due to employment pressures. Liberal education seems to be outdated. Education does serve two purposes. From a utilitarian point of view, it is pragmatic, technical and occupational. From a non-utilitarian point of view, it is exactly the opposite, and this is what we call liberal education. A technical education can help the student to master technical skills needed for a job, while liberal education can raise the quality and potential of the student. In general, a university should focus on improving students’ potential and quality, while a vocational school should emphasize on nurturing occupational skills.

从学校看,在就业率指标的逼迫下,几乎所有大学,[…] 都以就业为导向办学,通识课程被大幅缩减,增加的是技能课程、实践课程和实习环节,而这种调整,还被认为是“教育创新”。[…] 这就不难理解为何在大学中,给留学生的国粹课开得轰轰烈烈,而国内学生却无缘了。对于留学生,大学没有安排其就业的压力,所有安排课程尽可能针对留学生的需求;而留学生到中国留学,了解中国文化是一个重要目的。

Almost all universities are under pressure to achieve employment targets for graduates. As a result, education is predominantly focussed on technical training. Liberal education is substituted for practical skills training. Sadly, this adjustment is portrayed as an ‘innovation.’ […] It is therefore not hard to understand why lessons on high cultures are common among overseas students, but not for local ones. Universities do not have pressures to guarantee employments for overseas students. They can therefore expose them to Chinese high cultures, which is the aim of studying overseas.

But this intellectual deterioration in higher culture is not new, and is not limited to China. Christopher Lasch, American social critic and historian, ascribes the decline of western culture to modern-day capitalism. Commenting on the decline of literacy in America, he writes in The Culture of Narcissism in 1979:

Standards are deteriorating even at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, which can hardly be described as institutions of mass education. A faculty committee at Harvard reports, ‘The Harvard faculty does not care about teaching.’ According to a study of general education at Columbia, teachers have lost ‘their common sense of what kind of ignorance is unacceptable.’ As a result, ‘Students reading Rabelais’s description of civil disturbances ascribe them to the French Revolution. A class of twenty-five had never heard of the Oedipus complex – or of Oedipus. Only one student in a class of fifteen could date the Russian Revolution within a decade.

As we read on, we find a strikingly similar reasoning which is equally applicable to the current situation in China:

In any case, the decline of literacy cannot be attributed solely to the failure of the educational system. Schools in modern society serve largely to train people for work, but most of the available jobs, even in the higher economic range, no longer require a high level of technical or intellectual competence. Indeed most jobs consist so largely of routine, and depend so little on enterprise and resourcefulness, that anyone who successfully completes a given course of study soon finds himself ‘overqualified’ for most of the positions available. The deterioration of the educational system thus reflects the waning social demand for initiative, enterprise, and the compulsion to achieve.

Here, of course, ‘initiative, enterprise, and the compulsion to achieve’ concern high culture ends. But modern industrial society has no demand for this kind of literacy. It is then natural for us to see the increasingly marginalized status of culture, philosophy, history and other humanities subjects in higher education. As we continue the race to the bottom, is there a way out? Is there a place for high culture in today’s society?

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