China Power

China’s Real Learning Disability

Learning disorders like dyslexia are less of a barrier to Chinese students than some of their parents’ attitudes.

This semester in our school’s English class, we read and discussed the Atlantic Monthly article ‘Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor,’ in which Caitlin Flanagan writes:

‘(I had no idea that) parents, who had always been lovely and appreciative when I was teaching their children, would become irritable and demanding once I was helping them all select a college. Granted, every year there were families who impressed me with their good cheer and resourcefulness in the face of the thorny admissions climate. 

'But invariably a core group seemed to be teetering on the brink of emotional collapse.  What I was observing, I later discovered, was a common phenomenon among the families of college-bound students of a certain social class, one aptly described by the psychologist Michael Thompson in a justly famous 1990 essay titled “College Admission as a Failed Rite of Passage.” College admissions, Thompson wrote, “can make normal people act nutty, and nutty people act quite crazy.”  Bingo. I had inherited a Rolodex full of useful phone numbers (the College Board, a helpful counselor in the UCLA admissions office), but the number I kept handing out was that of a family therapist. “Maybe he could help you a bit,” I would say gently after yet another unexpectedly combustive family meeting.’

This article must have been on the back of my students’ mind when their parents flipped out in our semester-end parent-teachers meeting. Once they were handed their child’s first semester transcript, a few parents were shocked that their child’s grades were below average. One father was so angry that he screamed at his daughter until she started crying. Some parents blamed the teachers for the poor grades, and threatened to pull their child out of the programme. The teachers became frazzled, and the students, who were so full of life and energy in the classroom, adopted a distant and bored look in the face of their parents’ outbursts.

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I tried to put a positive spin on all this. I told one parent that their son was confident and charismatic, athletic and musical – he had diverse talents and interests, and that’s probably why he lacked the focus and discipline necessary for tests. I praised another student as mature, thoughtful, and self-assured, and pointed out that the fact that she was a careless and sloppy writer now wouldn’t necessarily stop her from one day running a successful public relations firm.

The irony of all this is that both these students were happy and thriving. One was helping manage our daily newspaper, while the other was involved in a school play. But I somehow got the distinct impression that some parents would’ve been happier with their children being straight A drug-abusing kleptomaniacs.       

What I didn’t tell the parents was that I suspected two students had a learning disability. They processed and interpreted information abnormally, and they couldn’t focus in class because they literally couldn’t conceive the term ‘focus.’ That means they’ll never do well on the SAT no matter how much they study for it, but it doesn’t mean they can’t be creative and have the drive to succeed non-conventionally.  (Those with dyslexia are stymied in school, but in life they often excel as entrepreneurs and artists.) 

Learning disabilities are perhaps an exaggerated phenomenon in the West, but in the test-taking culture that is China its existence isn’t even recognized. Each year thousands of creative and driven students are sorted out of Chinese schools because they aren’t good enough at math, a terrible loss to both society and to these families. 

We can’t make students excel at math, but we can create an environment where students can excel in what they’re interested in. So it’s important to encourage parents to embrace their children’s distinctiveness, rather than demanding they conform to China’s rigid narrow and ultimately useless definition of intelligence.

But most parents – even those of high-achieving students – weren’t happy. The sharpness of logic can’t overcome the numbness of prejudice. I think it’s important for students to learn to read Atlantic Monthly articles, but many parents would rather their child cram for the SAT.  

Caitlin Flanagan wrote that the American middle-class’s unexamined prejudices, anxieties, and insecurities fuel the college admissions frenzy. That’s even truer of Beijing’s middle-class. Having achieved their success more on guanxi and on luck than on ability and brains, Beijing’s middle class is determined to solidify their position with an American college degree for their child – no matter the financial costs to the family (and the resulting psychologist costs to their child). 

Yes, it’s true that China’s recent economic emergence created untold wealth for those most ready to capture it: those who could back up their ambition with the proper guanxi and credentials. But as China becomes more of a competitive global market economy over the next decade, guanxi and an American college degree won’t be enough because there will be too many people with those assets – real-life skills and self-drive will matter even more.    

But, of course, people tend to view the future through the lens of the past. 

The inability to focus in class doesn’t have to be a bar to achievement. Pride and prejudice is far more disabling.