June 7 and 8 are the two days that China’s senior three students (twelfth graders) have lived the first 18 years of their lives for, and whatever anxiety, neurosis, and insanity that has simmered beneath the surface among students, parents, and teachers this past year will now reach its climax.
Everyone’s in agreement: the national college entrance examination (gaokao) robs Chinese students of their curiosity, creativity, and childhood. So as gaokao students, with their thick textbooks and memory pills, sequester themselves in four-star hotels while their parents prowl the neighbourhood for construction noise and rambunctious restaurant patrons, now might be a good time to devise an alternative to the gaokao.
In his book A Theory of Justice, the political philosopher John Rawls conducted a thought experiment in which people, shrouded under a ‘veil of ignorance,’ were asked to devise a new social structure to live under. Unsure of their lot in this new society, people would be risk-averse, John Rawls assumed, and would agree to a society that ‘maximised the minimum,’ which is to say a society that aimed for equality, fairness, and social mobility.
So let us return to John Rawls’ ‘original position’ and ‘veil of ignorance,’ gather 1.3 billion Chinese into a nice conference room, and see if we can all work together to negotiate an alternative to the gaokao.
Because everyone in the room has Chinese cultural values and lives in the not too pleasant realities of modern China, there’ll be certain constraints that this new education system must consider. First, every Chinese can agree that this new education system ought to be a meritocracy and that the most diligent and brightest students ought to reach the top.
Second, every Chinese can agree that China has limited education resources for too many people; while it would be nice to educate everyone to the best ability of the state as is the case in Finland and Singapore, China is too poor to do so. Third, China is a guanxi-based society with little respect for institutions, processes, and laws; whatever new system that everyone agrees to must be able to resist the pull and power of the well-connected and wealthy. Fourth, Chinese can agree that education is first and foremost about social mobility (rather than about national economic development), about the opportunity for anyone who is willing to work hard to rise in society.
So, given all this, we can now begin constructing an alternative to the gaokao.
First, this alternative must be an objective indicator of a student’s academic performance. College admissions committees or admission interviews would be unacceptable because it would offer too much power to individuals and institutions that can’t be trusted. No one would agree to a college lottery whereby qualified students are just randomly assigned a college. And artificial intelligence technology hasn’t yet advanced to the point where computers can replace college admissions officers. Thus, the only alternative seems to be a series of tests.
But even with tests we need to consider what we want to test. If we were to test writing and thinking ability, then that would mean an automatic bias towards the children of well-educated parents who have from an early age discuss books, current affairs, and travel plans with their child over the dinner table. Moreover, to teach thinking and writing (or any soft skills such as creativity and collaboration) would require highly specialised and highly professional teachers who would naturally congregate in expensive private schools or prestigious public schools in Beijing and Shanghai. And if this were the case, China would just be like the United States, where education is monopolised by the self-perpetuating and self-interested educated elite, and social mobility through education becomes a distant dream for everyone else.
But China has 800 million peasants who depend on schooling as their child’s only chance out of the rice fields. Rural children don’t have access to the libraries, well-trained teachers, and intellectual spaces that wealthy cities can offer — all they have is their willingness to work hard to improve themselves. If Chinese believe in fairness and social mobility, then tests must be more about the student’s ability to memorise the textbooks he has access to, rather than about his ability to think critically, which is the result of making the most of a special set of resources available only to society’s elite.
So, if we were to start from scratch and try to build an alternative to the gaokao, we would end up with as the only viable alternative…the gaokao. That’s what a lot of people tend to forget: that given the complete lack of trust in each other and in institutions, given the stifling poverty that most Chinese find themselves in, and given China’s endemic corruption and inequality, the gaokao, for better or worse, is the fairest and most humane way to distribute China’s scare education resources.
Yes, the images of children memorising and regurgitating away for 18 years may be disheartening. The poor eyesight, bad posture, and crushing of imagination, independence, and initiative will haunt them for the rest of their lives. But we must remember that many of these children and their families find themselves fortunate just to be able to dream of a better life.