"The whole movement of life is learning" (Krishnamurti). "To be an act of knowing, then, the adult literacy process must engage the learners in the constant problematizing of their existential situations" (Freire). "Once you learn to read, you will be forever free" (Douglass). "I can learn anything I have the desire to learn" (White, S.G.).

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Education and social Change

As some of you know, last Saturday was the New Year Day in the Lunar calendar, which was also the first day of the Spring Festival in China. 2013 is the year of snake. Happy New year! Wish you all the best in the snake year :)
(This is a special stamp of the snake year)

Wei, the girl who I literally grow up with, visited me from China during the weekend, and we shared a lot about our life in the past half an year, a lot of which was about the difference of education we are receiving now.

Wei is a first-year master student in dermatology in a famous medical school in China. She told me that she loved her major, but she hated some of her classes, including English. I was surprised because I know she is good at English and she enjoys learning it. I asked why, and she gave me two examples to explain her disappointment of her English course. 

First, she said there was not sophistication in the content of her English class. She believed that at the graduate school level, they should analyze the culture and ideas behind the lines in class. However, they were still working on the spelling and meaning of specific words. Second, the evaluation of the class did not motivate her to learn the language, but to recite the text book. In the final test, the instructor chose one text in their book, took several words out of it, and ask students to fill the blanks with those exact words. Although worked harder in many ways, Wei got the same result as others who did nothing more than reciting the text. 

Her experience made me ponder what is the root of this phenomenon.  Why are students in China constantly encouraged to recite the right answer from elementary school to graduate school? After reading the material about Freire, I think the reason lies in how education is supposed to serve the society. 

In China, currently, the purpose of education is to maintain a steady society and to solidify the established governmental control. In other words, education dependents on and serve the government.  Compared with western countries who pursue freedom, the goal of Chinese government is to construct a steady and harmonious society. The only way to achieve the so-called harmony is to eliminate different voices and form a total consensus among the people, and the only way to do that is to eliminate critical thinking from the people's mind through education. 

It is part of human nature to be curious. Little children always ask questions about anything new to them and anything they do not fully understand. They always want to know why things are like this and why it is not like that. They are critical and creative about the answers they get and keep asking more follow-up questions. However, the ability of asking questions is not favorable to maintain a steady society. If all the people question the social hierarchy and the unfairness, and explore new possibilities, it will be way harder to maintain the regime.  Therefore, to shut people's mouths and their minds, students are not encouraged to ask questions or make comments in class. The first criteria of a good class performance is to be quiet and receptive. Students are trained not to think, but to remember. They are told the facts, the values, and the right way to behave. They learn everything, but to think critically about their experience, the society, and how to change the society into a more free and equal place.

I think this kind of education, to some degree, dehumanizes human beings. The very first difference between human and other creatures and objects is that humans can think at a meta-cognitive level. In other words, humans are able to think about the way they think. People should be taught to self-evaluate their thinking process, detect their assumptions and consider multiple perspectives. Unfortunately, in many Chinese schools and universities, students are only taught to remember the right answer from the authority, to do specific jobs, and to function like a machine. They learn to be obedient and be grateful for what the government provides them.  They stops thinking critically about the situation they are stuck in and become satisfied with the current social rules, although they deserve much more that what they actually get. 

Now I begin to understand why I never read Freire in my university, why Google is censored, and why Facebook is banned in China. Any source that encourage different voices and new way of thinking about the social order is forbidden. However, I do not think this situation is going to last long. As said in an old Chinese saying, the people's voice is like a gigantic river, and no one will be able to block it off. Words of freedom are being spread. Numerous students who have studies in developed countries are bring ideas back to our homeland. As one of them,  I hope to help catalyze social changes through education.


  1. Wow Annie I loved your post, I have questions but I don't want to insult you or your culture. I visited China and met some wonderful people. I think your culture is beautiful and ancient and full of history and stories of people. But the Chinese government, that sensors the people's voice and their freedoms, is troubling to me and I think it's fair to say, our "American" way of thinking. Many of us have images of Tiananmen Square in our minds. I visited Tiananment Square. I'm sure you hear degrading things people often say about China or things made in China. I don't like it, but I know I have done it myself. I think it's really aimed at Chinese government that sensors the people, and not the people and their beautiful culture.

    Anyway, if you are willing to share you thoughts, I would love to know more about how you (or anyone) can go about catalyzing social change without being sensored? Jailed? Would you be able to have a blog like this in a university in China? Will you be able to "go back home" and return to your "culture" now that education has changed you? Sorry this is getting personal, but if you are willing to share, I think many students would love to hear your opinions. I think of you as an ambassador from a culture that Americans THINK we understand but we really don't. We only know about the Chinese government and not about the people. I think you should do a TED talk...or maybe a VCU talk! Thanks so much for sharing. Happy new year!

  2. Annie, I enjoyed this very much. It is very insightful. I have done a little reading from Dewey in the past, and it seems to me that he talks about the purpose of education being to do just as you say - to develop critical thinking skills. However, in his day he was critical of public education and the way it was designed to basically just prepare the lower classes for low-wage work needed during the industrial period. Not much is said about that in our society (American) today. I recently read Jonathon Kozol and he talks about how our inner city schools (and in other poverty-ridden areas) basically educate fast food workers and other low-pay positions. Equity is not really an American goal from his stand point, if it were in a country that espouses liberty and equality, things would be different.

    I am glad that you are able to access an education that will allow you to confront these issues in your country. We still have a way to go before all have an opportunity at an equal education in this country, too.

  3. Continuing Susangale's line of thought, in the readings for next week we will learn about the ideologies behind mass literacy campaigns for adults. . So very similar to the domesticating "banking model" Freire writes about, and Annie so eloquently describes...This is not just happening in China, Annie! BTW, Ai Wei Wei has another instalation at the Hirshorn exhibit made from thousands of porcelain crabs, to illustrate the issue of individuality. Here's a link to some images:

  4. I am reading this again after reading everyone's replies. I, too, have an "American" view of China. It seems rather frightening to think that the government has the right to determine what we say and write. Learning to read and write in your friend's school reminds me of the rote work students learning to read used to have in classes here. If I teach Freshman Composition this fall, it will be interesting to see how much the students write correctly and how creative they will be. We are so blessed in this country to have the freedom to create and criticize without threat to personal liberty.


Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on this post. Diverse opinions are welcomed.