Education, Privilege and Deserving

my rather awesome ETP H-A class of first-years

This is sort of confused and convoluted…but I’m super-busy and just wanted to get something up on the blog. Enjoy (or not).

Since its inception eight years ago, the Rebgong ETP program (where I teach) has remained small. Each year, the Huangnan #2 Nationalities Middle School has selected approximately thirty students for what it labels the “English Class” and what we call ETP. These students receive ten or more hours per week of English instruction with the program’s two foreign teachers, and have access to a wide range of resources – from an extensive library to a computer lab to an arsenal of rentable DVD’s – to facilitate language learning.

This pattern continued more or less intact until this year, when everything suddenly went haywire. In summer discussions with the school administration, we learned that they were thinking of cutting the third-year class from ETP (“their English is not good enough; they don’t deserve the English class”) to admitting eighty new freshman students – more than twice as many first-years as the program had ever handled.

Brooke, through her superior powers of politicking, managed to get the administration to keep the third-years within the ETP program, though with reduced weekly hours of English instruction. But despite everything we attempted after returning from summer holiday, we couldn’t get the administration to budge from the idea of accepting two new freshman classes. We managed to cut one of the classes to thirty students, but the other class, being entirely funded by an outside organization, was – in the words of the principal – “already fixed solid.”

As it has turned out, teaching two freshman classes has been fine, if a bit hectic. But unexpectedly, I’ve found that being able to compare the two classes side-by-side has helped me further explore the strange yet intimate interconnection between education and privilege in this country.

This topic is not one unfamiliar to me. While teaching in Xining last year, it was abundantly clear to me that it was children of privilege who made modern China’s worst students. My Thursday schedule had made this especially vivid, as I went directly from teaching a class of scholarship students at the university to a high-school class filled with the sons and daughters of Xining’s (and other cities’) economic and political elite. The university students, due to their realization that this was their sole opportunity for upward mobility, were incredibly motivated and hardworking; meanwhile, the wealthier students at the high school made it clear on many occasions that they didn’t need to pass my class (or high school in general) as their parents had already ‘set things up’ for them – a set-up which gave them the opportunity to be terrible students.

This inverse relationship between education and privilege was so profound that (with several notable exceptions) it was even visible within classes at the middle school. It was clear whose parents were lower or middle class, the restaurant or shop owners who had scraped together the cash to send their child to the best school, as these students were the hardest working in every class. I had one student whose family, recently evicted from their small noodle shop, was working on construction sites – every family member, from the grandmother to the elder sister – to support his education in the hope he would go abroad for college. Whether it was because he knew this was his only opportunity to get ahead, or because he felt guilty for his family’s sacrifice on his behalf, this kid was one of my best students. One of the worst was the son of a minister in the Qinghai government.

When I first started to understand this privilege-education cleavage, I was more than a little shocked. In the United States, I’m accustomed to believing the generalization that our nation’s problem schools are most often those located in intensely poor areas – schools whose students come from poverty-stricken backgrounds. These schools are comparatively lacking in funding, to be sure, but many Chinese schools (including my own) are worse off in everything from facilities to the quality of the teaching staff. So why (in my personal experience) are poor students much less motivated in America than in China? Why this educational apathy among the children of the privileged? this intense, competitive motivation among the poor? And why is America not quite like this?

I can think of a number of contributing factors, most of which have to do with China’s educational and political systems, as well as its overall level of development. First, China – in all of its chaos and glory – functions because a massive convoluted network of personal connections. While the United States partially functions the same way, it nevertheless has meritocratic pathways for anyone with the talent and tenacity to become part of the nation’s elite. But in China, the elite is in many ways hereditary. If your family is considered insiders, you will receive all manner of executive privilege across the land. In America, this kind of practice would be labeled ‘graft’ or ‘corruption’, and, though it exists, carries the potential for political scandal and public humiliation.

Another reason for this divide is a difference in cultural attitudes towards education. In China, families generally place a much greater value on education as a means of advancement than in America. Entire families transform themselves into factories of motivation and often coercive (and guilt-laden) educational support, taking additional jobs to support students who they see as their family’s future hopes and reminding students of what they must do for their family. There is a profound sense in poorer families that any student afforded educational opportunities takes on a binding duty to use their education to improve the family’s standard of living. Wealthier students in China may be repeatedly told of their need to make their family proud, but the pride of parents little compares to the feeling of guilty privilege that must be employed in the service of necessity.

Enough semi-academic crap for today; I want to go back to Rebgong, where I started. In the two weeks since we’ve started teaching the first-year students, I’ve noticed this education-privilege relationship evidenced in our two accepted classes. The scholarship class is filled with incredibly bright, motivated students who quickly follow directions and are always focused on the task at hand. The other class, though it includes many bright students, is not nearly as focused – and much harder to keep on task. They are not truly difficult kids along the lines of my students from last year, but a number of them bear little comparison to any other students in our program.

Why did we take this second class? While the additional class is likely fattening the school’s wallet, I am left considering the ideas of personal motivation and of deserving. The ETP Rebgong program has been incredibly successful in past years, mostly due to small class sizes and the amazing drive of the students. If students lack this drive, is it something we can give them? Or is it something that needs to come from inside? And if they lack this motivation, do they deserve a place in this club-like, high level program? With whom would we replace them? And can we really separate the ‘deserving’ from the ‘non-deserving’? In education, does that word hold any meaning? Is there no child who does not deserve quality in education?

It is unfortunate that we can’t offer such a unique program to every student. But in Rebgong, if we are to offer an elite program, I would argue that student motivation – and consequently, here, lack of privilege – is as good a differentiating factor as any.

So what should we do about the non-scholarship ETP class? I have no idea. But things, as they always do, will sort themselves out in the end.



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