Cultural Revolution, education


Cultural Revolution, education
Schooling in China during the period 1968–76 underwent radical changes, to an extent rarely witnessed elsewhere in modern times.
In the 1960s, China’s school structure had largely resembled the educational structures of other late-developing countries. Entrance examinations helped determine which of the students were able to enter each higher level of education; the competition among secondary school students was tight; and many secondary schools, especially in the cities, competed to attain a high university entrance rate.
In the aftermath of the 1966–8 Cultural Revolution turmoil, the education line favoured by Mao Zedong destroyed this earlier school structure. A principal motive was to provide better opportunities to young people from proletarian families. Since the children of the pre-revolution intellectuals and merchants were among the academically best-equipped students, the examination system had favoured them. Thus all entrance examinations and all other tests that sorted and stratified students were to be abolished. Schooling was restructured so as to level out the gaps between students from different backgrounds, and school lessons were made considerably easier.
An effort was also made to universalize education in the countryside. Villages that did not contain primary schools were pushed to establish one, largely using their own funds, while prosperous villages that already contained primary schools were encouraged to expand village schooling up through the seventh grade. The content of rural schooling no longer was influenced by efforts to send a fortunate minority of the students onward to higher education. Instead, the children were supposed to be educated solely for lives within the villages, and rural textbooks were revamped in line with this. The quality of teaching by the untrained teachers often was poor, but the rate of literacy rose noticeably.
In the major cities during the 1970s, an education was supplied to all young people through senior high school. Financially this was made possible by shortening the school curriculum from twelve years to nine or ten. Then, so as to sever entirely the links between classroom achievements and subsequent employment, all of the young graduates were assigned directly to jobs, with no account taken of their academic records when devising these job postings. A substantial proportion were allocated to work as ordinary peasants in the countryside, as China’s cities were producing more school graduates than there were urban job openings. The choice of which young people could subsequently go on to a tertiary education was left to the places of work, purportedly on the basis of a young worker’s or young peasant’s on-the-job performance.
Though this new scheme was intended to improve the chances of working-class young people, it had a deleterious effect on a great many students’ classroom behaviour, regardless of class background. According to urban schoolteachers of that era, between 1968 and Mao’s death in 1976 most of their students stopped paying attention in class, and discipline in the schools became a problem. The teenagers reportedly felt it was ‘useless to study’ because success or failure at their school-work would have no bearing on their futures.
Among other things, many of them reportedly felt that a higher education was all but closed off to them. In the absence of entrance examinations or other regularized means for selecting new university students from workplaces, officials had begun pulling strings to secure a university seat for their own children. A substantial percentage of the young people who had been assigned to the countryside and who subsequently got admitted to university came from the families of urban officials, and many of the peasant entrants were closely related to commune or village officials.
Most of the new university students were ill-prepared for tertiary studies, as they had graduated from Cultural Revolution-era schools after only seven to nine years of simplified classes. Mathematics professors often needed to teach simple arithmetic to first-year students who could not add fractions. The university curriculum was also made shorter. Medical training, which had formerly been a six-year course, was reduced to three years by teaching mostly about symptoms and prescriptions, and only for the less exotic ailments. The curricula of many other specialties were reduced to three to three and a half years, and 30 per cent of this scheduled schoolwork was supposed to be devoted to labour and political study.
After Mao’s death in 1976, the new leadership moved quickly to overturn almost all of the innovations in education. The competitive school ladder was reintroduced, with entrance examinations for senior high school as well as university. The new structure stresses academic ‘talent’ even more than the pre-Cultural Revolution system had.
When university entrance examinations were reintroduced in 1977–8, the former secondary students of pre-Cultural Revolution times were allowed to sit them. Unlike the students of the 1970s, this older generation had received a rigorous academic education, and they did disproportionately well in the exams. They were very heavily represented in the universities’ intakes—especially the children of the pre-revolution intellectuals. Chinese education had come full circle.
Pepper, Suzanne (1996). Radicalism and Education Reform in 20th-century China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: chapters 15 and 16.
Unger, Jonathan (1982). Education Under Mao: Class and Competition in Canton Schools, 1960–1980. New York: Columbia University Press. chapters 7–10 .
JONATHAN UNGER

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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