China’s wealthy parents are fed up with state-run education and are turning to “progressive” Western alternatives, like Montessori, Waldorf, and unschooling:
Parents hope to spare their children the dull, stressful grind of the state education system by finding them something more laid-back that affords greater freedom for intellectual exploration. Some, like Zhang, have established private academies featuring curricula inspired by ancient Chinese philosophies from Confucianism to Daoism; others have opted for home schooling. With some schools costing up to $8,000 a year, more than three times the average annual income of a Chinese household, alternative education is an option only for a wealthy minority. It has thrived on the growing desire to drop out among those Chinese best positioned to lean in.
Many of the well-connected and affluent parents who have opted to remove their children from the Chinese state education system have themselves often emerged as winners from that system. That means they understand its drawbacks and perils better than most. Nicholas Chang, a former IBM sales manager, attributes his decision to quit his job and home-school his 8-year-old son, Felix, to his personal experience with Chinese schools. Bespectacled and with a youthful smile, not to mention an engineering Ph.D. from prestigious Tsinghua University, Chang exudes the self-assurance of a scholar. But he remembers his time in the classroom as one of ennui and confusion. “I never understand what the purpose of school was,” said Chang, who easily mastered its required routines but felt little interest in learning. “I spent most of my time wondering what one gains from the practice, and what should be the meaning of a true education.”
Chang is seeking the answer by experimenting with his son’s schooling. Chang had enrolled his son in a top-ranked public elementary school, but it was rigid and monotonous; Chang then tried a swanky private academy, but found it too conscious of status and wealth. “The primary role of education is to produce workers and consumers,” Chang said of these schools. “It is a factory.”
Drawn to the philosophy behind the “unschooling movement,” which grants children full autonomy in deciding what to learn in an environment free from institutional constraints, usually at home or within their local community, Chang is testing the method by degrees. His son, Felix, spends his morning memorizing German vocabulary and practicing guitar chords. (“Rote learning is still a crucial skill,” Chang reiterated). In the afternoon, Felix roams the spacious apartment, thumbing through books such as the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and the popular Chinese classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Young foreign expats stop by now and then to provide private lessons in piano, drums, and playwriting.
Chang says he plans to expand the experiment. He named his project Armada Education, embodying his conviction that learning should resemble a joint voyage between the adults, who are the proverbial aircraft carriers, and the children, who are the boats. “They are free to explore,” he explained, “but we are there if they need to come back for fuel.” Asked if he believes his method could be widely adopted in China, Chang strikes a more ambivalent tone. “I believe the way to cultivate a general is not the same as that to train a soldier,” he said. “A true general definitely does not walk such a conventional path. It requires a different set of skills.”
Chang’s view echoes the traditional belief of elite Chinese scholar-officials that education is a vehicle for self-cultivation. In the past century, as China came into increasing contact with the West, this belief often found expression through an admiration for progressive Western ideologies. A few days before the 1919 protests that sparked the May Fourth Movement, the famous American educator and philosopher John Dewey had arrived in China to promote his theory. Among the intellectuals intrigued by Dewey was a young Mao Zedong, a fresh graduate from a local teachers college and Dewey’s stenographer in Changsha. Mao, later to become the figurehead of China’s communist revolution, called Dewey’s thoughts on education and democracy “worth studying.” He carried the philosopher’s books when he opened a revolutionary bookstore in Hunan in 1920.
That flirtation with liberalism ended in 1949, when China’s new communist leaders introduced an education infrastructure closely based on the Soviet model. Teaching instead focused on inculcating a communist worldview and developing skills that would help graduates fulfill assigned social roles. Though the ideological component faded after Mao’s death, today’s education system, with its emphasis on math and science and its tendency to funnel students into narrow academic paths early, still bears a Soviet imprint.