“Don’t Blame Lu Xun, Blame the Textbooks”

The following is a translation and commentary on this piece, posted a little while ago on Tianya. The Chinese term ”教材“ has been translated intermittently as ”teaching materials” or “texts” depending on context.

Translation

In the new edition of the People’s Education Press’s middle school language text, the number of things by Lu Xun has clearly been reduced; all that’s left is “Grabbism” [an essay], “New Year’s Sacrifice” [a short story], and “Remembering Liuhe Zhenjun” [another essay]. This isn’t a new topic, but since there was recently a symposium and it’s become a focus of the media, it’s easy to see why [this topic] is sensitive. There are two keywords here: “teaching material” and “Lu Xun”.

Many people only talk about Lu Xun and don’t talk about teaching material; actually, that’s misunderstanding the essence of the debate. In modern education, most classes have teaching material, and this material is considered the definite and authoritative source of knowledge. But with China in its current state, teaching materials have become totally standardized, they’re basically the only reading matter that youth will encounter in school, and the People’s Eduction Press is seen as the most standard and the best of the best. This is a bit of an enigma.

I once saw foreign children squatting in front of a famous painting in a museum, having class. The teacher pointed to the motley colors, encouraging them to imagine and reflect. I sighed, envious that I never had such [learning] conditions when I was young. Thinking more about it, I smiled bitterly: even if those conditions existed [in China], there would be no need to go waste time, just memorizing all the standard answers in the text would suffice. I originally thought that on the journey to knowledge, textbooks were just guidebooks meant to lead us to the beautiful scenery. But because of the Gaokao, we are not allowed to go look at the scenery, just immersing ourselves in the guidebook will suffice. The real scenery, i.e. original works, are called “extracurricular reading”, to be read sparingly and only during free time.

In any educational activity, the [pieces that are] compiled in texts are extremely important, but supposing they were only as important as a guidebook, then there would be little difference between selecting five of Lu Xun’s works or selecting three of them, so there would be no need for people to argue about it. On a normal journey, the tour guide (i.e. teacher) is given free reign in their oral explanations, and the tourists (i.e. students) can follow these explanations or their own interests, deciding which scenic spots they’d like to linger longer at and which they’d prefer to pass by. For example, regardless of how many Lu Xun pieces are in the texts, if a student is interested they can seek out more books to read or even research.

However, in our educational system, teachers and students have no freedom whatsoever to choose; even seeing those scenic spots that are in the guidebooks is just done through either skimming or rote memorization, it’s already been decided. Therefore, the implications of every [educational] activity are greatly amplified. So if the new edition from People’s Education Press takes out some Lu Xun and adds in some Liang Shiqiu, it’s seen as “restraining this” and “elevating that”. When these two men were alive, even in those dark times one might find them in the same city, nowadays are they really that irreconcilable?

Those who approve of reducing Lu Xun cite the words of a netizen:

In middle school, I hated Lu Xun’s essays the most. Half in literary Chinese and half in modern language, awkward sounding, and often we even had to memorize the locations of all the punctuation marks, it was too much suffering.

What was his suffering really? Rather than saying Lu Xun’s essays are awkward-sounding, it would be better to say [the reason for his suffering was] “we even had to memorize the locations of all the punctuation marks”. This shows precisely the influence of the Gaokao’s changing demands on teaching materials.

At the same time, because the textbooks provide prescribed responses for Lu Xun’s essays, students feel Lu Xun is dull, dry, and even begin to oppose him. Because these standardized responses have been politicized for some time now, [students] see Lu Xun as a spokesperson for [CCP] ideology and negate the time in which he lived. One professor said:

Some students drift away from Lu Xun, mostly because they come from different times and lack common ground. Lu Xun lived during a dark time politically, he needed to use the same strength of darkness to struggle against it. Today’s society is a bit more free and comfortable. Because of this, students may not have any way of understanding the value of Lu Xun’s work.

This is obviously a kind of misreading and misteaching. If we say that the essence of the Lu Xun spirit is skepticism, seeing things clearly, being critical, and taking a stand [against bad things], then [Lu Xun] is needed and relevant during any time period.

The problem is, it seems as though teachers today don’t plan to present things that way, they mostly want to explore Lu Xun’s temperament in life. A few of Lu Xun’s prose essays, such as “From the herb garden to the studio”, “Village theater”, “Old Home”, “Kite”, etc., are undoubtedly classics, but if one says that the meaning of Lu Xun lies in his temperament during his life, then students will still really [feel] it’s better to go read Lin Yutang or Liang Shiqiu.

Commentary

The author of this piece — sadly uncredited in the repost on Tianya we found — has hit the nail right on the head. Standardization in any form sanitizes education, making it easier to disperse equally en masse, but also less compelling. Great teachers use their passions to engage their students and their discipline, but they can only be great when the education system they work within allows them to do this by giving them the freedom to frame and approach their curriculum any way they choose. Allowing for this kind of variety also better serves students, whose learning styles can vary greatly. Standardized tests, especially be-all-end-all tests like the Gaokao turn schools into places where test-takers, rather than learners, are produced.

Paradoxically, tests and grades have almost nothing to do with learning. Recent studies have shown that people tend to learn better when there aren’t tangible assessments. Rewards for good work and punishment for bad work are also detrimental to true learning (helpful though they may be in elevating a GPA). Unsurprisingly, whether or not a student is interested in a topic has the greatest implications on whether or not they will learn it in any real sense, and this kind of interest is most easily fostered by connecting the topic to students’ lives. [For more information on these studies, or just for a wonderful book about education, check out What the Best College Teachers Do. Especially recommended for teachers at any level.]

As the author of the essay points out, Lu Xun is relevant to the lives of students in China today. In fact, his critical spirit and endless pursuit of something better are something China could desperately use, even if it doesn’t need his pessimism or argumentative nature. But because of China’s political climate and because of the format of the Gaokao, Lu Xun’s works are not being presented to students in a way that leads them to feel any kind of connection.

If we presume that the goal of education is learning and acquiring critical thinking skills, Chinese education needs reform desperately. The great obstacle at hand is college admissions policy, which hinges almost entirely on the standardized Gaokao test results, forcing teachers and students into a narrow curricular path that leaves no room for improvisation or passion. Alternative systems haven’t materialized; many other countries use similarly troubled systems, and the US’s relatively free college admission system would be difficult to implement in a country with 1.6 billion people — can you imagine how many personal essays the Qinghua and Beida admissions officers would have to read?

It would be a shame for this generation to miss out on the brilliance of Lu Xun, but the greater shame here is that they often miss out on the joy of education entirely. Learning about things you’re interested in, as the author points out, is to be done outside class, during one’s free time. But with all their extracurriculars and outside-school classes, one wonders if many Chinese kids even have time to sleep and eat, let alone read Lu Xun for pleasure without guidance from a teacher.

So student interests fall by the wayside, and true learning is replaced by rote memorization. As long as these kids get into college and get decent jobs, does it really matter? Does the education system really need reform, and if so, how? We look forward to hearing your thoughts.

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0 thoughts on ““Don’t Blame Lu Xun, Blame the Textbooks””

  1. Like Chang Ping writes in the first paragraph, this isn’t a new topic, but he’s presenting a perspective that’s not usually part of the conversation, which tends to be a face-off between “students need to read more contemporary, relevant stuff,” and “students need to read important classics like Lu Xun.” But the argument for retaining Lu Xun is generally “so they can learn about XXX” or “so they can understand XXX” – basically using Lu Xun as a way to instruct students in particular ideas or points of view rather than taking his writing as a starting point for literary or historical appreciation. Even the laments over the possible loss of In Memory of Ms. Liu Hezhen from the curriculum were framed in more or less the same terms.

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  2. OP’s last para: some of these kids are getting into good schools and are getting good jobs. I would say that that is enough for now – cash is king here after all.

    But it would be nice if more of the people around us could think, not just learn. There are lots of academics here, but how many of them are saying original things? Can you build a civil society or develop institutions of fair government without thinkers?

    How to reform the education system? If you see the education system as a tool to increase national productivity and competitiveness (as most policy makers here do) then be content that enough scientists and engineers are being produced. The top end will look after itself – the next generations of China’s leaders will all have been educated in the US or the UK.
    If you see the education system as a tool to increase social mobility, equity and equality of opportunity (where did this go over the last 3 decades?) then build more schools, train and retain more good teachers and direct funds to ensure that the kids of the poor get the basic education they need.

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  3. @ joel: Where was this originally published? I found it on Tianya but there was no author citation anywhere that I saw. I suppose I should have googled or Baidu’ed it to check though…

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  4. Your link credits Chang Ping (长平) at the end of the text. It also showed up in the Shanghai Morning Post, but I’m not sure if it was written for that paper, or if they republished a Tianya forum post of his.

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  5. Great article, thanks for the translation.
    “If we presume that the goal of education is learning and acquiring critical thinking skills…” This is what I would presume too, but while teaching in China I never got any indication from any Chinese teaching colleagues that it was a presumption they shared. What use is teaching critical thinking if it isn’t a skill that is valued by employers and the powers that be?
    Incidentally, the UK’s education system seems to be regressing in this respect, with more and more emphasis on regurgitation as opposed to critical thinking, though it’s still less mind-numbing than the gaokao.

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  6. While I am also anxious about the problems highlighted by Chang Ping and by those who have left comments above, one of the nice things about rote memorization and textbook learning—and there aren’t many nice things—is that the material hangs around the back of a student’s head long after the fact. This was pointed out to me by a friend in regards to learning Chinese poetry, but I’d say it’s also relevant to other subjects.

    So, a certain Lu Xun essay may be presented as a “classic” with clear points X, Y and Z, but a student who has read it and memorized it and hasn’t had all the life sucked out of it (no guarantee) can go back and refer to the essay mentally later in life. Then, they might just find that “Remembering Liuhe Zhenjun” is a rather subversive piece of writing, after all, scorching authorities who mouth propaganda as they crush youthful activists, etc.

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