Monday, October 20, 2008

Academe Exiled: A Rant

I waited by the curb below my apartment, early this morning (6:40 AM), for a bus to the university where I work. The forty-minute long ride into the boonies beyond the city proper left me plenty of time to ponder the reasons my diploma factory (and other academic institutes) have been exiled to the sticks.

Our bus passed through the tunnel below Xuanwu lake, and along the parkway north of Zijin Mountain where Sun Yat-sen lies buried, then past industrial developments, suburban gated communities, a few remnant country villages, fields, and at last we arrived on the edge of the fairly new 'University City' the Nanjing government had planned out. Unfortunately, my college is on the far side of the whole caboodle.

Many Chinese cities are developing these academic enclaves. Mid-grade institutions that were once located in the Urban area proper are cashing in on their valuable properties and relocating to cheap converted farmland. For the luckier headmasters, there may even be enough money left over after this transaction to buy themselves a nice BMW. More reputable institutions are expanding their universities (which, being built a hundred years or so ago, were often located in the middle of inconveniently expensive/otherwise spoken for downtown land and were often not terribly large to begin with) with new campuses in these educational ghettos.

Every student I've asked about this phenomenon speaks of these places with dread. Every student I've talked to wishes fervently to be able to study in one of the downtown campuses of a university that still possesses such. In Chongqing, the 'university city' was located in empty farmland on the other side of one of the mountain-ridges, giving the place a particularly remote feel. This one isn't much better, however. And the students, unlike most of the teachers and staff, are stuck there. Transport options are not convenient, and certainly do no accomodate late-night hijinks in the tea houses and clubs, witholding one of the ancient and essential rights of all college students.

After at last arriving in the misty fields, barren plazas, and white-washed lecture halls (the facades seem to be cracking already, despite this place being no more than a few years old), I look over my lesson plans and decide to apply an activity I had considered for a while now. We will have a little discussion and debate on this issue of sending students to the boonies.

My students, of course, are more than willing to ascribe every sort of insanity to the school's headmaster. They also, however, are very aware of the potential benefits of having moved to the middle of nowhere. I'm sure they've been lectured on all these very same points in numerous speeches and school events. To begin: The air is fresher; the environment is greener; the government intends to improve the economic situation of this particular patch of nowhere by dumping thousands of hungry, stir-crazy students here; there is less noise; there is less traffic, and less (bus) traffic issues in the city center if all the students have been effectively removed from it; so many students in one area might create a sort of critical mass for studiousness (alternatively, it might just create a critical mass of computer gaming dens); and of course that the land is cheap, offering the chance for an otherwise undeserving school to expand its premises. I added, in the silence of my own mind, that in the event of future Tiananmen-like student protests, the students here are easily cut off from the city proper and controllable. The CCP being very security-conscious, I'm sure that this fact did not escape their interest.

For cons: Oddly enough, my students (having already said in pros that the air is fresher) say that the air is in fact not fresher here, due to nearby industrial developments; shopping, eating at nicer restaurants than those available in the student ghetto, bus/train station, local attractions, are all not easily reached by public transit (the zone is also essentially cut off from the city proper every night when the buses stop running); utter and interminable boredom. No wonder 9/10ths of my students spend all their free time (and a good part of their class time) immersing themselves in rampant escapist fantasies... particularly, World of Warcraft. As if that game weren't addictive enough, its gameworld is at least a hundred times better than facing life in such a drab and boring locale as this.

Discussing the matter with other teachers, one of them had a really good point: Chinese students are not terribly grounded in reality to begin with. Starting life as an only child--often spoiled senseless by parents and grandparent's whose retirement plans rest on the success and happiness of the child--the Chinese student then graduates to the relentless grind that is the primary, and secondary school system.

The systematic and constant tests leave little room for a life, an active imagination, or hobbies. Most Chinese students spend their summers bored to tears because they never really developed an inner or outer life beyond school in the rest of their time, and even summers are not safe from homework projects that are due at the start of the school year. Can this be described as a real life wherein real skills and interests are discovered? Compound that by the excessive gaming that many indulge in, and these kids don't spend any time at all observing the real world. All time is spent cloistered in one fantasy/nightmare or another. Then, at the time when children all around the world are seen to be growing up, and would be packed off to fend (more or less) for themselves at college, these less fortunate Chinese students get sent to live in a bubble world built on loam.

No, real life only catches up with them when they suddenly must face the prospect of looking for a job. At this point absolute despair sets in, because those who have no useful connections (guanxi) will have few decent job prospects indeed. Connections to the proper people--even if you're a lazy, useless sort of rich slob--could easily result in a doubling or quadrupling of the average post-college wage a student could expect. Those who have no connections might expect a wage of about 1,000 RMB or less each month (equivalent, roughly, to $145) which is not so much to live on in the eastern, more developed cities of China.

Many of our students suddenly seem to leap from oblivious ebullience into black despair in their final years of college, even when they are among the most talented and hard-working individuals in the entire school. They've obviously not been prepared to face their futures with confidence, despite enjoying a luxury that relatively few in China have the priviledge of.

I suppose it could be a stretch to argue that the difference of location between an urban campus and a rural one could make much difference in a system that is so dramatically skewed to favor the few. I do think, though, that officials and headmasters may be overlooking the psychological impact of such dramatic isolation on the aspirations and confidence of youth. After all, the majority of Chinese graduates from these institutes are probably not looking at a career ensconced in ivory towers, but rather an uphill fight through a quite rough-and-tumble job market. Employers (and I used to be one in this job market) are also liable to become frustrated with this crop of potential employees who have no idea what the world beyond their college ghetto is.

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