A Guest Post: The Highs and Lows of Chinese Education

This is the first of a series of guest posts on our blog from gap year students, GCY alums, social entrepreneurs, and college admissions officers. Greg Kristof writes from China where he is teaching English during his gap year before he enrolls at Harvard in the fall.

Greg Kristof Photo from gap year in china

Merely saying the word curdles the juices of Chinese high-schoolers. It’s a word that invades their minds from diapers onward, piercing, commanding, enervating. The thought of it boomerangs around their insides like a bouncy ball made of needles. It is called the High Test.

The other day, the teacher demonstrated how to use “xinku,” the Chinese word for “toil,” in the following way: “A high school student must toil for many hours to prepare for the High Test, which will determine where she goes to college.” There is also an adjective form: “High school is toilsome due the High Test.” And the superlative: “By far the most toilsome thing in the life of a Chinese is the High Test.”Okay, I get it. The High Test is tough. But it can’t be that much worse than the SATs. Right?

I’ll report, you decide: In China, you spend two years studying for the High Test, which you take shortly before graduating high school. On a typical school day, you might arrive at your classroom at 5:30 a.m. to begin studying, and get off at 10:30 p.m. You often continue studying even after that. You have one day off per month.

If you do well on the High Test—a 10-hour long affair with an occasional paramedic to revive those who faint—then you’re golden, since colleges don’t give a hoot about anything other than your score. If you don’t perform so well, then you might take a “gap year” during which you spend all your time preparing to take the test again.

All this has made me think my American high school, where students did study but also, in the words of a local friend, had something called “fun.” Mention that word to Chinese students here and, well, they’ll think you’re speaking another language.

The High Test creates accountability, because students across the country take the same test. It promotes meritocracy, ruthlessly rewarding the best performers over apple-polishers whom teachers favor with good grades. In a country crippled by corruption, bribes might help with a report card but won’t budge your score on the one exam that really matters. And there is no doubt that studying for it makes kids maddeningly smart. The High Test is the perfect system.

And yet. What about the kid who’s feeling sick on exam day, or is blue from a death in the family? What is more, that an entire high school career funnels toward a single assessment relegates genuine learning to the back seat. Not enlightenment but achievement—the kind that can be quantified and divided by some national average—becomes the lighthouse of one’s education. There is no room for intellectual risk-taking, since you could squander your only shot.

I often see similar threads in my own Chinese class here—a focus on knowledge over imagination, product over process. Teachers like to pick apart details without launching us beyond the stars. Furthermore, the High Test advances a view of education that is deep but narrow. To prepare for the exam, you select either humanities or sciences in the beginning of high-school, and that’s all you study for the rest of your academic life. You perhaps become “I” shaped rather than “T” shaped, plumbing your own field without a larger recognition of how your discipline interacts with others.

So, China, move beyond the High Test. Turn it into confetti. That way, Chinese students can take themselves to greater heights, more beautiful vistas. And so what if afterward a student or two gets blown off the conventional course? Let them chance upon a New World. Let them soar. When they do, we can celebrate with the confetti.