Elite, Mass, Universal—What Is Education Doing to Us?


Anthropologist Susan Blum spent 30 years studying China, 10 years researching education, and is now trying to merge the two with an ambitious goal.  “Schooling helps create children.  All education is political.  At the same time, all education is cultural involving values, meaning, structure, and family.“  Blum wants to explain how this creation works; she is currently conducting research on the effect of higher education in six different societies.  China, with its staggeringly ambitious goals for education, is a challenging case in point and the subject of her lecture, specifically the “massification” of Chinese higher education. 

Educational theorists will understand that the horrible word massifcation has a specific meaning in higher education.  Martin Trow used it to refer to the twilight zone between two social goals–the higher education of the elite alone and universal higher education—exactly where China stands today.  Blum has the statistics:  In 1978, at the end of the Cultural Revolution, China had 400 colleges and 3% of youth attended them.  Today, there are 3,500 colleges with 23% of the college-aged population in attendance, a ramping up of tertiary education similar to, but even greater than, the effect in the U.S. of the GI Bill after World War II.

Blum traced the history of higher education in China from the meritocracy of Imperial China and the corrupt exam system it produced for entry into the higher ranks of the civil service; to the Cultural Revolution, begun at Peking University in 1966 with a specific goal of eradicating educational inequality; to the end of that revolution and the restoration of the exam system; to the current day when vast forests of students spend much of their childhood and youth with the single goal of getting the highest possible score on the Gaokao, the national exam that decides students’ access to the best universities. 

As Blum recounted the effect of this national exam, the situation began to sound more local than foreign.  Teaching to the test produces an empty curriculum relying on disembodied facts and a community of stressed-out students. Achieving the demanding educational goals no longer assures a job and with that comes disillusionment and increases in subtle forms of social inequality.  While the U.S. is further along the “massification” road than China, the impact of social and economic conditions on education began to have a familiar ring. 

Blum announced at the start that she was in the early stages of this research.  She did not finally offer an answer to the question of how these changes in the world of education changed the people themselves.  How will the contradictory educational goals of status vs. return on investment play out?  Can the national exam make society more equitable, or does it always lead to scandal and fraud?  Are we moving towards an international form of leadership with where class is more important than citizenship?  Questions abound both locally and globally, but answers are elusive.

Susan D. Blum is professor and chair of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame.  Her most recent book is My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture (2009).  Her presentation was sponsored by the IU Research Center for Chinese Politics and Business. 

Categories: Area Studies, China, Lectures