Cut loose at Fifty: Chapter Nine – Not much beats a good story
By Chris Clancy
Here's a question for those of us in the West who went on to higher education. When you look back to your time at university, no matter how long ago it was, what are the first thoughts that come to mind? For most of us I doubt if it would be things like "academic achievement" or, "the thirst for knowledge". It's more likely to be the social life and the people we met.
Not so for the majority of Chinese students. Their first thoughts would be of studying like hell and trying to get the highest grades possible in everything.
The whole attitude to education is very different. It's seen as a marvelous one-off opportunity to better oneself, even as a "life-chance" – and this is not over-stating it.
The competition for any job, never mind good jobs, is fierce. Education is therefore an extremely "serious" business. "Grim", might be another word for it.
When I first came to China I remember reading about government initiatives to try and modernize the education process – to try and make it less formal, less traditional. Given the size of the country, and its history, this was quite an undertaking. To the best of my knowledge little has changed. Education is still very much a rigid process – children sit in rows, huge class sizes, rote learning, didactic – examination based.
It's not exactly user-friendly.
Everything, from early years, is geared towards the national high school leaving exam. It is held just once a year. Performance in this determines whether or not children go on to university. The better the performance, the better the university.
The point I want to stress is that students make progess in spite of the educational system, not because of it. It's the parents who do the pushing – not the teachers – and the kids respond.
When school finishes you will rarely see children running around playing. Instead they are either doing extra courses or homework or both. The same applies at weekends and during holidays.
It's truly incredible.
The government encourages it in ways that are many and varied - and it doesn't take much to detect a strong political sub-text – better indoors and occupied than outdoors kicking their heels – in their millions – literally.
If teaching in schools could be described as almost Dickensian, compared to universities it was positively sparkling.
But this state of affairs is not peculiar to China. University teachers usually have little or no interest in teaching. It's simply a chore – something they have to do in order to carry out their research.
At ZUEL classrooms had all the latest equipment. Teachers were required to use PPT in their teaching. For most of them this meant reading from PPT rather than reading from their notes or, in some cases, actually reading from a textbook.
I suppose this was progress – of a sort – but not quite what was intended.
There were only two professors in the accounting department whose classes were always full. Whether this was because they were famous or because they could actually teach I don't know.
But for the others, most didn't have a clue about the teaching process and, as far as I could see, couldn't care less. Not that it mattered from the student's point of view. What they didn't understand in class they'd learn by themselves anyway. They were highly motivated self-starters. It was they who made the department famous – not the teaching.
From my own experience, over many years, I considered my first week's teaching to be a disaster. I fully expected numbers to collapse dramatically and my job to come under threat - but it didn't happen.
I learned later this was because the students could see that I was trying to make the course work. I'm not sure if they'd seen much of this kind of thing before.
When teaching started again after the October break, I had a much better idea about what the job involved – I mean in terms of what was and what was not achievable.
There were twelve teaching weeks left of the semester. I couldn't complain about my teaching load – twelve hours per week – just three classes. I settled into a pattern - prepare each weekend and then deliver the same classes three times. As I repeated lessons they would get better.
And this is the way things went – week by week.
I tried all sorts of things for the remainder of the semester – experimenting really – some things worked, others didn't.
In the second semester I would have three new classes. This would give me the opportunity to make a fresh start and, hopefully, a much better one.
I made a point of asking students for ideas and suggestions about how to run the course – how to make it more interesting and so on. They did respond but never in class time – instead it would be at break times, between classes, after classes, by email or just when we happened to meet on the campus.
Some of the responses were particularly useful.
One was to do with the cricket-like silence which followed whenever I asked a question. One rather irritated student emailed me to say that I waited too long for someone to venture an answer. She said it was the same with Chinese teachers. No-one would answer unless asked directly – and even then responses were muted.
This was a relief.
Another was about why students didn't stop me when I mentioned words or phrases which they didn't understand. They let me know, in a very Chinese way, that sometimes they didn't even understand what the Chinese teachers were talking about!
This was due to the number of dialects spoken in China and the fact that both students and teachers were drawn from all over the country.
This was an even greater relief.
Again, it really didn't matter. What the students didn't understand in class they'd learn by themselves.
Of the many strategies I tried the one which worked best was when I stood in front of the dais and told them a story of some kind. Usually it was relevant to accounting but not always. This was something which they loved. The moment I put down my notes and left the dais they knew a story was coming and I could feel them warm to me.
The barrier would begin to drop.
Tell someone an interesting story about a fact and they may well remember it. But make them smile or laugh as you do so and they'll never forget it.
In any public speaking situation, not much beats a good story well told!
Obviously, this was something which I could not do all the time, it had to be used sparingly, but if the course was really going to work I had to introduce something like this, but on a bigger scale. Something which was relevant to their studies but which stepped away from the rigid formal approach which they had become so used to.
But in the meantime, until I found this "something", I was doing OK – well enough to keep my job at any rate.
A few weeks before the end of the semester, I heard about a private college which was looking for an economics teacher. To cut a long story short I started doing some extra hours there.
It proved to be quite a learning experience.
First, and most important, I found out what it was like to teach the kids of very rich Chinese people
And second, that it was the students who called the shots. The college was very much a business first and a place of education second; if there were any problems between teacher and students it was the teacher who got the bullet.
Thus far the students I had met were, with very few exceptions, a joy to teach.
This lot were the opposite.
A very old Chinese proverb came to mind: "Wealth does not sustain beyond three generations."
In the West we put it more bluntly: "From rags to riches and back again in three generations!"
After a few sessions with them I'd had enough.
Lazy, arrogant, spoiled and insolent –no understanding of effort and reward – of personal responsibility - too used to demanding and getting – no intention of ever "working" for a living.
Their parents had done them, and themselves, no favours. If this was the crap that would take charge in the future the West had nothing to worry about! Strangely, in an odd sort of way, they reminded me of youngsters brought up on welfare back in the UK?
Maybe this thought could be used as an interesting topic for a term paper - or even a lively debate?
Let's see now … something like: "A kid brought up on welfare may well share many character traits of one brought up by very rich parents." Discuss.
Hmmm … I'll let it hang there … but I think it's got possibilities?
Anyway, back to the college.
It was Chinese owned. Exactly who these people were was a bit of a mystery. They were never seen. Their representatives, or agents, acted for them.
The teachers were all foreigners and the administrators were all Chinese. The hatred of the latter for the former was almost palpable - probably due in large part to the fact that the teachers were paid "top dollar" whilst the Chinese were paid a pittance.
To this miserable situation add boredom.
Both camps were employed full-time; which meant being there forty hours a week - regardless of whether you had any work to do or not – usually not.
Yet another money cleaning operation.
Not a happy place to work.
Getting a job there was a possibility but never an option. Had there been a part-time position I would have considered it – I could have earned more than three times what I got at ZUEL!
But not full-time – no thanks - no matter how good the money was.
I socialized with the teachers for a few weekends - which usually meant drinking to oblivion. I tired of it quickly, not so much because of the drinking, but because of those who I was with, and because of the other foreigners who I met.
Few of them had anything good to say about China, and nothing but good things to say about their countries of origin. And then there was the gossiping – classic ex-pat behaviour – inevitable when people abroad have too much time on their hands.
They had formed themselves into various cliques and groups and let's not forget about the assorted nuts, odd bods and weirdos wandering around the place. In most other countries, they would never have been allowed near young people.
I don't want to start generalizing, but there is one particular type which I have to mention. I refer to the ones who arrived in China and found, to their amazement, that they were treated with a level of respect and deference which they had never known, or deserved, at home.
Their response to this would usually be to re-invent themselves – to create highly successful and interesting previous lives. They were suddenly "important" and acted accordingly. Typically, they were the ones you would hear vowing solemnly, as if anyone cared, that they would "make a difference" in China, that they would "change things" in China.
To other foreigners they were an embarrassment.
Unfortunately, many students fell for their lies – for a time anyway.
Young people in China are nothing like young people in the West. In fact, they're not much like those in their neighboring countries either. They are far more innocent, far less worldly-wise – endearing qualities.
But this is changing - like everything else in China. By the time I left the change was well under way.
Inevitable, I know, but a pity all the same.
Chris Clancy lived in China for seven years. Most of this time was spent as associate professor of financial accounting at Zhongnan University of Economics and Law in Wuhan City, Hubei Province. He now lives in Thailand where he spends his time reading, writing, lecturing and, whenever he gets the chance, doing his level best to spread Austrian economics.