Educational inequality between China’s rural and urban students has long vexed the country. Huge differences in funding, educational resources, living and learning environments, and teacher quality have created a giant gap in social mobility. About 70% of urban students test into university, while only 9% of rural students do the same.
Many Chinese NGOs have stepped up to help. Project Hope (希望工程) raises money to build elementary schools called “Hope Schools” (“希望小学”) in extremely poor areas; voluntary teaching programs have sprung up that send college graduates and high school students to exotic areas.
Not Without Some Skeptics
However, controversy has recently arisen as netizens question the purpose of volunteers and the actual effect of the program, especially short term programs. Several notes written by users of Renren, a Chinese social media platform akin to Facebook, bear titles such as “If You Think Volunteer Teaching is Sacred” and “Dear Big Brothers and Sisters, Please Don’t Bother Teaching Us.” These notes were also widely discussed on Weibo, China’s Twitter. Typical comments include: “What indeed can you bring to students in only 20 days?” “You open the window for the students to see the outside world, then you shut the door because they can hardly get out based on their economic situation,” “Why do we always implant our standard of values or meanings of good life to them?” and “Is being successful really important? What if they think their life in mountains is really good enough?”
In addition, many civilians think that volunteers join these programs largely to build up their resumes, and remain skeptical of the programs’ real-world impact. They have some reason to worry.
In one infamous example, a college graduate volunteering for a short-term rural education program spent all his time correcting rural students’ English pronunciation in his English class. He succeeded only too well. After he left, students refused to take their ordinary rural English teacher’s class. The principal told the journalist with frustration that, “The English teacher is the only English teacher in the whole village. Now students won’t take her class.”
Peer Experience Exchange Rostrum
However, despite many controversies, some voluntary teaching groups have caught favorable public attention. The Peer Experience Exchange Rostrum (PEER for short) was established five year ago by several Chinese graduates of Harvard University. Every year since then, the program has organized hundreds of Chinese overseas students hailing from Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Duke, Northwestern, UCLA, Oxford, McGill, and others to teach pro bono in extremely poor ethnic minority areas in Southwestern China. They bring seminars they learned in foreign countries–including philosophy, economics, sociology, and psychology–to local students, organize research projects to promote local development and students’ academic ability, and set up team-building activities to train the children to lead and cooperate.
I have worked with this program for three months, and recently returned from a 30-day stint teaching in Chengbu (城步), Hunan Province. Chengbu is a county populated mostly by China’s Miao (苗) ethnic minority. The town I stayed in was called Rulin, a small town of 29,000. I taught Western philosophy, Grade-9 English, and jazz dancing, and also helped students conduct research on local development.
The students surprised me. They were much more capable than I had expected. In my philosophy seminar, students engaged in fervent discussions. When we discussed free will and determinism, students raised arguments and refutations that had never emerged in my philosophy classes at Duke. Their arguments were so novel and logical that even I couldn’t properly defend against them.
In English class, the Miaos were extremely curious about American culture. They wanted to learn American songs, movies, food and festivals. I let them watch the BBC series “Sherlock Homes,” and they loved it.
Students enjoyed teamwork activities the most. They went on scavenger hunts, built paper bridges, designed clothes made from newspaper and put on a “newspaper fashion show,” and used clap signs to guide blindfolded classmates around roadblocks. One group of students used only 15 pieces of newspaper to build a paper bridge which could load-bear 31 bottles of water.
The most meaningful part was the research project. We first helped students to brainstorm about topics related to their community. Then we asked them to design and distribute hundreds of questionnaires, interviewing strangers, experts and officials. After that, the students analyzed data, came up with conclusions and suggestions and wrote a final report.
Finally, we brought students back to their community to take action. For example, we found that nearly 80% of Miao in Chengbu had never heard of a traditional Miao form of opera called Nuo (傩戏).We brought students to their villages of origin to interview Nuo artists, visit museums, and invite the artists to Chengbu to perform in the central town square to a sizeable crowd.
Thirty days is not a long time, but I believe my work had an impact. Many students said their encounter with PEER gave them the first opportunity to conduct field research, think critically, and realize what they could accomplish in their community working as a team. It was an early morning when we left Chengbu, but a surprising number of students came to the bus to say goodbye. They sang songs of blessing, bursting out in tears. They even chased after our bus and shouted their love.
From my experience, PEER volunteers are animated by a desire to pay China back. We bring the outside world to China’s poor, not because we want them to leave their mountain home to pursue another life, but because we want them to use what they learn to build a better community at home. We want them to care about local issues and to take action. Readers who want to learn more are invited to visit PEER’s Chinese-language website.