Welcome to TLN’s inaugural Tea Time Chat, a real-time discussion between Tea Leaf Nation writers about the issues that matter to them.
In this Chat, we have asked Chinese students at elite American universities to explain why they chose to attend U.S. schools over their Chinese counterparts.
Having yesterday just deplored with a journalist friend the Chinese government’s miserable public relations performance, I can’t deny that I was pleasantly surprised to see that US News’ latest global university rankings lists China’s top schools among the top 50. Peking University is at #44 and Tsinghua University is at #48.
I’m mostly just bemused by rankings like this and doubt how much they can really affect the world’s — or the Chinese public’s — general impression of Chinese universities. If you look closely, Peking and Tsinghua have pretty poor scores in the last three categories of the survey: international faculty, international students, and citations per faculty member. Academic reputation, which has a 40% weight in US News’ calculation of a school’s general score, is possibly what bumps up both Peking’s and Tsinghua’s general standing. But “academic reputation” sounds quite vague to me as a criterion. I’m rather under the impression that it proves the rise of a general, global consciousness of China as an economic and political power more than anything else. It’s not like the Chinese Ministry of Education has been championing higher education reforms.
Either way, no ranking would be enough to convince me to stay and receive my college education in China. Having received all my pre-college education in China, I can say that I would still be the same rebellious teenager who felt she couldn’t stand compulsory classes teaching sinocized Marxism in each and every Chinese university. I had to get out and try my chances with American universities. In high school, I chose to remain in the hard science track — a social science track doesn’t even exist in Chinese high schools — not because I preferred solving endless problem sets, but because I wanted to avoid the bigger evil. Choosing the humanities track means memorizing hundreds of pages of history and politics textbooks censured by the government. I wasn’t afraid of being brainwashed or whatever, but I considered it a big waste of my time and brainpower. Restriction tastes even bitterer when you know you have another alternative. And now, as Beijing is tightening up its restrictions on news more than ever, it will only provide more encouragement to those young scholars who aspire to get beyond the “wall.”
1. Class size. I’m a comparative literature major, which means most of my classes are seminars with about fifteen students, more or less. I get to know my professors in class, during office hours, and outside of campus. It is not uncommon for professors to invite their students for a drink at a local bar, or for potluck at their house. The class size in China makes all of these, which I deeply appreciate, a lot more difficult.
2. Research opportunities. In my university, undergraduates are offered plenty of funds, scholarships and paid internships for academic researches in all subjects. I don’t mean that Chinese universities do not encourage academic research; however, there seems to be fewer opportunities and less financial support for undergraduate students.
3. Private space. American universities can be very expensive without financial aid/scholarship, but both their standard dorms and off-campus housing offer more private space than options for students attending Chinese colleges. “Dorm life with Chinese characteristics” must be something special and fun, though.
I experienced China’s college entrance exam, the “Gaokao,” five years ago. I am a transfer student and had previously spent three years studying in Communication University of China – CUC (中国传媒大学／北京广播学院), a top school focusing on media studies. I made the decision to come to Michigan while I was two courses away from graduation and gave up opportunities of attending grad school in China for free.
The reason for leaving was because after two years study I was suddenly struck and scared by the realization that I didn’t get “nurtured” at CUC — things such as understanding social responsibility and finding my passion for life, reading interesting but “useless” books and sharing ideas with smart people (not famous ones, whom we had a lot of access to especially, stars, businesspeople, and film directors).
In general, I feel like some biggest differences would be:
1. Students care more about studies here and they can chose whatever major they want (maybe because they are on student-loans…) while in China it’s more like a recognition where you choose a major before you get into college, and basically everyone can graduate however you did in your studies — yes you are in the club now and basically that’s all what college means.
2. Idealism and realism; while more students talk about “dream” and “career” here, most friends in my previous college are much more realistic and somehow feel like we are just dawdling and passing the days because we didn’t have a lot of pressure.
3. I feel the instructors are much better here.
The belief in the superiority of Western education was drummed into me at an early age, when the trend for Chinese students to study abroad was already budding in early 2000s. My mom and her colleagues who worked for a Peking University-affliated danwei frequently lamented the flaws of the Chinese education system. Believing she’s got the insider’s view, my mom was not optimistic about what Chinese universities could offer to its students. “Better to go abroad than staying here,” she often told me, and the book Harvard Girl was displayed in a prominent place on our bookshelf. Books like that offer more advice on how to apply to American colleges than description on what American colleges are like. So my mom’s admiration for western universities at the time was based more on their prestige than on concrete knowledge about the kind of education they offer, and the same was largely true for me before leaving China for a private high school in the States.
What I find most troubling about the current debate on U.S. colleges is a facile promise of “a life of the mind”: emphasis on liberal arts and on critical thinking has set American colleges in imagined opposition with their Chinese counterparts, which are invariably equated as rigid, retrograde, and even reactionary against the ideal of higher education. In truth, however, for students who spent all their precollege years in China and never set foot on an (elite) American campus – I was one of them – reasons for attending a U.S. college were voiced not because we knew they would be true; instead, we summoned these words partly as prayers because they articulate what we seem to aspire to.
The actual college experience, of course, depends more on individual choice than on mere institutional structuring. This semester, as exchange student at Sciences Po, one of France’s most prestigious grandes écoles, I am awed by my classmates’ brilliance despite the school’s rigid pedagogy, which resembles that of its Chinese counterparts: here, students normally take seven courses per semester (equivalent to five in the U.S.) and restrict their studies within social sciences; almost all classes – even seminars – are lecture-based, with no faculty office hours; finally, students are evaluated by how well they could retain facts and concepts, rather than by how critically or originally they could analyze them.
By invoking academic formalism in France as an example, I do not seek to settle an ongoing debate in higher education. Rather, it is my hope to caution against reifying institutional differences between China and U.S. universities and to invite a more critical reflection of liberal arts as an ideal form of education. And at the end of such debate, perhaps we should also acknowledge that college is ultimately what what one makes of it. Where one goes matters much less.