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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 67/August 1905/Some Phases of the Educational Problems in China



ON dealing with any part of the educational problem, it is necessary for us first to define our field. In this paper we shall consider the subject from the standpoint of one endeavoring to introduce 'western' learning among the Chinese. The fact that the Chinese do want to adopt western ideas and learning does not facilitate the task of regenerating the Chinese mind to as great a degree as the casual observer might suppose. While the present conditions are, of course, much more favorable for the introduction of new things into the Chinese life than they were a few years ago, still innumerable obstacles and difficulties remain in the path of one who wishes to be of some real assistance to the 'Coming New China.'

The ignorance of the students' parents and relatives or guardians is one of the most formidable enemies of modern education in southern China. As soon as the student reaches the age of sixteen or seventeen his parents get him a wife. We might think that a student who can get a wife without bothering his head over the affair has the advantage of saving the time which would be spent by a European or an American in courting. Still, to assume the responsibilities of married life at the age when he is just able to begin higher studies will prove an almost insurmountable barrier to the advance of the average student. Perhaps he is furnished with enough money to go to school, yet his wife must have some 'pin money,' and as she does not like to ask her father-in-law for every cent she needs, she soon begins to make demands upon her husband's slender purse.

As the Chinese 'gentleman youth' is not trained to do anything, he can not earn any money by doing 'odd jobs' while in school. Therefore, he embraces the first opportunity to obtain a position of some sort and leaves school. His school career is now ended forever and his desire for higher learning gradually becomes extinguished.

Very few Chinese realize that a useful education must be thorough and that to obtain a thorough education requires time. While they are willing to permit their boys to be crammed with obsolete classics for fifteen or twenty years with the hope of becoming Mandarins, yet they are not willing to let them study six or eight years in a modern institution of learning. All that they want their sons to obtain is a knowledge 'sufficient for the need' By this expression they mean that as soon as their sons are able to take positions as clerks, their education is 'finished.' Their highest ambition is to have their sons become chief clerks or compradores in commercial houses, thus insuring comfortable livelihoods.

Even the students who aim higher than 'business English' are anxious to find a short cut to learning and to obtain a general knowledge of science, philosophy or law in a very brief period. They are not willing to spend weeks, if need be, on a single point. They have no desire for original investigation; no craving for research work; no yearning to become wise above 'that which is written.' They are not willing to sacrifice time, pleasure and money and make everything subservient to the one aim of getting a thorough education.

Filial piety, inculcated into them by generations of usage and enforced upon them by their parents, is another great drawback. For instance, if a paternal relative is indisposed, the student must leave school and travel to his village to pay his respects to the sick one, thereby losing from a week to ten days' schooling. In the event of the marriage of a relative or of any other important festivity, the parents desire that the student be excused for another ten days or so, thus breaking into the continuity of his studies.

The poor physical condition of most of the students is another hindrance to their progress, and necessitates many days of absence from classes. Having been accustomed under the old Chinese system of education to commit to memory what was written, many of the students, who enter an institution of foreign learning where they are required not to memorize but to reason out the cause and effect and to give explanation for all that they do, find the work very hard upon them physically. Their ability to think and reason has been dwarfed by their previous training, and the transitional period of their mental readjustment is a great strain upon their weakened constitutions. One might ask, 'How have their constitutions become weakened?' By the use of tobacco and by the conditions under which they have studied. In the Chinese schools they have sat at their books from dawn until dark and read far into the night, seven days a week almost the whole year round, without physical exercise or proper ventilation. Consequently, the physical condition of many of the most diligent students is most deplorable.

Western education in China, like many pioneer undertakings elsewhere, has not had a proper start. Until recent years, very few real educators have come to China to establish schools. Formerly, most of the schools in which western learning was taught were conducted by zealous missionaries; unfortunately, most of the missionaries were not trained educators. Educational institutions are expensive and even the missionaries who were skilled in the art of teaching had no money for the necessary equipment.

The main reason why no teachers of high standing, who could hold professorships in any of the reputable colleges at home, have been working in China is the lack of money and facilities to induce them to come. When a scholar leaves civilization to go to regions far from home he must see some advantage in going. If he can go with a financial gain or library and laboratory advantages, he is willing to sacrifice the comforts and conveniences of the homeland. But China did not have the money to pay for high-salaried teachers or to provide any library or laboratory inducements for the scholar.

Nowadays we hear much of the colleges of western learning which the Chinese government proposes to establish in all parts of the empire. This calls to mind another difficulty, viz., the inability of the Chinese to manage a school properly. Most of the Chinese who try to start institutions of learning have no idea what a foreign college looks like. They have no means of knowing how to select men; neither are they capable of knowing whether the teachers whom they employ know how to give instruction. Formerly they thought that any foreigner could teach any or all of the subjects constituting 'western' learning. There were always plenty of unscrupulous foreigners willing to take advantage of the ignorance of the Chinese regarding educational affairs and to pose as 'professors' of anything or everything for the sake of the salaries. There were also numerous equally unscrupulous Chinese, who, having obtained a smattering of English in some foreign land, returned to China and undertook to give instruction in many branches.

Experience with such impostors has taught the Chinese to be suspicious of everybody and everything concerning western learning. We can not blame them for this. Confused by such experiences and reinforced by their profound ignorance of modern education, the Chinese school managers are exceedingly difficult to 'handle.' Notwithstanding their good intentions, they really do not know what they intend to do. As a result, the instructors whom they employ have to spend a large portion of their energy in managing the 'school-managers,' instead of being free to devote all of their attention to their school work proper.

Most of the schools in China, present as well as past, have big names only, regulations by the volume and curricula which exist only on paper. With their characteristic power in imitation and their time-honored conservatism, the Chinese school trustees want to follow this or that school instead of leaving the instructors free to administer the affairs of each school in accordance with its own peculiar needs.

What China needs to-day is not so much the higher theoretical education as some real, practical training. Her people are not ready for the former, but are badly in need of the latter. The first utility of education should be to enable those educated to earn a competency, without which we can hardly expect a man to go about discussing the nice points in law or in science, while a starving family awaits him at home and an empty stomach gnaws within. With her countless millions of population, China has no workmen skilled in the production of any part of the furnishings for the comforts and conveniences of modern life. To-day China is using modern conveniences and appliances that she can not produce. This being the condition, practical manual training in the useful arts is her first necessity. If China wishes to become a member of the great family of civilized nations, she must be educated out of the idea that an educated gentleman should not perform any manual labor, and that learning and labor are divorced from each other.

Though our path is thus strewn with difficulties and obstacles, yet we as educators do not labor without a bright ray of hope. The Chinese mind has all the elements of a good soil for the implantation of the seeds of learning; it only needs proper cultivation. For example, there are in the Li Shing Scientific and Industrial College at Hong Kong, young men and boys who, five months ago, had no idea of what science was, who can now perform chemical experiments understanding^ and discuss many scientific topics intelligently. Once having tasted the flavor of the new learning, some of the students try to devour the subjects with the eagerness of a starving dog that sees a piece of meat. When they are interested in their studies, they apply themselves to their books with all the force of mind and body. This better class of students is very orderly, docile, impressionable and respectful.

Although at first many of the students are slow to comprehend the methods and aims of a system of education so new to them, my experience has been that after a few months some of those who were apparently indifferent suddenly take hold as if by inspiration. Having become interested, nothing can woo them from their books, and, instead of having to hold them to strict account for their daily work, we have to keep them back. I have in mind, in particular, one fourteen-year-old boy who, when he entered our school, was a very idle and playful scholar. He was so idle and unruly that he had to be kept standing by the teacher's desk the greater part of the time. Indeed, we had our doubts whether it was best to allow him to remain with us. After a few weeks his reasoning powers became unearthed and he took an absorbing interest in chemistry. From that time forth there was no further occasion for reprimand; there was a marked changed in all his work and his progress in English was very rapid. His ability to apply what he learns, his power to grasp new ideas and his faculty for asking pointed questions are marvelous; it takes a well informed, wide-awake teacher to cope with him. He is but one of the many for whom the modern institutions of learning recently established in China are throwing open the doors of true knowledge.

When the Chinese youths have caught the student-spirit which dominates our western colleges, they become real 'digs' and not even their physical weakness can deter them. Therefore, we have reason to hope that when their constitutions shall have been strengthened by the abstemious life, the hygienic surroundings and the physical exercises which are features of the new institutions, China will have students able to sit at the banquet of learning with those of foreign nations.

The field being so great, the educators should not try to rival each other, but should rather endeavor to cooperate, in order to facilitate the enlightenment of this vast empire of the east. We can not at present expect to have real universities, where each institution shall have all the departments; therefore, the existing colleges should aim to supplement each other, each trying to establish some thoroughly equipped, special departments that the others do not have.

Colleges established in China need strong men, who are not afraid of hard work or of difficulties, and who will not worry if they attract but few students; men who will endeavor to carry on their respective institutions on a modern educational basis, and who will form plans and policies suited to the demands of the time and place. Thus manned, colleges in China will be able to send forth graduates educated in the true sense of the word and fitted to be useful in society. These college-trained men will act as a leaven which in time will change the whole social fabric of Chinese life, thus removing many of the obstacles which now confront the educator. In this way, existing colleges will advertise themselves by the quality of their graduates much more effectively than by any amount of pomp and show; will serve as models worthy of imitation; and will solve many of the present problems.