The Damaged Generation

Rob Schmitz Jun 6, 2011

15 year-old Sun Jia Lu wakes up each morning at six, eats breakfast on the bus to school, sits through eight classes, and then returns home where she studies until one in the morning the following day. She wakes up five hours later and repeats. Weekends aren’t for resting. They’re for tutoring sessions. She’s done this for nine years. “All of this for the gao kao,” she tells me outside her high school in a Beijing suburb.

The gao kao, China’s college entrance examination that will be administered over three days this week, is the ultimate tool of social advancement in China. It’s the reason why Chinese high schools are glorified test prep institutions. Sun Jia Lu says it’s also behind the nickname teenagers in today’s China have given themselves: The Damaged Generation (被摧残的一代).

Sun’s still got two years before she takes the gao kao. But for many recent high school graduates in China, this week is the most stressful one of their lives.

It’s a time when parents fork out a healthy portion of their monthly salaries to pay for taxis to the test site so their teenager doesn’t have to deal with public transportation; a hotel room near the test center where their teenager can rest between exam sections; a time when mothers buy their daughters birth control pills so that they don’t get their period during the exam. Sometimes the pressure is just too much: Last year, at least three young test-takers killed themselves on the first day of the gao kao.

Sun fits the profile of a student who will probably do well on the gao kao: She attends an elite school in Beijing and is among the top 20 students in her class. I ask Sun if she’s happy. She looks at me as if I’d grown a second head. “Of course I’m not happy! I have no freedom. Once I make it to University, then I can have a rest.”

And therein lies the problem: After 13 years of non-stop test preparation, many Chinese see college as a big, feather mattress bed where their exhausted minds and bodies can collapse, relax, and catch up on a childhood spent studying. College, a place where young people are supposed to pursue their own interests and expand their minds, is, for many Chinese, a place where they can finally get some sleep.

This doesn’t bode well for China’s plan to develop an economy based on innovation. Innovation requires sharp, analytical minds; Minds that can synthesize data and solve complex problems. “Chinese teachers just teach us the answers,” says Sun, “We spend years studying the correct answers for the next test we’ll take.”

As a result, China’s young people are good at tests. Shanghai students proved this when they beat out students from all over the world last year in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the U.S. needed to see these results as “a wake-up call.”

Perhaps. But before the U.S. starts modeling its system after the test-obsessive Chinese one, it might help to check-in with students like Sun Jia Lu; students who, after surviving China’s education system, consider themselves damaged.

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