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The West’s exam stress

One supposes people are right to be concerned about how simply dreadful Western schooling has become, as confirmed by the most recent statistics from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. We already knew that Britain ranked 26th for maths, 23rd for reading and 21st for science in the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) league tables. Last month, however, it emerged that, in Britain and the United States, even the offspring of professionals are letting us down: apparently they’re being outperformed in exams by the children of factory workers and cleaners in parts of the Far East.

Perhaps Britons will take heart, in this reverse, from the fact that until fairly recently Team GB was completely useless at sport, too: at the 1996 Olympic Games, the country’s athletes came 36th in the medal table, behind Belgium, Algeria and Kazakhstan. We could have washed our hands of them and consoled ourselves with our prowess in pub sports, such as darts, but we didn’t – the powers that be jolly well rolled up their sleeves, put Lord Coe in charge of things and threw National Lottery funding at lots of people. In Beijing, in 2008, Team GB came fourth in the table, and in London, in 2012, third, winning just about enough gold medals to offset Gordon Brown’s firesale of the nation’s bullion a decade previously. Seemingly, British children partake in less physical activity now than ever before, but that is beside the point: the turnaround shows there is nothing inevitable about national decline.

For the right, at least since Thatcher and Reagan, halting such decline in the West has often been a powerful motivating narrative. The current British government’s Tory education secretary, Michael Gove, frequently appears to conduct policy as a form of warfare against his ideological opponents; but at least you know where he stands on this declining standards stuff – this rot, if you will. He believes the soft liberal emphases of prevalent teaching models must be diluted, that we must overcome our aversion to “passing on knowledge”, or rote learning, and that children need pushing a bit harder. In short, we need to copy how the Chinese and the Singaporeans do things – else our economic competitiveness will be increasingly blunted.

Who knows – maybe Mr Gove’s opponents on the left would argue Britain needs to be less competitive. The case against reducing all measurement of educational success or otherwise to a series of outputs that can be charted on international league tables has, at least, been forcefully made. But supposing his assumptions are all correct and our future prosperity depends on pupils performing better in core tests, then what next? Mr Gove’s underling, Liz Truss, led a delegation of English head teachers to China on a “fact-finding” mission last week. If hers was was meant to be a truly knowledge-based approach, it is to be hoped she kept her eyes wide open – for whatever the failings of British schools, China’s offer no panacea.

It should not, you will agree, require an actual visit to China to establish that pupils there and in many other parts of Asia perform well in exams. That is no secret. But nor should it be a surprise. They tend to start practising at an early age. In Hong Kong, for example, formal exams kick in at the outset of primary school. By secondary school, private tutors are viewed almost as compulsory if you want to keep up with your classmates: a University of Hong Kong survey last year found that 54 per cent of third form (age 14) and 72 per cent of sixth form students go for extra tuition after school.

In China, the average school pupil nowadays spends five hours more in school than his American counterpart each day, but cramming has lineage in the country. The imperial civil service exams, or keju, taken by teenagers for some 1300 years, lasted several days and covered everything from arithmetic to horsemanship and the writing out of lengthy quotations from Confucian classics. Their modern equivalent is the gaokao, the national university entrance exam; in recent years, an estimated 10 million or so candidates have competed annually for around six million spots at Chinese universities. Every year, Chinese newspapers fill up with tales of exam-time suicides. In 2012, it was reported that a school in Hubei province had hooked up gaokao hopefuls to intravenous drips while they studied – to save them the distraction of nourishing themselves.

But many in China – and in places such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore – believe their sons and daughters will find themselves better jobs at home if they have a degree from overseas. In the 2011-2012 academic year, there were 194,029 Chinese students studying in the US, accounting for 25 per cent of all foreign students in the country. The bill, for tuition and fees alone, can run to $200,000 per student, over four years. But here’s the thing – it would be wrong to assume that it is only the wealthy in Asia who are prepared to spend big on their children’s education. According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a third of Chinese students studying abroad in 2010 were from working-class families. Research indicates high levels of consumer expenditure on education, across all income brackets, in China, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, and reports abound of parents selling their homes, grandparents forgoing retirement and household debt soaring to fund junior’s advancement.

It is hard not to be a little awed by that level of sacrifice, even if many in the West find it somehow anathema. It is conceivable, certainly, that Michael Gove, though himself lucky enough – or, rather, bright enough – to have won a scholarship to attend Aberdeen Grammar and then studied at Oxford in the days when that still cost nothing, sees a nobility in it. But the pertinent question must be this: what does it avail the debtors? Well, here’s another statistic: 25 per cent of Chinese Ivy League entrants drop out. And the reasons? According to university officials quoted by the Wall Street Journal last year, many Chinese students, accustomed to an education system that rewards rote memorisation and exam training, find it difficult to adapt to those institutions’ liberal arts bias, which exalts analytical and critical thinking. The Journal’s report added: “Students are sometimes forced to choose between working hard to assimilate culturally and keeping their grades up, a failure to be college-ready that could be linked to the large number of falsified application documents.” The newspaper then cited a study by Zinch China, a consulting group that advises American colleges, claiming an estimated 90 per cent of Chinese applicants’ recommendation letters are fake, 70 per cent of their essays are written by someone else and 50 per cent of their high school transcripts are manipulated.

According to the Telegraph, Ms Truss’s visit to China “could lead to [English] schools adopting Chinese-style tactics such as more evening classes and eliminating time-wasting between lessons to boost performance in key subjects”. It also quoted her as saying Britain should learn from Chinese schools’ “positive philosophy”. It seems unlikely, then, that she will have returned armed with a dossier on falsified transcripts, but it doesn’t take much digging to corroborate some of Zinch China’s claims. School teachers on international programmes at prestigious high schools in Shenzhen spoken to for background on this article confirmed the inflation of subject grades by schools is common practice and unmonitored by overseas admissions authorities – the focus for schools trying to help pupils gain admission to American institutions is on preparing them for the US college admissions exam, the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT), which consists primarily of sections on critical reading, mathematics and writing; scholastic transcripts are included in college applications, but there’s no way of checking that they give a true reflection of a candidate’s actual attainment.

What is also clear is that the pressure to gain acceptance to lofty seats of learning is not coming from young people themselves, nor even the Chinese state, but rather from those funnelling the cash: Chinese parents. Correspondingly, it seems unlikely they will accede to the government’s proposed fazing out of exams before the age of 9 and written homework before the age 12. Similar softening measures have been ignored in South Korea. In Hong Kong, a 2012 study found a third of students aged between 12 and 17 were depressed. It’s a wild guess, but parental pressure and expectation from early years might be factors.

In the 1850s, China was devastated by the Taiping Rebellion, in which an uprising led by one Hong Xiquan – who, following a nervous breakdown precipitated by his repeated failure to pass his keju exams, came to believe he was the brother of Jesus Christ – resulted in a civil war that killed tens of millions. A few short years later, on the other side of the East China Sea, Emperor Meiji – wishing to make his country wealthier – had set about Westernising Japan. But there was a problem: as the historian Niall Ferguson recounts in Civilisation: The West and the Rest, neither the Emperor nor his courtiers could work out which elements of Western culture were crucial to its economic success. And so they ended up copying everything from Western clothes and hairstyles to the practice of colonising foreigners. Unluckily, their adventures in empire-building came at exactly the moment when the costs of imperialism began to exceed the benefits. That particular experiment did not end well, as history records.

Ferguson refers to the East catching up on the West in the 21st Century as “The Great Reconvergence”. Let us, by all means, marvel at how China in particular has pulled that Reconvergence off. Let us even try to emulate aspects of the East’s success. But for heaven’s sake, let’s not persuade ourselves that Western education is in such a state that copying Chinese models will fix it.

A version of this article can be found at Spiked


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American hustle

This article was published in the South China Morning Post’s Post Magazine

“Neat little ejaculations of like apparent power”. That is how the comedian Russell Brand – a man much-loved by women who take delight in the haphazard use of such words as “paradigm” and “hegemony” and have low self-esteem – last year referred to the act of voting. Mr Brand was urging people not to vote – “it just encourages the bastards” – explaining that he does not indulge in it himself. But the thing is, you see, he does. It may come as no surprise, if you are familiar with what goes on in Hollywood, that he is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which votes on The Oscars.

Ooh, The Oscars you say, if you … well, if you what, exactly? If you actually like films, The Oscars has nothing to offer; indeed, when this year’s awards are broadcast tonight you must avoid them – tuning in only encourages the bastards. If, on the other hand, you applaud shlock, canting humbug and the neat little ejaculations of like apparent (and what beautiful ambiguity resides in that grammatical double qualifier) power then by all means do tune in, and keep the world updated via social media with your thoughts on the contenders and the speeches and the dresses while you’re at it, for that will please Mr Brand and his cohorts very much.

Those cohorts, those august fellow Academicians do, of course, include many talented writers, directors, actors and people who can apply make-up. That is granted. But for the most part they are cranks, divas, studio presidents, drug addicts, sex addicts, Woody Allen, Bryan Adams, television pageant winners, Oprah, egotists, fops, public relations executives, deviants, Meat Loaf and Russell Brand. And often they are several of these things or people at once.

No, don’t encourage them.


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Xi’s bun show

This article was published in the South China Morning Post’s Post Magazine

From the diary of President Xi Jinping, as leaked to Post Magazine by shadowy forces:

“Dear diary, just can’t decide what to do with the spin doctors – they’ve made a sow’s ear of this pork bun shop business. I mean, yeah, it sounded like a great idea: ‘Get out there and meet the plebs,’ they said. ‘Then we’ll plaster it over the internet – well, the bits of the internet you allow – and you’ll come up smiling. Man of the people and all that. Bingo!

“Only they didn’t tell me about the song. Whose moronic idea was that? ‘Big brother Xi … You warm the hearts of the common people in the cold winter’. Jeez, it makes me sound all cuddly. All I did was fix the old kisser in a grin and stuff dumplings and stew (horrible stuff – backed me up no end) down it. Thought the driver would never honk for us to leave – we had to have words about that later. Now they’re all talking about the cult of Xi. Who wants that? Not me.

“Or maybe I do. Can’t make up my mind. Liyuan’s always telling me I’m cuddly. I tell her there speaks the cancer of bourgeois liberalism, but then she starts singing The Laundry Song (The army and people are one family/ Helping us to wash our clothes) and I let it slide.

“Anyway, the propaganda team are under surveillance. Why can’t they be more like Hollande’s guys? Nobody wrote a stupid song about him after he nipped out to see that woman about a dog.

“Maybe I should get a dog. Not a big scary one, mind, but nothing too cuddly either.”


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Tailor trashed

Feng Xiaogang has been ranting. Boy has he been ranting. Co-opting the shrill tendency of egotists everywhere to brand those at variance with themselves “nazis”, the mainland filmmaker’s response last month to a negative reception of his latest opus has been quite undignified, perhaps all the more so given the eagerness with which audiences flocked to see it anyway, enabling it to break Chinese box office records.

Alas, Personal Tailor scored poorly with paid reviewers and the social media crowd alike, a double whammy Feng rationalised on Weibo as follows: “The movie-goers can criticise me as much as they like … but not the film reviewers. [They] do not pay for tickets but make money from reviewing.” He also labelled his critics “shallow”, “an embarrassment” and “fools”.

Not having seen Personal Tailor, I cannot say. Perhaps they are. And perhaps it is the brilliant, important satire Feng avers and will be lauded by posterity for poking fun at corrupt authorities and the superficiality of modern Chinese society (the plot, it seems, touches on official graft, the vulgarities of the nouveau riche and the obstacles that prevent filmmakers from transcending lowbrow culture). Claims to that effect from a man who has built a career on the popular tastes of such a society, and whose cinematic cup runneth over with product placements, seem a little counterintuitive, of course – but as I say, what do I know?

One supposes it is a good thing that a mainlander should speak his mind freely, but to rail against those “cultural nazis” who would dispute Feng’s genius by suggesting they be deprived of their right to do so sounds a tad despotic in itself. “You’re all stupid, shut up,” is about the size of it. Whatever Feng’s talents as a filmmaker, patrons of the vituperative arts have been ill-served.

This article was published in the South China Morning Post’s Post Magazine


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Let there be light

Trading in the online currency Bitcoin has just gone the way of most things the Chinese government fears or doesn’t understand (they’re not the only ones) and been banned in the mainland after huge demand there saw it surge in value. The news also came fast on the heels of reports that the so-called Great Firewall of China is under attack from uptake of a new software programme that allows users to get round web censorship: Lantern.

It may well be that by the time you read this Lantern – which has already been put to the test by dissidents in Iran – will have had Beijing’s hose turned on it, but its emergence demonstrates that rearguard attempts to wage war on internet activity are likely doomed to failure. Because the thing about the web is that there’s always a workaround. The technology it has spawned and put at the world’s disposal already outstrips the might of governments to control it. It’s about time they realised this.

It’s not just the Chinese and the Iranians (and the Russians) – all of whom seem to think a closed, national “intranet” model is possible – who don’t quite seem to get it, though. British Prime Minister David Cameron keeps talking about being able to turn off the tap of online pornography. Does he really believe any “fix” his taxpayer-funded IT wallahs can come up with will be any match for internetland’s plumbers? If governments can’t control things like porn or copyright, what hope have they of reining in alternative currencies, or thought?

East and West alike seem to fear “the dark web”. We learn that it’s a nasty place, one where people sell drugs and plan terror attacks and eat babies. But actually it’s just a way of connecting to the world with anonymity. No wonder it’s the new bogey man.

As the efforts of the NSA to be the world’s listening post (its priest, if you will) have shown, at considerable cost to America’s soft power – attempting to master the web is a losing game. If there’s a war going, the geeks have already won.

This article was published in the South China Morning Post’s Post Magazine


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Channel hop, 8/12

Whenever I have had occasion to meet elected politicians, I’ve found them to be, in the main, good, well-meaning sorts; decent, principled, hard-working, etc. The celebrity chef Jamie Oliver is also possessed of these qualities; and in the second series of Jamie Oliver’s American Food Revolution (TLC, Thursday, 7pm), he is a man on a mission – to change the system, minds, the world, the menu. Where he differs from politicians is that they do not, as a rule, get given six-part prime-time platforms via which to go on spittle-flecked tirades; no, they have to grovel and scrape, and kiss babies, and get voted out, and put up with being called rude names on the Twitter accounts their special advisers maintain for them. They don’t win Emmy awards – which is what Oliver blagged for himself with his first American Food Revolution, in which he failed to persuade grotesquely obese schoolchildren in Hungtinton, West Virginia to choose his food over the crap served in their schools.

So, anyway, he’s back, and he’s on the warpath again, this time in Los Angeles, which he probably surmised might prove more receptive to his proselystising, being, after all, celebrity chef terra firma. But no, it turns out people there are just as happy to kill their children slowly with fat, slime and sugar as they are elsewhere in the country (or in all those forlorn parts of Britain visited by Oliver in other shows where most people are nowadays between 90 and 95 per cent tattooed lard and pie crust). He’s on the side of the angels, of course, and his palpable anger is righteous and this stuff matters. But as he goes about telling small-time fast food business to put fruit in their milkshakes, hinting at conspiracies and cover-ups on the part of LA’s education authorities and generally being all martyr-like, the thought that comes to mind is that celebrity and riches have come at a cost to Oliver’s mental health. Jamie, mate, Americans don’t respond well to being lectured by anyone, even Brits; and besides, they’re really not all that into revolutions, except maybe that one where they put your forefathers back in their boats.

TV shows tend to air in Hong Kong way after they’ve impacted on general consciousness and been illegally torrented by half the world, which often defeats the purpose of “previewing” them. Ray Donovan debuts tonight (Fox Movies Premium, 10.45pm), but though much-hyped in the US it’s probably one of those ones that will grow cultish appeal and you’ll finally get round to watching it all in one sitting because you’re fed up feeling left out in conversations. A lot happens in the first episode and at a ferocious clip, but it’s all show and not very much tell, so you’re reeled in good and slow. Complexity being king these days, there are masses of characters and fugues of “what just happened?” moments as we’re dropped into a Los Angeles that is rotten to the core.

Ray, played by Liev Schreiber, is a PR “fixer” for a law firm that makes everything OK for rich and famous people to be as venal as they like. He’s part private eye, part-gunslinger, but there’s no moral dimension to his aptitude for violence – he’s no Clint Eastwood. Maybe he’ll turn out to have endearing qualities but for now it looks as though Ray Donovan’s creators want viewers to accept that bad guys being good at being bad is as good as it gets in Hollywood. Stylistically there are elements of Raymond Chandler, the cast (Jon Voight as Ray’s bad old dad just freed from prison; the excellent Eddie Marsan as his brother; Elliot Gould as a lunatic) is formidable and it’s very filmic, but all the swinishness and neurosis and psychosis might be a little exhausting for some.

This article was published in the South China Morning Post’s Post Magazine


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Classic mistakes

Some jobs call for more concentration than others: surgery, snooker, murder, that sort of thing. Performing, say, a Mahler symphony, must be pretty demanding, too, what with all the time signature changes and demented scherzo-ing; and some things rather tend to break the spell – a phone ringing in the concert hall, for example. 

Noisy audiences at a recent summer arts festival in Scotland prompted discussion about classical music concert-goers’ decorum there. Someone writing in The Guardian – betraying that newspaper’s vestigial 1970s radicalism, or hatred of all things “stuffy” – argued that making such music less accessible by expecting people to conform to norms of behaviour once a conductor raises his baton might put some of them off attending and should be avoided.

Well, of course, trying not to cough is tricky and in extreme circumstances may lead to death; and I have no issue with the ingenue who claps between movements – there is a difference between etiquette and manners, and those who possess the latter ought to know to join in so as not to make the clapper feel awkward. Efforts to make concert halls more welcoming or relaxed places must be resisted, however. It will only open the door to the kind of excesses that should be confined to American Pentecostal worship.

Now, reports tell us of a Canadian orchestra’s performance in Fuling, Chongqing, being marred by chatter, phones ringing (and being answered), and audience members filming proceedings. Hong Kong’s concert-goers tend to be more considerate but, even so, that most precious of commodities in these parts – silence – is never a given. Classical musicians deserve more: it should be remembered, after all, that many of them take rests during longer pieces to catch up on sleep.

This article was published in the South China Morning Post’s Post Magazine

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