Inside Chinese Higher Education: A Hidden Strength

China has hundreds of colleges. Tsinghua and Beijing University are at the top (top tier), followed by perhaps 20 colleges considered second-tier. A friend of mine attends a third-tier school. In all of her classes, class consists of the professor reading the textbook. Word for word. (Which, by the way, doesn’t happen at Tsinghua, I checked.)

Perhaps you grimace. I think this is a great thing. It means students can easily skip class — any sensible person would. Being able to skip class frees them to do internships, visit the National Museum, explore the off-campus world however they want. My friend took advantage of this to do three internships. At Berkeley I told students to take as few classes as possible and take as many internships as possible. I taught a class called Psychology and the Real World whose sole purpose was to help students learn off campus. When I was a freshman at Caltech, the school had an unintentionally similar feature: all freshman grades were pass/fail. This made it much easier to skip class, which I did most of the time. Even better than the Chinese system, I no longer had to study much. I used my abundant free time to explore my own interests, which included reading Veblen and Freud. I taught psychology to under-privileged eighth-graders. The freedom provided by pass/fail grading allowed me to explore my own interests and started me on the path to becoming an experimental psychologist. I am not kidding: this is a great hidden strength of Chinese higher education.

By the same twisted logic am I glad that American colleges are becoming insufferably expensive — because then fewer people will attend them? Not yet. I think most American high school students think not attending college is dangerous. Reading the textbook at home and doing an internship isn’t dangerous.