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Pollution, Education, and More

by on October 27, 2012

My alarm went off at 6:55AM, uninvitingly piercing through my restless four-hour slumber. But I didn’t care. It was game day for the Tsinghua Football Team.

I looked out the window, as I reached to put on my Crocs to take a quick shower. I was shocked by what I saw—or perhaps, in better words, by what I didn’t see. The infamous smog had masked all of the surrounding buildings.

In order to alert foreigners of the health risks of going outside, The US Embassy tweets the amount of pollution hourly at its location in the Beijing. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, anything about from 150-200 PM2.5 is considered “Unhealthy”, with warnings that “everyone should reduce prolonged or heavy exertion.” 250 is considered “Very Unhealthy”, and 300 and above is considered “Hazardous”. The pollution, when I woke up, was at 330, and rising.

Forced with a tough decision of whether or not to play, I quickly called up my friend Jingwen.

            “What’s the call?” I asked.

            He looked outside. “Dude, I can’t even see 10 meters in front of my building.”

Even though we had stayed in the night before, skipping a citywide Halloween party, we both knew we could not play. Missing both of us, our team was down two players for its game.

Unsurprisingly, the rest of our team, all Chinese, had no problem or concern about playing in the very unhealthy pollution-filled city. In fact, neither did the other Chinese players on the other seven university teams in our division. When the game ended, I called a player on our team to ask if people here minded exercising in the pollution and recognized its negative effects. I also inquired about the effectiveness of the masks that people often wear around the city to limit the effect of pollution. His answer surprised me.

“We know exactly what it does to you,” he said. “But we don’t care. We’re used to it. And those masks are to stop sickness, I think. Not pollution.”

I immediately knew where he was coming from. When one lives in the same place for an extended period of time, he or she has to learn to confront and deal with the issues encountered on a daily basis to live a fulfilling life. It’s an important lesson that has universal relevance, regardless of the magnitude of the daily challenge. Whether someone lives in a bad neighborhood, third world country, or pollution-ridden city, there is no benefit of living in fear. Sometimes it’s easy to forget how fortunate many of us are that we don’t face problems as far reaching as these. Jingwen and I have vowed to play in our game tomorrow—as long as the visibility is good enough to see the ball.

Playing basketball in the gym the other day with some Chinese students, I decided to test out my language skills and try to speak with them. One was on the school basketball team’s practice squad. He said he was a graduate student, but he looked to be my age. I wasn’t sure if I misinterpreted what he was saying, so I switched to English to understand his situation. To my surprise, I was right; the kid was only 19, yet he had graduated from Tsinghua in the spring, starting at one of the most prestigious universities in China at the age of 15. But he wasn’t alone. He told me stories of many of his peers and classmates, many of whom started studying there at the age of 13 or 14.

While there are a lot of similarities between the Chinese and American education systems, they consist of universal qualities of education: dedicated teachers, high expectations of student participation and effort, among other expected characteristics. However, the distinctions of the Chinese system are intriguing because they are so different and completely unimaginable from the American perspective.

From what I have observed, one major difference is the focus on student health. Despite incredibly expectations and the unthinkable amount of work that is assigned, all electricity in Chinese undergraduate dorms shuts off at 11:00PM.

Let’s think about this for a second. First, no Internet. No ability to email or interact through social networks. On a much more fundamental level, you can’t turn the lights on. You can’t charge your electronics. You can’t take a shower.

What does this mean? Well, once 11:00PM hits, you pretty much have to be in bed. Sure, students find ways around this rule by using other sources of electricity. After all, when you get six hours of work everyday, sometimes you need it. Regardless, the university’s attitude towards preserving sleep is both dictatorial and effective.

One difference that is perhaps more often discussed in America is the college admissions process. In China, the only thing that determines admission to a top university in China is your Gaokao score, which is in simple terms the Chinese equivalent to the SAT. When applying to colleges, you can only select one college to apply to from the three levels of universities. The colleges, at least in the top tier, then go through the Gaokao scores of all of their applicants, making a cut off at the score number where they can enroll a full class.

This means that when applying as someone with a decent score, you are taking a huge gamble when it comes to choosing your top tier college. If you choose one of the two best universities, Tsinghua or Beijing University, and your score is too low, you’re stuck with a tier two college. At the same time, you could simply choose a less prestigious tier one school; yet, this could turn out to haunt you if you find out your score would have actually been high enough for your real first choice school. Surprisingly, if your score isn’t high enough, you can pay approximately six times the cost of tuition and still enroll in your first choice college.

In a way, one might not think this is too different from the US system. The SAT, while perhaps not the sole decider, plays a huge role in our admissions process. You also can only choose one school to apply to early decision, and if denied admission often have to settle for a school not as “prestigious” as you may have hoped. Additionally, it is also an inevitable fact that a select number of students receive admission for reasons other than merit, such as from athletics or family influence.

But, in fact, the Gaokao is quite different from our standardized testing. For one, all of high school in China is spent preparing for the test. A few years back, my high school eliminated its AP program, citing that the approach of teaching towards the test takes away from the learning experience. While it’s easy to dismiss spending four years to teach to one test as an efficient way to educate teenagers, I think, after further evaluation, the method holds some value.

In China, due to the overpopulation, it would be impractical to use the same admissions process as that of the US. Having students apply to a large amount of schools in China would flood admissions departments beyond belief, leaving them with way too many essays and applications to read. Given the circumstances, I think teaching to the test, and having one test be the be-all-end-all is an efficient method. Thinking rationally, having students prepare for a test for four years is really testing their work ethic and endurance. They know what it takes to succeed; it comes down to their willingness to put the work in to do well. Further, because of the many, many students in China, the top scorers are not just hard workers, but also incredibly intelligent and insightful.  

In a way, isn’t hard work and intelligence the criteria from which colleges should be selecting students? Without the craze of cluttering a resume filled with extracurriculars that “look good”, students can also pursue extracurricular pursuits they enjoy without worrying if colleges will regard them highly or not. In my experience reading resumes and essays in my internship at a local college consulting company, this allows students to be exponentially more involved in things they enjoy, and as a result, they achieve tremendous success in their chosen fields outside of the classroom. The one test system also lessens competitiveness in the high school classroom, as you aren’t fighting with your classmates to earn the highest grades in every class.

With a year’s tuition at Tsinghua under $1,000USD, there is certainly a high reward of acceptance to this renowned university. And although the path to get here is determined by success on one test, the side effects of eliminating other variables in the admissions process enables students to work without a feeling of competition and lets them dedicate their free time to the activities that make them happy, without the worry of their significance. Would a similar approach work in the US? Perhaps not. But it’s certainly worth a discussion.


What do you think of the current US college admissions process? Would changes that incorporate some of China’s methods make it more fair or simplify the process too much?


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  1. Caroline Hunsicker permalink

    I understand the idea of allowing students to pursue the activities that they enjoy by eliminating the need for a padded extracurricular resumé, but I’m not sure if a similar process would thrive in the United States. For one thing, the range of academic prestige in American high schools is far greater than in China. Because the failure of many public school districts and systems and also the ridiculously difficult and rigorous prep school curriculums, no one test could serve as a blanket assessment for all graduating high school seniors. Creating such a test is difficult (as seen by the struggles of the No Child Left Behind policy), and would require the restructuring of public school systems so that they could compete with top level private schools. I am sure that China has a similar disparity to some regard, but I would bet that their public high school institutions are, generally, more academic than some of ours.

  2. That’s a great point. There is definitely a big disparity between high schools in the US which could completely eliminate diversity in many of the nation’s top universities. That’s the major problem with college admissions: by making it completely objective, it is unfair for high school students who go to schools with less resources; at the same time, the current methods sometimes exclude numerically highly qualified students. I don’t know if there’s a right answer.

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