Research Notes: Radio schooling

While I was taking a cab in Harbin, the driver was listening to a radio program I found quite funny. It began with an advertisement about how "we must make our country and our city proud by studying English very well!" A friend in the car made a joke about how this was so important for us, but the cab driver listened quite intently. He then practiced with us, telling us "nice to meet you" and "it is very cold outside" (an appropriate English phrase considering the weather in Harbin in February).

In America in the last 20 years, "video killed the radio star" but educational programs in China still overwhelm the airwaves, and they have for nearly 60 years. Because of a tip from a reliable source, I have been looking into informal education practices in the 50s and 60s, or "self study" practices. This is important not only because no one has really looked at it, but also because during China's turbulent 50s-70s, this type of education became more and more important. The Communist regime attempted (more successfully than most governments) to attain universal education and universal literacy, but because of practicality, oftentimes the official schooling system was quite lacking. Eddie U's book about bureacracy in China and the USSR showed the failures of teacher recruitment in Shanghai in the early 50s: as factories consolidated and became state-owned and the number of students in school increased exponentially, there was a shortage of teachers; in order to deal with this shortage, the government recruited just about everyone to become teachers, including housewives and laborers with little to no education, and even people who had been repeatedly fired from old jobs and had forged their qualifications. Even a friend at the archives told me that his mandarin teacher could hardly speak mandarin herself, causing a lacking in the education system. Furthermore, by the time of the cultural revolution, formal education stopped completely, forcing studious youth to create their own ways to learn new skills. This became crucial come 1976, when the college entrance exam was reestablished.

While these self study practices relied largely on students, they were highly encouraged by government through radio programs. I came aross a series of documents from 1954 which outlined radio shows to teach students who had already graduated from elementary and middle school about language, politics, math, and science. As far as the language lessons, the documents explain that the purpose of these documents is not only to improve reading skills and speaking skills, but also to nurture the "self study attitude." The lessons were also not only political, but also talked about nature, famous artists, and foreign countries (from Moscow to China).

The natural science classes were meant to teach basic geology, chemistry, health, and biology. It was also meant to teach listeners about the fundamentals of science and the scientific method. The math classes were meant to teach "practical" math, and also to cultivate "self study practice." (According to Eddie U's book, while it might be hard to teach math over the radio, this class could be important; he reported from interviews some of thes untrained teachers writing on the board "41 x 1 =1"). The math class over all others seems to focus on giving laborers and the workforce "practical knowledge" that could serve to "increase productivity."

The documents on the politics class seem to, more than the others, address the intended audience for these radio shows. The documents explain that previous classes in politics, under the KMT, didn't give students a full understanding of the true political system or their place within it. Therefore, they couldn't understand the politics classes. These classes seem to have the goal of teaching former students educated under the KMT a proper understanding of the political system of their own government. Obviously, the communist party had many other institutions in place to address this issue, but this also emphasizes the role of the listener to engage in his own learning.

I hope to write more on this issues of self study practice, as this is just one part of it. Since currently I am looking at government documents, and self study implies practice outside of traditional institutions, I have not yet explored the full picture. I hope to, through other sources, delve deeper into this.

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