Research Notes: Self study and the urban-rural divide

Today's world is almost obsessively concerned with distribution of wealth, and in the case of China, that discussion is often held in conjunction with discussions of the urban/rural inequality of wealth. Throughout Chinese history, there has been a drastic divide between city and countryside residence, and is evident in everything from prices of food and average quality of living to prejudices one holds against the other.

Concerns about the urban/rural divide are imbued in just about every one of China's concerns, including (perhaps even especially) education. While land and wage reform in the early 1950s and 60s began to even that divide, it is deepening once more. And these undulations in wealth inequality were, and still are, paralleled by education inequality.

While there is much to be said on this subject when it comes to institutionalized education, I have found some interesting information concerning this topic when it comes to self study options. While at the publishing house, looking through self study manuals, I began to chat with one of the librarians about his experiences with different kinds of self study. He told me that radio broadcasts were an extremely popular among people of his generation, and he told me the most popular broadcast was actually English lessons. He explained to me that he, like many people his age, was not able to graduate middle school or high school because of the cultural revolution, and by the time traditional education was reinstated, they had a few options, and radio schooling seemed like the best. In fact, potential self studiers could buy textbooks that followed along with the lessons on the radio, thus giving them both written and oral practice. And while he didn't take college or high school exams in these subjects based entirely on radio schooling, he knew plenty of people who did.

I then asked him (since he is from Shanghai) whether this was popular in small towns as well, and he told me of course! In places like Shanghai, people had options for alternative education; they could go to night school, they could go to school after retiring, etc. But in rural places, where could they go to school? There was barely enough institution to house traditional school aged children, let alone adults. Therefore, radio schooling was about the only option. I then asked him if this was true before 1949, and while he didn't know about radio schooling, he did tell me that "free time schools" and nigh schools were enormously popular in Shanghai in the 1930s. This librarian told me that his father actually utilized night schools to learn a variety of languages, including French, English, and Japanese, the first of which was especially helpful since they lived in the French Concession. But, he said gravely, these were options only open to Shanghai residents, and Shanghai at that time was enormously more developed than the rest of China. Furthermore, all of these alternative education options cost money, money that Shanghai residents often have that those in the countryside would not.

Now obviously this is one narrative, and doesn't tell the whole story. For instance, government documents reveal heavy efforts put into rural schooling opportunities for those in factories and those in the countryside. Furthermore, the government encouraged those in cities who did not go on in their schooling to help out in the rural countryside, and in return attempted to give them self study options. But numbers related to these efforts are hard to come by, and it is even harder to know their accuracy. This is why the radio was so important; it truly was the only resource that could be equally spread to all members of China.

This also brings up some interesting new questions. First of all, how did these opportunities for alternative education shift and change from before and after 1949, not only in the countryside but also in the city itself? Secondly, from the little information I gathered, it seems as though material for alternative education was different in the rural and urban settings since knowledge needed for farming and knowledge needed for factory work was drastically different, and it would be interesting to look at the curriculum for both settings. Finally, and this would be the most difficult to answer, how did these policies strengthen, weaken, or maintain the difference between the rural and urban education levels?

This also shows how important oral history is to these kinds of studies. I hope to have more opportunities to find out information from people themselves, rather than simply just from archival sources.

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