Summary: Self Education and Self Motivation

A few months into my grant, after I had read more textbooks than could fill my apartment, a mentor gave me the research idea to explore less traditional forms of education, namely, those who had used their own time and resources to self-study their way to expertise in certain areas, both practical and ideological.

This opened a wave of new information and ideas. I found, after a few days of searching at the archives, that not only did many people self study (especially in the early days of the Communist period) but in fact it was part of a wider government program to promote mass education. The government realized that as it was spreading education opportunities to new members of society at an unprecedented rate, it couldn't educate everyone, especially two groups of people: those who were older and did not receive an education (or received a poor one) before 1949, and those who were not able to test into higher education because of the lack of sufficient secondary schools. Therefore, the government worked hard to spread awareness about the benefits of self study, and to organize self study groups.

One of the most interesting ways the government supported and promoted self study among its population was by instituting radio broadcasts. These radio broadcasts included broadcasts on political thought, but most of the broadcasts were lessons in spoken mandarin Chinese, basic math and algebra. The government also published textbooks to supplement these lessons, and over the radio, organized self study groups with trained teachers in different areas of Shanghai. This was one of the main ways that the government involved itself in this particular sector of unorthodox education.

Self study took on a different meaning, however, during different time periods. In the early 1900s, during the height of the New Youth Movement and May 4th, self study was a way to improve and better oneself. When the term "self study" was used in these contexts, it was often used for the already educated, and was meant to be a way for people to better and reform themselves, thus contributing to the betterment of society as a whole (these movements heavily stressed education). There were manuals that those with the impetus to self study could use, and they listed different methods and ways to self study. Oftentimes, the topics were literature, science, or foreign languages. As the manuals themselves were often written in difficult Chinese, and the rational for using various methods cited foreign sources, the implication was that people who used these manuals were already well educated. This demonstrates the way that time period viewed self study: it was a method through which people could become "Renaissance men" which would ultimately improve Chinese society as a whole.

Documents are much fewer in number after 1961, but from what little I have been able to glean from informal interviews and secondary sources, the meaning of self study changed once again during the cultural revolution. Once the Cultural Revolution began, standard education was not an option anymore; furthermore, while work unit meetings and other such educational options were still available, the material taught through these options was largely impractical, focusing almost entirely on political ideology. Therefore, those who wanted some sort of future saw self study as their only option. Many people, for instance, used this time period, and the radio broadcasts (which were still performed) to learn either spoken Mandarin Chinese or English. I don't know if radio broadcasts continued in such areas as algebra or science continued after 1966 (as such documents are unavailable to me) but it would be interesting to see of those continued as well.

Exploration into this topics illuminates many themes and ideas from the 20th century. First of all, it raises the question as to the role of government. I think we often believe that in a Communist regime (especially the Maoist regime) that the government sought to control every aspect of society, including thought, activity, and culture. However, the way in which the Communist regime promoted self study implies that the government, while trying its best to control content, also believed that it was the job of the citizen to design their own future through self motivation. On a side note, I found it interesting that many of the documents from the 1950s and 1960s emphasized that children or adults who self studied could have a "future," which seemed to be the main concern of the population. I think that I believed before that once the Communists took over, they never felt the need to talk about such things since the government would take care of everything. Clearly, worries about getting a future career still seemed to permeate Chinese society.

Another question this topic raises is the meaning of knowledge and education. Before 1949, self study was a means to further better oneself once he is already educated. And while reformers from the 1920s and 1930s emphasized mass education, self study was not a big part of that. Education, and self motivation, was reserved for the elite. Furthermore, the content was not necessarily a skill set necessary for life, but instead was scholarly knowledge, useful to those in academia but little else. In a sense, the Communist period saw a shift in the meaning of education. It was not meant necessarily to enlighten, and it was not reserved for the elite. Instead, it was meant for everyone, and it was meant to give participants a skill set to be used in all lines of work; it was for basic education. This demonstrates a shifting meaning of the words knowledge and mass education.

If I were to further pursue this topic, I would need more information from a few things. First of all, I would need to get much more information from the 1920s and 1930s, and more information from the Cultural Revolution period. I have plenty of information from the 1950s and 1960s, but sources are fewer (from what I have explored) during these other periods. Furthermore, I have very little information about what was happening during the war; this is an important period to cover since a lot in terms of mass education was happening during this period. I also would like to get ahold of some of the radio broadcasts from the time periods (although for the time being, I have documents that outline their curriculum).

I think this could be a great idea, and could illuminate a whole other side of the world of knowledge and education. I hope to be able to explore more of this in the future.


Summary: Everyday knowledge

As my Fulbright year is coming to a close, I decided to go ahead and create a few blogs that sum up a lot of the topics I have been exploring this year, and possible offshoot questions from those topics.

The first is about "everyday knowledge" textbooks, or changshi. I've written a lot about this topic because it connects to a lot of issues. First, it raises questions about education curriculum. By reading the "changshi" textbooks, we are able to look at what children were learning in their early years of education, and for many, especially before 1949, their only years of education. It also demonstrates government priority of knowledge. What made the cut into everyday knowledge? If we educate our public, what are the most important things for them to know.

In a broader sense, it also helps to define what is meant by knowledge, especially in the "modern" sense. In fact, the term "changshi" is specific to modern China (late 19th century onward) as is the whole concept of knowledge as being every day. Historians of nationalism and the modern state often cite Gellner's theory of the spread of knowledge to the entire population as a hallmark of modernity. Before this, knowledge was a privilage for the upper few; there was no concept of knowledge as belonging to everyone, and especially no desire for the government to ensure a basic level of knowledge among the population. Therefore, when we start to see these "changshi" sections in magazines, newspapers, textbooks, radio broadcasts, etc., we see a new dedication to a public with a basic level of knowledge, a population that can exist in a modern world. In that sense, we can look at changshi as a definition of the concept of knowledge: knowledge is available and necessary for everyone who wants to exist in a new society.

But what is considered "everyday knowledge" varies from situation to situation. There are often qualifiers to "changshi" both inside and outside of the education world. There is "economic changshi" "political changshi" "technology changshi" "science changshi" and on and on. But in elementary education, there is often no qualifier; instead, it is as basic and vague as possible, essentially, what every 7-12 year old needs to know.

So by looking at these textbooks, we are not only given a glimpse into what children learned in school, but the definition of knowledge altogether. And what constituted necessary knowledge in the 1930s was very different than what constituted knowledge in the 1950s. I've in previous posts given examples as to why that is. One of the main differences is emphasis on politics vs. other subjects. How much should politics take precendence when a government decides the basic knowledge its population should know? As we see the shift from the 1930s to the 1950s, obviously the information about political systems changed (from the nationalist to the communist systems). But more than that, what is interesting is that through this "everyday knowledge" of political systems, in the 1950s we see more of an emphasis on the importance of civic engagement through politics. To explain this through a counter example, in America I think most would agree that the way our democratic republic works should be considered "basic knowledge" for all of our citizens because we expect all of our citizens to take civic engagement seriously and participate in the democratic system. Similarly, in the 1950s, the communist government, while obviously not expecting citizens to vote, did expect all citizens to actively participate in politics by "continuing the revolution" and contributing economically in production. For this reason, the textbooks included "basic knowledge" about being a good cadre, about participating in the military, and even about being a class leader.

Beyond politics, another change we see that represents how each government understood knowledge was information about technology. What this indicated was how both governments wanted its people to contribute to infrastructue and development through better technology. I even learned through these books more about how planes worked.

But probably the most heavily emphasized topic was health and hygiene, which some could argue indicates that the most important element about being a good Chinese citizen all throughout the 20th century was being healthy and hygienic. This had a very practical purpose; if all citizens participate in public health practices, they become more effective members of society (one is not productive if they are sick). But it also had a symbolic purpose. Many of the developmental theories floating around in the beginning of the 20th century equated health and cleanliness with a higher place on the "development ladder" (cleanliness is close to godliness, no?) As China struggled to put itself on the world map, and prove to the world that it was a developed country, it had to improve its health systems and the behavior of this people. And for those who think this is a practice of the past, think again: as China prepares itself for the Olympics and World's Fair, much of the preparation includes preparing the people of Beijing and Shanghai to "look good for foreigners," which means eradicating the unhygienic practices of spitting in public, smoking like chimneys, or using squat toilets. And this isn't just in the minds of the Chinese, many foreigners come to China and immediately put them lower on the "civilized" scale once a local begins to hawk a loogie.

So what does this all mean in a broader sense, and where do we go from here? I think that a generalized look at the term "changshi" and how it is used in education and other mass media (magazines, books, lectures, newspapers) could give a lot of insight into a.) what is meant by knowledge at this time and b.) what did the ideal citizen look like? Both of these are important topics. Knowledge, and its use in terms of power and culture, tells us a great deal about what a society looked like, what its values were, etc. And the creation of citizenship gives us new kinds of insight, for instance it could help shed light on the eternal debate of the creation of the public sphere. Similarly, the connection between knowledge and politics (how political systems use or control knowledge to shape a society) would be another important topic to explore. A lot of research is currently being done on the Chinese concept of "community" and how that either succeeds or fails because of the political decisions of the party. Perhaps the root of what is happening today could be answered by exploration into the past.