For over 1500 years, as Chinese empires have risen and fallen, as dynasties have started and ended, and monarchy, liberal democracy, Marxism, and Maoism have all been more or less discarded, one element of Chinese life has remained, as central as a spine in the body politic – the test.
The test is itself a ratification of two other inescapable facts of Chinese life: it’s a very big country, widespread and diverse, with a very, very, very big population, which means there’s a lot of competition to get to the top, to the center of what is still called The Middle Kingdom and thought of – in China – as the heart of the world.
To keep that competition properly focused on a unified Chinese state, and to give millions of Chinese people an opportunity to improve their lives by serving that state, the Chinese perfected the civil service exam.
Whoever you were, wherever in China you came from, whichever dialect you spoke, whether you were rich or poor, the annual, national civil service test gave you a chance at good, better, even the best jobs, and all the honors and riches that came with them.
Sure, the richer and more cultured and better educated you were, the better your chances for a good score, and sure, there was the squeeze of connections – guanxi, the Chinese call it – or outright corruption, but the fact was, every year some of the smartest of the poor or middle-class got a start on the big escalator up. And make no mistake, there was only one Big Escalator, the State, and the Test was a funnel for state power-concentration.
But, these metaphors are too modern for The Test. The traditional Chinese image is a competition in which “hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands” of competitors are all trying to make it across a one-log bridge.
The national test was the narrow bridge to a better future. And being educated, so you could get a high score on the test, has been highly valued for as long as there’s been a China.
And it still is, for the same reason. Chinese parents obsess about their kid’s education, not so much for its general benefits, but specifically as a path to high scores on a series of national public-school tests that can all but define a student’s future life. The last log bridge to success is the gaokao, the college entrance examination.
The tests are not pass-fail. They are the opposite, every test is scored and every point can determine not just whether you cross the bridge, but into what category you fall when you are nudged off the log by a higher-scoring rival.
There are tiers on the Chinese pinnacle and they go in circles, not a corkscrew rise. Few rise from the third tier to the second, or the second to the first, so the level at which you test may determine your future job and pay, your new hometown, your opportunities for life.
No wonder in almost every Chinese school, the teachers teach to the test and the students learn for the test. No questions asked and fewer answered. Just learn by rote and spit the right answers out and you’ll go to a better junior high or high school and one of the best universities.
Our guest today, represents a different tradition. Martha Franks trained as a theologian and an attorney, and she’s written books on religion and water law. But recently her career has centered on teaching the humanities at St John’s College in Santa Fe, a school with a unique curriculum of Great Books and Big Ideas, and a deep belief in students as stakeholders in their own education.
For 2 years, 2012-14, Martha Franks and her husband and colleague Grant brought a St John’s sensibility to China, to the hyper-elite Affiliated High School of Peking University, asking students questions like ‘What is the best life?’ and ‘What is justice and how can it be realized?’ Questions that had nothing to do with Gaokao, The Test, but which stimulated students and led Martha to write Books without Borders: Homer, Aeschylus, Galileo, Melville and Madison Go to China, which I am happy to tell you, is a most interesting read.
Martha Franks spent the academic years 2012-14 in Beijing, China, developing and teaching a liberal arts curriculum at the Affiliated High School of Peking University (BDFZ). She brought to that task her experience as a part-time faculty member at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. At St. John’s, and then at BDFZ, she taught the classics of Western literature through discussion classes. Both the books and the style of teaching were new experiences for her Chinese students.
Ms. Franks has had a separate career as a lawyer. She began that career with a few years at a large Wall Street law firm, after which she moved to New Mexico, where she has practiced water law for thirty years. She offered a class in American Law to Chinese students.
Ms. Franks also has a degree in theology from the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia. In addition to her book about teaching in China, she has a number of publications in both water law and theology. She is a painter, having attended the Marchutz School of Art in Aix-en-Provence, France.