Paul Willis, Author - Being Modern in China

Paul Willis, Author
Being Modern in China


Entertain, for a moment, this question about America’s legendary Greatest Generation. 

What was it that not only nurtured the talent, determination and generosity that made it great, but was also the best expression of the legacy they wanted to leave for future generations?

The answer? Public education.  

Almost everyone born during or in the years after World War I spent their childhood and adolescence in public schools that raised their standards of literacy and numeracy and civility and integrity and taught them what it meant to be part of the United States of America. 

In the years after World War II, the Greatest Generation passed on to their successors, the Baby Boomers, public schools meant to offer to all comers the chance to excel. And, however slowly, however begrudgingly the Great Generation and the system of public education changed the concept of all comers, to include African-Americans, who have used the public schools as a road to excellence.

Alas, here the happy story ends for American education as those well-schooled Boomer graduates of public education became creative, productive, valuable adults, they also become, at an intensity previously unknown in America, consumers. Soon, they found, education for their children could be a consumable – private school. And as America has bought private education it has also brought increased inequality and disunity.

For 1500 years, public education in China was, as it was for the Greatest Generation, a near-universal and defining experience, the rebar that held a vast, diverse, often fractious nation together. And made it better. 

At the center of the Chinese Middle Kingdom, itself proposed as the center of the world was a system that taught that very centripetal world-view to everyone, while simultaneously selecting this one and that one, and pulling them up from the masses to the ranks of the national pyramid of service, honor and power.

1500 years later, and so much about Chinese public education is remarkably unchanged. It remains unidirectional in pedagogy – we teach, you learn. No questions asked. And unidirectional in its politics with all power trickling down from the center, the Vanguard, the Chinese Communist Party, President Xi Jinping. No questions asked.

But, here’s the thing; this “old school” Chinese education is operating in a very new school China. “Repeat after me” worked fine for people used to not having choices, but today’s China requires many choices, some geographical, some familial, and every day, variations on a single theme, “what shall I choose to buy?

China is now a consumer society, and its economy needs active consumption to survive, and in China, as everywhere, nothing spurs consumption of products or services like choice. So, what happens when people educated without choices confront a world of nothing but? Including the choice to buy your kid out of Chinese public education.


Paul Willis is a British social scientist known for his work in sociology and cultural studies. Paul Willis’ work is widely read in the fields of sociologyanthropology, and education, his work emphasizing consumer culturesocialization, music, and popular culture. He was a Professor of Social/Cultural Ethnography at Keele University. In the autumn of 2010, he left Keele University and is now a professor at Princeton University. He is the founding Editor of the journal Ethnography.  His latest book is Being Modern in China.



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