Higher Education Reform During the Cultural Revolution – A Milestone in the Advancement of Our Society
Written by Si Lan
Translated by Pao-yu Ching
Translator’s Note: One of the most vicious attacks on the Cultural Revolution was launched against the Higher Education Reform that Mao Zedong proposed in 1968 and carried out for a few years during the Cultural Revolution. Mao’s proposal to reform higher education had two main focuses: that university learning had be closely linked to the needs of agricultural and industrial production, and that students who entered universities should be selected from the ranks of workers, peasants, and soldiers. Mao highly valued learning that combined theory and practice, or “learning by doing.” He was concerned that the expanded university education since the establishment of the People’s Republic kept a growing number of students apart from larger society and limited them to classroom learning for too long. As a result of this kind of higher learning, Mao feared that universities would create a new tier of elites who considered themselves above ordinary workers, peasants, and the broad masses. The concrete reform as it was carried out during the Cultural Revolution abolished the college entrance examination, which put great emphasis on book learning. Such examinations had been rooted in China’s feudal past. They favoring young people from intellectual families and put the children of workers and peasants at a great disadvantage. After abolishing the entrance examination, most high school graduates went to work first, and the work place (factories and mines, units within the agricultural communes, and military units) was given the responsibility to decide who would be sent to study in universities. The expectation was that after graduation they would then return to their respective units to work.
Education reform in universities faced strong resistance from many directions. The most important concern was the quality of graduates. Since the entrance examinations selected the ”best” students from the “best” schools, college professors and administrators believed that doing away with them would lower academic standards. Soon after Mao died, his vision of educating workers, peasants, and soldiers to be new leaders of the socialist society was denounced. The new “reformers” charged that worker, peasant, and soldier students were not suited for college education, and they lacked the cultural background to become the educated. They charged that China had wasted ten precious years during the Cultural Revolution by not educating its brightest and most talented youth. In 1977 the college entrance examination was reinstated. The Education Reform instituted during the Cultural Revolution was repudiated and abandoned.
The author of this article was selected from the countryside to attend the Central China Normal University for teachers. She majored in mathematics. In the article she writes about her life experiences, including how she got into the university, how they studied and learned, her life on campus, and what she did after she graduated. She also gives an overall evaluation of education reform during the Cultural Revolution. I think this is a good article for people who are interested in many of the newborn things launched during the Cultural Revolution and their significance in creating a new society even after its demise. For this reason I translated this article into English for a wider audience – PYC
July 21st of this year (2011) marked the 43rd anniversary of Chairman Mao’s directive on China’s revolution in higher education.
In July 1968 we were celebrating the successful completion of the Ninth Party Congress and our nation was covered with the joyful color of red. At this historical juncture Chairman Mao issued the important directive on how we should revolutionize our university education. He said, “We need to continue to build our university education. I am mainly referring here to the science and engineering programs in universities – however, we need to shorten the duration of these programs. We need to revolutionize our education. …University students should be selected from workers and peasants. After a few years of study in universities they will then return to production.”
Chairman Mao’s directive brought spring and rain to nurture the seeds of an education revolution, which were planted in the soil of socialism. Soon after the “July 21 Directive” workers’ universities, communist laboring universities and other new types of universities sprouted up everywhere. Waves of peasant, worker and soldier students poured into universities all over China from the countryside, from factories and mines, and from the military. They came to the new battlefields of continuing revolution, pledging never to disappoint the Party and the people who sent them there. They came with the determination to receive education, to administer the universities, and to use Mao Zedong Thought to reform and change the universities. Continue reading