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The Hidden Cost of Education Fever

Hoi K. Suen
The hidden cost of education fever:
Consequences of the Keju-driven education fever in ancient China
(translation of Korean publication from

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Education Fever is not a new phenomenon, particularly in Asian countries such as Korea, China, and Vietnam. We see evidence of parents’ concerns and enthusiasm about their children’s education and government’s strong promotion of education throughout history in these countries. As one of the numerous pieces of evidence of such promotion in ancient China, consider the popular “Urge to Study Poem 勸學詩” written by Emperor Zhenzong 宋真宗 (986-1022) of the Song dynasty in China about 1,000 years ago (see Guo, 1994):

To be wealthy you need not purchase fertile fields,
Thousands of tons of corn are to be found in the books.
To build a house you need not set up high beams,
Golden mansions are to be found in the books.
To find a wife you need not worry about not having good matchmakers,
Maidens as beautiful as jade are to be found in the books.
To travel you need not worry about not having servants and attendants,
Large entourages of horses and carriages are to be found in the books.
When a man wishes to fulfill the ambition of his life,
He only needs to diligently study the six classics by the window.

Two particular verses of this not-so-poetic poem: Golden mansions and beautiful women are to be found through the books, have been frequently quoted by parents, teachers, and officials ever since to urge youngsters to study. […]

Why was there such an education fever? […] The belief that Confucian teaching has led an entire society in a feverish pitch to seek the joy of learning, while romantic, is probably not the complete picture. At least, we have one clear case in history that the manifested education fever was not for the pure joy of learning but for other reasons. The case is that of the 1,300-year old civil service exam/education system of China known as the Keju examination system. […] In the case of the Keju system, the education fever was not for the pure joy of learning, but for the potential economic and social rewards gained through success in examinations; […] The poem by Song Zhenzong cited above did not urge children to study for the joy of learning, to become a better person, to become a scholar or to gain knowledge. Instead, it promised wealth and success as a result of studying. Such success is to be obtained through good performance on the Keju exams.

That is, this poem is not picturesque language about the wonders of learning, but instead a message about the quite concrete wealth, power and prestige that would come from success on the Imperial Exams. From a modern perspective, what is particularly puzzling about this ancient education system, especially in the testing, is the heavy emphasis on a skill that has no obvious relationship to the daily duties of a bureaucrat, which was writing poems and essays related to the core Confucian writings. Although Confucianism is not exactly a religion, these six classics are rather like holy books in their heavy emphasis on moral guidance, and an associated tradition of unchanging truth together interpretive efforts. One might imagine requiring memorization and practice with the interpretation of these moral guides could benefit the society by encouraging moral behavior in bureaucrats, but the actual skills tested were the literary skills of composing poems and essays in specific highly constrained forms that where only used on these exams.

It would seem that if these tests were effective at sorting out effective administrators from the mass of applicants, it was because the test measured a degree of general intelligence (like IQ), and also indirectly tested the applicant's self-discipline and contentiousness by the effort needed to master this rather arbitrary task. Even if the tests were not highly efficient in their sorting function, the overall education/testing system may have had the effect of increasing the perceived fairness and legitimacy of the imperial system, due to the presence of a path for upward mobility. While the system came to be dominated by a caste of land-owning scholar-bureaucrats, people from humble backgrounds did reach high office with some regularity.

The author argues that the emphasis in education on literary interpretation of these scriptures resulted in a general deflection of interests from other useful topics such as medicine and technology.


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papers/hidden_cost_education_fever.txt · Last modified: 2013/11/07 00:12 by ram