Today I write to you from an agricultural university in Western China. The Spring Festival is not yet over and the students are trickling back to campus where classes will begin in two weeks and continue through the month of June.
Chinese university students face the same challenges American students face. In high school they have been watched over. Teachers push them to complete their studies and do well on tests. Then in college, the students find themselves on their own---“free” to fail. Having spent their childhood cramming for the all important high school leaving exam, they now have the opportunity to “sleep in.”
Over nine million students took the college entrance exams last June. Less than six million passed and were admitted. Unlike the U.S., the academic lower 40 percent that failed cannot attend tertiary schools. But those who scored high enough to enter college are at risk of failure if they do not keep up their studies. And in China, a student cannot shop around for majors. They must complete their 4-year program with their classmates.
Nor can they exercise their newfound opportunity to “sleep in.” Students who abandon their 12-years of work and study ethic will fail. For this reason, some Chinese universities have hired adjuncts to oversee their freshman class and serve as coaches and surrogate parents to try to ensure they do not fail. In the U.S., we call this “freshman year experience” and try to provide students with academic activities, perhaps a common floor in the dormitory where the resident assistants watch over the first year students.
In China, this program comes with pressure to get out of bed, help with studies, and plenty of shame if a student doesn’t work hard. For many students, there are four grandparents and two parents relying on the student for their future support. The burden of responsibility can be heavy.
But there is one new experimental policy at some universities that I did not expect. Freshmen are prohibited from bringing laptop computers their first year. They have plentiful access to computers on campus. But those computers do not have access to any videogames.
Chinese teachers are very aware that many freshmen, especially boys, come to college and soon spend all of their time playing videogames. This is an easy policy to enforce in the remote university where I am located because there are not large numbers of computer cafes downtown. This policy would not work in Beijing or Shanghai.
The disastrous effect of videogames on boy’s academics is a problem that has dramatically decreased the proportion of boys in college worldwide. In the U.S., we continue to be in denial despite observing the many male students flunking out after their first semesters of non-attendance. China cannot lose that much talent and has decided to take action. In the United States, the computer-corporate complex prevails in indoctrinating us that all of our electronics can do no wrong. Some state universities, pressed by state defunding to attract as many warm bodies as possible, become laptop or tablet universities in an effort to appear teckie, and ignore the academic implications.
The research on computer addiction is clear. China “gets it.”