For nearly two years, I’ve taught oral English to Chinese middle school students. I never knew that 12 and 13 year old children could have the collective power to make a day terrible and worn, or bright and interesting. One of my Wednesday students has twice made statements that had slightly annoyed me at the time, but later made me reflect sadly about the way her life must be. The first one was on why she doesn’t like hiking–naturally, there are people who do and don’t like hiking, no problem. She said that it’s too tiring and boring to enjoy. I asked her if she could reconcile the whole tiring part by looking around at all the beauty you can see on a hike. She made a face and said “oh, I don’t care about that. I don’t like those things.”
As I gave the lesson that week on hobbies, I realized that so many of these children had never been on a hike, never been camping, never had a pet to play with outdoors, and didn’t even like the sound of those things–things that had been barred from them in the interests of studying hard and getting good grades in school. In my limited perspective from the 40 minutes that I spend once a week with my 21 classes, I think that this absence of interests outside of school has stunted them, maybe for life, unless they can relearn how to appreciate simple things, like little children naturally do. They still have a sense of wonder and awe for things unknown to them, but I’ve noticed that the only thing that really triggers this is through watching a movie or a short clip in class. Precious little else seems to interest them.
This week, I taught about music genres, with mixed results. Some kids’ faces lit up as we talked about different kinds of music and listened to music clips. Some of them shouted out artists and songs that they loved, and were excited when I said I liked them too. Others had nothing to say about what kind of music they liked, and didn’t respond at all to the music clips that I played as examples of different genres. But when I got to showing the entertaining music videos, they watched intently. The same girl offered up her opinion as she was doing a practice dialogue with another student. The girls had to ask each other what kind of music they liked and disliked, and this girl quickly said, “I don’t like any music,” and sat back down with a smirk on her face. “Really?” I asked her. “You don’t like any music at all?” She responded confidently again that she did not enjoy music. And that’s something I can’t understand.
There are two classes in the middle school that participate in the band and orchestra. They were by far the most appreciative of the music lesson, and it made me glad to see that they enjoyed so many different kinds of music, and not just pop. But, I know that when they enter high school, they won’t be able to play in an orchestra any more. Music and other art forms will be considered irrelevant to their studies as they devote three years in high school to preparing for the Gao Kao, the nationwide college placement exam. Their whole lives up until now have been full of studying and exams in preparation for this single exam, and many things have been and will be sacrificed on the way. And there are very few students who can come away from that and still have the sensibilities to see and appreciate beauty, whether in hobbies or in music.
I guess I can’t judge my students too harshly when it comes to their sensibilities for art, music, or literature. There’s not much of a place for it in their education, and arguably, in their culture as it is today. These are not the words of an expert on China, but of someone who has seen kids in the system and been astounded at what the absence of good art, in whatever form, has done to them. Where creativity and innovation is not appreciated, and educational rigor is focused almost entirely upon exams, beauty is certainly not a flourishing ideal.