In the May of 2010, days after I returned to Beijing for summer break of my junior year in college, I received a call from a friend. Lu, a high school classmate, was now an industrial engineering major at the prestigious Tsinghua University. Summer starts later for Chinese universities compared to American schools, and Lu, a graduating senior, was facing an especially onerous end of the semester.

After the initial greetings, Lu sighed. “Look, I am really overwhelmed by what I have at hand,” he said, putting on a mock-whiny voice. “Do you want to give me a hand and help out your old friend?”

“Sure. What kind of help?” I did not hesitate. Lu was a close friend, who had shared a memorable stint with me working in the student government.

“Do you want to help me write a paper on Marxist philosophy?”

“What?”

“It’s for a class. The grade is not important, and I just need to pass,” Lu explained matter-of-factly, “Since you are at home and on summer vacation already, I thought you’d be a good person to ask.”

Responding to that was difficult. It was difficult because the answer was crystal clear to me, but I know it was not to Lu. It was difficult because even though I was, for a moment, shocked by the brazenness of his question, I quickly remembered that it was nothing extraordinary from Lu’s perspective.

Exactly how I answered him eludes me, but I remembered mumbling something about “independent work,” “academic integrity” and “honesty.” Lu hung up the phone disappointed, though not angry: he had expected me to agree to help, but probably chalked my refusal up to the “Western academic style” I had become accustomed to at my American university, which he had often teased me about in the past.

His conduct, when measured against what I was taught in America, did in fact reveal some fundamental differences between academic values in China and in the US. These differences, however, should not be superficially explained in terms such as “Western academic style” or “Chinese academic style.” Lu’s thinking, as well as the kind of academic environment that spawned it, begs us to look deeper into the Chinese education system for the root cause.

Unlike American schools, which treat breaches of academic integrity as grave offenses, Chinese schools – from elementary schools to universities – rarely bring students’ attention to the issue, and academic honor codes are unheard of. Students who commit academic fraud such as plagiarism, something a student at a Western school would be expelled for, are typically let off the hook easily, if they are punished at all.

It’s not surprising, then, that Chinese students have a different understanding of academic integrity. In fact, even assignments from teachers too often tread a dubious line: in my Beijing junior high school, I received homework assignments that required students to simply find a certain online article, print it out, and hand it in to teachers. (It was not an assignment intended to improve our Internet skills.) Lu tells me some of his earlier college assignments included paraphrasing academic papers published in foreign journals, putting their own names on top, and submitting them to professors. Few, he said, balked at hiring ghostwriters to churn out term papers: “What is the point? The teachers don’t really grade them anyways.”

One could blame this behavior in Chinese schools and Chinese academia on a weak penalty system and lack of awareness of its severity. For anyone who is familiar with the Chinese education system in a broader context, however, the problem runs much deeper. Chinese education, unlike that of Western nations, measures classroom learning with single, quantitative standard, whether it be multiple choice questions in history quizzes or memorization of classical Chinese poems for literature exams. It puts little emphasis on critical thinking trainings such as class participation, thus failing to reward the process of learning and the originality of thoughts.

Held up to such academic standards, students will naturally find it tempting to pursue the “correct answers” regardless of who produced them. It is hardly surprising that they would fail to see the point of exercises such as paper writing, for they bring few immediate benefits to the students in their cutthroat competition to stay ahead of the academic curve. Indeed, in such a competitive environment, it makes more sense to channel time and energy into honing skills that will be rewarded by the Chinese education system – those that will help them excel in the all-important national college entrance exam (the Gaokao), for example – and save effort on the rest.

After getting off the phone with Lu, I realized that far more troubling than his request was the nonchalant attitude behind it. It was a reminder that to fix phenomenon like this, measures like establishing stricter honor code systems may a good place to start, but may also be the easiest part of a longer-term effort.

 

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