What I'm Reading: ‘China’s Examination Hell’

November 08, 2015

April Dawn
Alex Small
Most critiques of standardized tests come from a U.S.-centric view of tests as 20th-century creations. That is not the case with China’s Examination Hell, by Ichisada Miyazaki, first published in 1963. I read it recently because I wanted to learn from China’s centuries of experience in selecting officials through exams. What I took away was the impossibility of remedying inequality through neutral selection processes.

Mr. Miyazaki, a Japanese historian, opens with a description of the parenting practices of Imperial Chinese elites. It reads like an article on competitive parenting among rich Manhattanites. Perversely, the examination system was created to weaken aristocratic families, but it entrenched a new elite: families who could afford years of expensive education.

The public supported the system’s premise (indeed, Mr. Miyazaki describes public uproars over cheating scandals), but the system did not elevate commoners.

In recent years, books like The Tyranny of the Meritocracy, by Lani Guinier, have argued that college admissions processes are entrenching our elites. China’s experience suggests, however, that there is no remedy in "neutral" selection processes.

Even if we try to measure "democratic merit," as suggested by Ms. Guinier, or "grit," as advocated by Angela Lee Duckworth, students from advantaged backgrounds will have stronger résumés listing their activities, better interview coaches, and other resources.

The only way to ensure the admission of disadvantaged students is to actively admit them.

Alex Small is an associate professor of physics at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona.