Headmaster’s Notebook — What is an education worth?

During a recent visit to Beijing, several of our families took us to the campus of Imperial College, a 700-year-old school that until the early 20th century was the defining educational institution in China. Formed at least in part to further the wisdom of Confucius, Imperial College was testament to the value of education in China for centuries.

Said one of our hosts, “In China, the only way to gain social and economic mobility was through education.” Anyone could rise to the highest levels, even to the inner court of the Emperors, if you were smart enough. It’s a rather comforting truth—in China or anywhere else—that our mobility depends upon the power of our minds. Cate and most other schools are built on that very presumption. Among the places we visited at Imperial College was the Headmaster’s Office—obviously we had to see that one—and the equivalent of the Dean’s Office, which frankly look a little different than their modern equivalents.

But the more important spaces were the larger pavilions that served as classrooms. Here the students prepared for the tests that ultimately determined their standing and their future—tests that were taken in little cubicles where a student would toil away on an examination for three consecutive days. Once a student has entered the cubicle, there is no coming out until the time is up. So eating, sleeping, and all the other attendant functions take place in that cubicle. It is a daunting exercise to consider. Why, we might ask, would anyone choose such a path? Take on a challenge that is as much an exercise in fortitude and endurance as it is in cognition? The answer to that question is as relevant today as it was seven centuries ago: because those students imagined a future for themselves that compelled their commitment. I’d like to believe the purpose was even broader than that—that service to the nation or some similarly benevolent intention was a driving force. The legacy of service of Imperial College graduates shows such unselfish impact.

Whatever the principal motivation, though, the commitment was the same—to build one’s skills such that the country or the Emperor believed it could not do without such insight. To make oneself essential.

That visit explained much, not simply about the manner in which education is viewed in China, but of the manner in which study builds invaluable citizens. At Imperial College, the road to success through learning was not easily constructed. It required all students to be exceptional in some way and the best to be exceptional in all ways.

My guess is that even the current students at Cate can identify with such requirements and expectations. While the details and the pedagogy and the manner of measuring achievement are dramatically different (to the point at times of being diametrically opposed) the motivation of the students and the relative gauntlet of assessments is strangely synchronous. That makes education sound like a chore, I suppose. No doubt there are students out there, both current and former at Cate and certainly plenty over the last seven centuries at Imperial College, who might agree with such a characterization. Passing from relative ignorance to understanding is not accomplished without some significant strain.

But the result is hard to argue with—the opportunity in the present or in Ancient China—to use one’s scholarship to advance a culture or a nation, a community or a business. The mobility education offers is more than social or political or financial. It is an agility ultimately offered to the world, the attendant recognition that by knowing more a citizen or a student can help. I was thinking of that as I studied the massive stones upon which those who had passed those Imperial College exams were carved. Though the characters have faded, the names are still there in the rock, and in the country that surrounds it.