When the internet gives you bad historical analogies…..

From Washington Monthly using the Chinese exam system as an analogy for the S.A.T., referring to an essay from n+1.

The anecdote that began the n + 1 piece discussed the exam system in ancient China. That system, which looks disturbingly similar to our own standardized test-based admissions process for entrance into institutions of higher learning, was designed to ensure merit and talent in the Chinese bureaucracy. It resulted, in the long run, in exorbitant debt and vast corruption. It ended, ultimately, with the Chinese Revolution.

As a historian I am supposed to like people using historical analogies. As a historian of Asia I am supposed to like them using Asian ones even more. And I am willing to cut people quite a bit of slack in these things. This, however, is pretty bad. Like most undergrads this writer seems to think “Ancient China” refers to everything up till the Communist take-over in 1972. I’m not aware of anyone who suggests that high interest rates on government bonds (“exorbitant debt”) were major problems for the Ming and Qing dynasties, but if history is just a place to look to find confirmation of your ideas about the present I suppose you could do it in China as well as anywhere. Suggesting that the exam system ended, “ultimately, with the Chinese Revolution” suggests either that  the author thinks that the fall of the Qing and establishment of a Republic in 1911 were a mistake, or is unaware that anything happened in China between the last metropolitan exams in 1904  and 1949. Or, more likely, he just does not care. Still, the author is apparently not taking the analogy too seriously, so I don’t see why I should, and there is not much reason to post just about this.

The N+1 piece is also pretty bad, but in a much more interesting sort of way.

In 605 CE, a year after murdering his father and seizing the throne, the Chinese emperor Yang Guang established the world’s first meritocracy. Weary of making bureaucratic appointments solely on the basis of letters of recommendation, Yang set aside a number of posts for applicants who performed well on a new system of imperial examinations. In theory, any peasant who took the trouble to memorize 400,000 characters — which is to say, anyone who conducted six years of study with an expensive tutor — could join the country’s political elite.

Over the centuries, as China’s scholar–bureaucrats grew more powerful, their metrics of assessment became increasingly intricate. Those who passed were stratified into nine grades, and each grade was further divided into two degrees. Exam performance corresponded exactly to salary, denominated in piculs of rice; the top brass received more than seventeen times as much rice as the lowest tier. But the true rewards of exam success were considerably higher: besides the steady salary, bribe collection made it very good to be a bureaucrat.

As time went on, more and more people took — and passed — the exam’s first round. Test prep academies proliferated. Imperial officials started to worry: there were now more degree-holders than there were positions, which threatened to create an underclass of young men with thwarted ambitions. When the Ming dynasty fell in 1644, their successors, the Qing, resolved to make the test more difficult. By the middle of the 19th century, 2 million people sat the exam, but just over 1 percent passed its first round; only 300 candidates — .016 percent — passed all three.

This is a lot better. The system is started at a particular time, by a person with a name. The wrong person, since if you were going to assign responsibility for the early exam system to one person it would probably be Empress Wu, but, baby steps. The system changes over time. And the disaster it causes is not problems with the bond market but the Taiping Rebellion. Admittedly the size and destructiveness of the Taiping does not have much to do with whatever drove Hong Xiuchuan nuts, and the exams were never a matter of memorizing 400,000 characters, and they did not grant you an automatic position in the bureaucracy and salaries were in cash rather than rice, and the exams were never intended nor expected to provide social mobility to the poor. Still, there is some connection to history here.

Specifically, the references to letters of recommendation, test prep academies and metrics of assessment. They had an educational elite, we have an educational elite. Maybe a comparison would be helpful.  The n+1 piece is arguing that Real Americans are just as right to resent our educational elite as they are to resent our financial elite.

Over the last thirty years, the university has replaced the labor union as the most important institution, after the corporation, in American political and economic life. As union jobs have disappeared, participation in the labor force, the political system, and cultural affairs is increasingly regulated by professional guilds that require their members to spend the best years of life paying exorbitant tolls and kissing patrician rings…..Our elaborate, expensive system of higher education is first and foremost a system of stratification, and only secondly — and very dimly — a system for imparting knowledge….as long as access to the workforce is controlled by the bachelor’s degree, students will pay more and more.

I don’t buy a lot of this, but the idea that the university has replaced the labor union as a crucial institution is an interesting one. And, with a bit of help, you can get a nice analogy to the Late Qing exam system out of this. The n+1 piece does not do that, as they are analogizing the entire American post-secondary educational system to both the Chinese civil service exams and the type of 1% cultural elite school that you need a test prep tutor to get into. Like a -lot- of people who write about higher ed in America the n+1 writers are aware that there are some people who can’t get into a good school and are thus forced to die in a ditch, drive a truck or go to the University of Minnesota or something, but they are not really talking about those people. Can lack of a four year degree keep you out of parts of the labor force? Yes. Can lack of an Ivy League degree keep you out of “cultural affairs”? Yes. Does it make any sense to lump these two things together? No.

To make a historical analogy you need not only to have some knowledge about history but also know what comparison you are making. The modern American college system is like the Chinese civil service exams in that it has grown far beyond its original purpose. While the civil service exams were originally intended to create bureaucrats by the Qing only a tiny fraction got any sort of government job and even fewer had a government career. Passing or at least studying for the exams marked you out as a member of the cultural elite. American higher ed. has, despite what n+1 thinks, a much larger base in actual education, but it has grown far beyond its job of certifying a small elite and a bunch of teachers into certifying a big chunk of the population, although it is not clear what they are being certified for or why it should matter.

By about 1900 the exams had lost a lot of their old cachet, and there were several attempts to reform them. As Elman points out, however,  almost as soon as the exams were abolished the state began creating new examinations for government officials.1 That part stuck around, but the larger task of defining China’s elite fell to a mass of new institutions including Western-style schools and universities and military academies. Is the American academic enterprise due for a rapid decline down to those few places where there is definite technical knowledge to be gained or a real desire for certification? There are lots of majors where students seem to learn nothing. Why not get rid of them and let people take those jobs without four years of college? Maybe the most interesting bit of data is the campaign against law school and especially the third year of law school. Law school has for many years been the place for bright kids who were not sure what they wanted to do with their lives. Now that it is a lot more expensive it seems silly to go there if your goal is to do anything but work at a big money law firm. Will law school (and pre-law) enrolments shrink down to just those who really want to be lawyers? More importantly, will someone be able to offer a 2-year law degree? That would save students a bundle of money and supposedly have little effect on their ability to pass the bar or practice law. Guild rules, however, forbid it.

The law school example is what I think of when people suggest that MOOCs might replace college. I don’t think they are anywhere near being able to replace what you can actually learn in college, but to the extent that you are just going through the motions to get a certificate they could work fine. If you were going to sleepwalk thorough Astronomy 170 anyway why not do an on-line class and not have to get out of bed? Is a University of Phoenix degree as good as a real one? If you are just getting it for the piece of paper of course it is. If all you want is to have your future employees make it through the 18-20 years without achieving much other than learning to drink a collection of MOOCs might work as well as a degree in Business Administration. I think the real issue is not what can we learn outside school (lots)2 but to what extent are the formal and informal rules about the bits of paper you need to do things going to change? I would guess a lot less than in China. The Qing court could surprise everyone and just abolish the exams in 1905, but how, in a formal, legal, sense,  could a President Paul Ryan abolish all the gatekeeper roles that college education plays in the U.S.? I suspect that the Chinese 1900-1911 example (the death of the exam system) might be a useful analogy for the changes in American post-secondary education, but it is going to take a lot more work than has been done so far.



  1. Elman, Benjamin A. A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial China. 1st ed. University of California Press, 2000. p.617 Your best bet for a light beach read about the exam system  

  2. As Holbo points out, the original killer ap for taking learning outside school is not the internet but the book 

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