Labor education has gained attention in recent years. On September 10, 2018, China’s Teachers’ Day, Chinese President Xi Jinping highlighted the significance of labor at the national education conference, calling for more emphasis on developing a strong work ethic in education to help cultivate students into hardworking, honest and creative citizens.
“In recent years, some teens do not value, have no interest in or are not capable of hard work. The value of education through labor is overlooked to some degree,” read the guidelines.
In a society where grades are everything, teenagers often get a pass on doing chores both at home and school. Guidelines advocates say it is increasingly common for students to lack common knowledge about labor-intensive work such as agriculture. Mistaking wheat seedlings with Chinese chives, for example.
Many scholars believe schools need separate labor courses to reverse this trend. But there remains controversy over the definition of labor in a rapidly changing society.
The guidelines focus on physical labor and call for students to do daily chores, productive tasks and service work to “give them hands-on practice and make them sweat.” In his article, Chen wrote that the focus of labor education should be manual labor and students should go to factories, rural areas and communities to complete specific tasks. “Now students mostly grow up with sufficient means of subsistence. It is more important to train them in the spirit of hard work,” Chen wrote.
Tan Chuanbao, head of the moral education research center at Beijing Normal University, pointed out the concept of labor has changed drastically with time. Compared with the 1950s when agriculture was a pillar industry, tertiary industry now makes up more than half of China’s total GDP. Tan argued it would not be proper to emphasize industrial and farming skills and separate labor education from academics.
Tan said a combination of physical and mental work should prevail. For example, modern agriculture, which uses greenhouses, drip irrigation systems and other technological improvements, differs from farming practices decades earlier. He held that although it is necessary to familiarize students with physical work, too much emphasis on that point would not best serve the times.
Interviewed experts suggested that authorities avoid sweeping labor education policies but schools, whether rural, suburban, or urban, should find methods that best suit their circumstances.
If labor education is included in high school entrance requirements, its standards and expectations must be clearly defined, experts also pointed out.
The guidelines read that labor education aims to cultivate among students a “right view of the world, life, values and labor” and “guide them to respect and have an interest in doing labor.” During an official seminar about labor education in March 2018, Tan said that its core purpose is not teaching students how to plant crops or work on an assembly line, but to value labor.
Wang Jian, deputy Party secretary of the College of Education at Shanghai Normal University, echoed that labor education could also help draw China’s hyper-connected youngsters back into the real world and improve their social skills.
Unlike previous labor skill classes, the achievements of labor education are too abstract to measure with precision, which makes specifying implementation guidelines a challenge, experts observed.
In recent years, education authorities have also called for including ethics and arts in school admission evaluations. But these metrics would also pose assessment challenges. “If quantifying ethics, for example, were to add a point for every good deed, then is the system encouraging students to do good deeds or to gain points?” Tan said.
Interviewed experts suggested assessing labor with comments instead of scores. But if not quantified, parents and students are likely to ignore labor education to focus more energy on getting higher exam scores.
But beyond establishing standards, it is important to push all primary and middle schools to carry out labor education and give students work experience, Wang said.
Experts argued that it is still too early to create labor education majors in colleges. Tan said there is still a need for more fundamental research into labor education and support from authorities to move forward.