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In a society where grades are everything, teenagers often get a pass on doing chores both at home and school. It is increasingly common for students to lack common knowledge about labor-intensive work such as agriculture.

By NewsChina Updated Jun.1

China is looking to put labor education back on the national curriculum to instill a stronger work ethic among students at all levels. On March 20, the Communist Party of China Central Committee and the State Council unveiled guidelines proposing that schools make labor education compulsory. They also encourage colleges to establish courses in labor education and that high schools include labor achievements among their admissions requirements. 

The guidelines sparked fierce debate in media and online. Some said they address perceived trends among adolescents in China such as a lack of respect for manual labor and workers, while others have expressed concern that such programs might focus solely on physical labor without consideration for the nuances of the modern workforce. What’s more, the education community has yet to agree on how to define labor education, how to carry it out and how to assess it. 

Traditional Values 
Labor education has been part of China’s education system for several generations. It began in the 1950s after the Party’s education policy - a combination of education and productive labor - was written into China’s Constitution.  

As part of mandatory labor education programs, students worked in rural areas and factories to broaden their understanding of society. But this went to extremes during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and the Down to the Countryside Movement, where millions of urban students were sent to live and work in rural areas to learn from farmers. In many cases, the move was permanent.  

The policy ended in the 1980s following China’s reform and opening-up, when labor education was integrated into the middle school curriculum. A combination of education, skills and social practice was the guiding policy in the 1990s, an approach to cultivate industrious attitudes among students. A round of education reforms in 2001 merged labor skills into a “comprehensive practical activity” course that aimed to cultivate hands-on learning and innovation. 

But in recent years, emphasis on exams and academics has marginalized labor-oriented education. In many cases, labor education is overlooked because it does little to prepare students for entrance exams. The classes are usually taught by overworked teachers on top of their regular workload and involve activities as simple as cleaning the classroom. 

Many are calling the resumed emphasis a “rebirth” of labor education. If fully implemented, course designs and new material would affect the entire education system. Specifically, the guidelines suggest that primary and middle schools set aside at least one hour for labor courses every week, regulate students’ extracurricular work and set a yearly “labor week” for students to “work collectively.” They also suggest that colleges integrate labor education into their core curriculums and require at least 32 credit hours of it for a bachelor’s degree. Vocational schools are instructed to implement labor education through training classes besides at least 16 credit hours dedicated to learning about “the spirit of hard work and model workers.” 

The guidelines suggested that primary schools emphasize the importance of labor and developing a work ethic and that middle schools focus on specific skills. High schools should enrich students’ work experience and help develop skills, while colleges should address innovation, entrepreneurship and social practice to sharpen problem-solving abilities and foster a “right view” about employment.  

To ensure that schools and society at large take it seriously, the guidelines also suggested that schools include labor education in their student evaluation systems, create incentives and hold contests involving labor activities.  

Besides compulsory courses, the guidelines also encourage other courses to integrate content involving labor education. In an article published in the State-run People’s Daily newspaper on March 30, China’s Minister of Education Chen Baosheng wrote that courses such as history, language and art could include content that reflects on the significance of labor, glorifies workers, and highlights traditional values such as diligence and hard work. Courses like math, geography and science should help cultivate an innovative spirit and attitudes toward technology, the article read. 

“A comprehensive, practical, inclusive and targeted curriculum should be formed to implement the new requirements for labor education,” Chen wrote. 

Getting Worked Up 
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.