Underclass and education: An educational truth of the underclass in an Agricultural County in Western China


Tao Li

Dr Tao Li, Northeast China Normal University

The impoverished underclass in our society should be given particular attention by scholars and politicians. People’s real living conditions and miscellaneous problems on this hierarchy directly and clearly reveal the truth that, while the Chinese government has achieved huge accomplishments since the reform and opening-up policy, nonetheless, imbalance obviously exists between the rural and the urban, among different regions, different industries as well as different social classes; inequality implicitly exists in the structural and relational landscape of the social and political institutions. Meanwhile, designing and implementing the “Differentiated Compensation” (Cha Yi Bu Chang 差异补偿) policy, which has been politically legitimized by most nations to address the issue of social justice, is still quite formidable and challenging. The underclass population, which is impotent in articulation and highly under-represented, has no control on its own fate, and therefore highly relies on the nation’s conscience. Academic researchers and policymakers being the major agents to help representation of the underclass, their attitudes, either to neglect, to lead, to objectively judge, to sympathize, to understand, or to be considerate or integrated, become a crucial question. Ultimately, it is essential for the above two agents to reveal the underclass group’s true demands for interests, to understand their complex behavioral logic, and to design public policies which could effectively represent and address the underclass problems.

Based on multifactor analysis, the author selected Jie County, an agriculture dominated county in western China as a representative underclass field to conduct longitudinal empirical survey and collect both quantitative and qualitative data. Adopting the perspective of education, the author aims to uncover the educational obstacles and factors hidden on the four dimensions of the underclass, community, family, school, and the whole population as a group, that lead to the vicious circle of issues and dilemmas in the underclass. The main findings of the study are as follows:

First, regarding the underclass community, the author conducted a comprehensive historic review of the evolution of the township schools against the background of the national and societal structural changes as well as educational policy evolution during the 115 years from 1990 to 2014. The review found that the rural schools, regarded as center for education and civilization in the underclass field, experienced aggravated decline due to both external interferences and internal deviations. The phenomenon of massive consolidation of rural schools in modern China is named “bottom-up literacy promotion (Wen Zi Shang Yi 文字上移)” by scholars, an opposite to the historical phenomenon of massive construction of rural schools, known as “top-down literacy universalization (Wen Zi Xia Xiang文字下乡),” has led to educational dilemmas in the underclass. Based on discourse analysis and field observation with various participants on various field sites, the author found that the “Wen Zi Shang Yi” phenomenon is resulted from both external social incentives and internal educational motives. The former include village culture subaltern to the urban culture, the breakdown of the knowledge and power in villages, impotent articulation of self interests of the underclass, educational poverty under the consumption mentality, while the latter include low attraction to rural teachers, lack of staff quota, and excessive administrative control. In order to make a difference to the current dilemma of declining education development in villages due to the “Wen Zi Shang Yi” movement, the author adopts the anti-normative theory of justice and the perspective of social stratification, and puts forth a new strategy of public policy designing framework for the underclass.

Second, as for the underclass families, the author was among the first to conduct an empirical study among the farmer families, the individual farmers, students and parents in a subaltern administrative villages to address the topic of “education utility”, and the research has led to six findings as follows. (a) According to the data of the indicator of “children’s general education status”, families with children who are in schools hold higher recognition of literacy utility than families with children who have already finished education in schools. However, in the survey to the former families, it is found that the higher education stage their children are taking, the lower the recognition of the usefulness of education. While among the latter families, the ones that hold the highest recognition are those who have no children under education or children dropped off at the compulsory education stage. At the same time, those whose children completed high school study take up the highest proportion among families holding the position of education uselessness. (b) In accordance with data regarding ” attachment between farmers and land”, the more dependency on land work revenue in the family income, the higher the families regard education as useless. (c) According to data analysis of the indicator of “fortune and status”, “affluent families” with annual household income between 50,000 and 100,000 yuan hold the highest recognition of education utility. And yet, more families whose annual household income is below 10,000 yuan consider education as useless comparing with other groups. Besides this, from the data of “family structure/status”, it is shown that families with single parent domination hold lower regard for the usefulness of children’s education. (d) In terms of “gender of children”, many more families with girls regard education as useless than those with boys. (e) More male than female farmers show agreement on insignificance of education, while compared with other social groups, more students and their parents consider education useful. (f) Although most individuals think that education is useful in rural families, the number of those who think education is useless is still a considerable proportion. In addition, there is inconsistency between their words and behavior. Therefore, as we can see from all the data-based findings, the mentality of “education is useless” deeply and widely exists in the underclass of the society.

Third, from the perspective of underclass schools, the author puts forward that the underlying secret of the subaltern microscopic reproduction is achieved in the underclass schools by the “anti-school culture” among students and the seats arrangement by teachers based on qualitative studies in Yun Town, Jie County. During the study, a total of 22 eight graders and nine graders are recruited from a nine-year compulsory school as participants. Based on observation and interviews, it is discovered that the anti-school culture represented by these participants consists of despising their teachers, creating a mess in the classroom, expressing protest against the school authorities through language and behavior, organizing multiple types of peers groups (based on brotherhood, mentorship, relative relations, love affair relations etc.) to express group based protest through violence, theft and other misbehavior. To some extent, such anti-school culture is similar to but not the same as the culture created by “Lads” in the industrial towns in the UK and the “Migrant Children” in migrant workers’ children schools in Beijing. Specific characteristics are as follows: (a) compared to Lads’ superiority and the Migrant Children’s inferiority, the teenager participants in Yun Town have an alternative mentality mixed with “losers” and “tyrants” mentality. (b) By comparison to the Lads who have an obvious negative attitude to knowledge and diplomas and the Migrant Children who have a clear “affirmative” goal for diplomas, the teenager participants convey non-uniformity and fuzzy in words and behavior toward their recognition of knowledge and diploma. (c) The Lads apparently have reached a “partial insight” about the truth of the educational structure and system, whereas the Migrant Children are definitely blind of it, and participants in Yun Town also have “partial insight” into education. Furthermore, by researching the seating in the eighth and ninth grades in the school, the study has found the eighth grade has a “center-periphery” seating arrangement in order to “shape role models”, while the ninth grade has the function-based front-back seating arrangement. The seat arrangement forged individual students to build a so called self-identity according to the space based position in the class, which led to different learning experiences, shaped different levels of study groups as well as their corresponding behavior, and even implicitly filtered students to different life and professional tracks after they graduate from schools.

Fourth, regarding the underclass population as a whole group, the author analyzed the deeply rooted educational obstacles for the group in their pursuit of the “Chinese Dream,” which is a newly created concept by the Chinese government highlighting more concerns for the underclass group. To facilitate the analysis, the author classified the underclass group into two sub-groups, the group that stays in villages and the group that leaves the villages. For the former group, the author analyzed the mechanism system from kindergarten education to the job market, and found that there are various educational factors hindering the group to realize the “Chinese Dream”, including, ignorance of early childhood education, injustice of the nearest school placement policy, difficulties in the development of compulsory education in the underclass schools, the structure diversion factors after junior school, the weakening family social and economic status, dualistic labor market segmentation, difficulties in the employment, mobility and integration in urban areas. For the other sub group, the author attempted to understand the challenges from the perspective of the major policy issue of migrant students’ right to participate in national college entrance exam in cities. And it is found that no matter whether the policy is against or supportive to migrant students’ right to the exam, the policy is of little help for the underclass group to achieve their Chinese dream. On the one hand, if the migrant students are still not permitted to participate in the national college entrance exam in cities, the migrant underclass students will be deprived of equal resources in higher education, equal college financial supply, equal chances of national college admission and other institutional resources for them to realize their “Chinese Dream.” On the other hand, even if the policy allows migrant students to participate in the exam, it is likely to bring up the following risks: (a) it would be a misfortune for the underclass in cities and a sacrifice of their previous benefits; (b) the migrant underclass workers cannot really benefit from such kind of policies, on the contrary, they may be faced with a different type of deprivation of resources; (3) the underclass of the society and rural education could be subjected to further decay.

Author Bio

Dr Tao Li, originally from Mianyang, Sichuan Province, is an associate professor at the Northeast China Normal University/China Rural Education Development Research Institute and a PhD supervisor. Prior to his current post, he worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Sociology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. In 2019, he was selected as one of the awardees of the “National Youth Talent Support Programme” and served as the executive editor of the China Rural Education Review. He is mainly engaged in research on rural education, social stratification and inequalities, political sociology of knowledge and power, and social science research methods. He has published more than 100 articles in “Hommes & Migrations” (French), “Chinese Social Science” (internal manuscript), “Social Science”, “Exploration and Controversy”, “Humanities Magazine”, “China Administration”, “People’s Daily”, “Guangming Daily” and other publications.  More than 10 articles of his have been reprinted in the full text of “Xinhua Digest” and “Reproduction of People’s University”. He has presided over 5 national social science fund projects, and won 5 awards such as “First Prize of Excellent Achievements in Social Science of Jilin Province” and “First Prize of Outstanding Achievement Award of China Social Science Annual Conference”. He can be contacted by email at lit456@nenu.edu.cn.

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