Disenchantment revisited: school life in Northwest China

Research Highlighted:

Tong, L. & Zhou, Y. (2021). Disenchantment revisited: school life in Northwest China. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, DOI: 10.1080/01596306.2021.2006149

Typically understood through a universal-statist framework, modern schooling in contemporary China often contributes to the disenchantment of rural, migrant, and ethnic students. High dropout rates, lack of educational infrastructure, low household socioeconomic status (SES), poor academic attainment, and passive withdrawal inside classrooms are common among these groups. Constructed under the modernization framework, schooling is often treated as an instrument for linear social progress. It is anchored on the contested triumphalism that literacy and numeracy pave the foundation of human capital formation and economic development. Yet, for the many of those mentioned above, such an ideology remains disconnected from their daily lives. In many cases, it contradicts their epistemic practices and beliefs altogether.

Previous studies have tended to treat disenchantment as a fixed state, despite the presence of constant changes. Using an ethnographic approach, we focused more on the flow of these students’ daily lives. The questions that perplexed us and remain critically underexplored are: What eventually became of the disenchanted youth? Is disenchantment a state of mind, a period of status, or an enduring character? Are those disenchanted students always disappointed with their school lives?

Based on year-long ethnographic research in a Tibetan-serving secondary school in Northwest China, we provide additional insights on these questions. We combined participant observation with interviews in daily field activities. We examined a school relocation project for a Tibetan-serving community. This school relocation project aims to recruit Tibetan children from underdeveloped regions to receive better secondary education in urban and modern settings. It resembles many issues embodied by contemporary Chinese ethnic schooling: most students are from pastoral herdsman families, they have a low level of parental involvement in a boarding environment, and they have a low level of academic performance.


Our research question stems from an empirical puzzle. It was apparent from our observations that the students were not interested in the academically oriented classes. They admitted that they struggled with learning. They did very poorly on standardized tests. In other words, these Tibetan students are clearly maladjusted to the most salient educational ethos of today’s China: academic-oriented learning. This predicament can be explained on two levels. At the practical level, modern academic learning implies incremental effort, which requires the learner to consolidate prior knowledge and practice regularly. However, these elements are absent at the elementary level for the students we met. Few of them developed any real academic foundation due to the harsh living environment, low household SES, poor educational resources, low parental involvement, etc. Moreover, students were met with additional challenges at the cultural level after the relocation. Language barriers, culturally irrelevant curriculum, and epistemic dissonances disengage them from academic pursuits.

However, spending time in this school also made us realize that the classroom experience should be contextualized within the school’s larger social setting. We agreed with Abbott (2016) that change is the norm in social life. When viewing disenchantment from a processual point of view, it is natural to seek how the disenchantment plays out in social space and social time. To understand the changing nature of schooling, we use the ecological/processual approach. In this approach, schooling, like any social structure, is viewed as being in constant flux. We argue that to treat disenchantment as a fixed state ignores the space-temporal quality of human action. The school’s social process is multiple and momentary in nature and often undermines the seemingly linear educational programming. Under the seemingly rigid school setting emerge social spaces that expand beyond academic lessons, which constantly make and remake social actors. We argue that such moments of making and remaking show the personal agency of the students. We illustrate this point using two instances, that is, blackboard newspaper and physical/artistic activities.

Although we observed passive withdrawal inside the classroom, the scene outside of it was quite different. We observe students engaging in social moments with focus, passion, and enjoyment. Those disenchanted students did—consciously or unconsciously—explore other channels to create a new social space. They appropriated school tasks such as putting up routine blackboard newspapers. They also took advantage of the officially designated ‘free time’ to engage in sports and artistic activities. In those spaces, students continue to interact among themselves and with teachers, where withdrawal and marginalization happen alongside negotiation, appropriation, and participation. While disenchantment anchors the classroom experience of many, it interpenetrates and enmeshes with other aspects of student lives and is interwoven over time. By considering this complex interplay of disenchantment we upend the notion of disenchantment as a singular state.


In our case, students spent three to six years in a relocated community with peers and teachers, where disenchantment, be it at the initial or later stage of studying, often was evident. But at the same time, disenchantment intersected with other aspects of social life. The students we observed quickly shifted their attention and energy toward more appealing subjects. They slipped in content that speaks to their religious and ethnic beliefs despite knowing that their expression of religiosity and ethnic identity is not officially encouraged. Simply put, the schooling experience extends beyond academic learning and involves a significant amount of leisure time, sports, and extracurricular activities.

In several cases, they were stereotyped, challenged, or disciplined. But more often than not, they were sympathized with, acquiesced to, and even encouraged in some instances by teachers and administrators. It is in this sense that this study provides new insights into the studies of disenchanted youth. Globally, previous studies tend to view academic schools as places rife with tension, especially for ethnic students. However, we argue that some school space is actually porous and elastic. Beyond the seeming rigidity of time arrangement and of classroom and behavioral norms, there also existed spaces that were relatively free or spontaneous.

Therefore, by studying the conditioning forces that surrounded disenchanted students, we seek to provide new insights into educational policy research, as well as connect with the literature of social process. Beyond the Chinese setting, this study also provides a lesson to educators who work with minority youth in many developing countries. Today, rural/ethnic students in many countries do face a similar dilemma. Their schooling experiences deserve researchers’ further attention.

Authors’ Bio

Liqin Tong, University of Macau

Liqin Tong (Corresponding Author) is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Macau’s Faculty of Education. Her research interests focus on sociology of education, anthropology of education, and culturally relevant pedagogy. She can be contacted via email: yb87104@connect.um.edu.mo.

Dr Yisu Zhou, University of Macau

Yisu Zhou is an associate professor at the University of Macau’s Faculty of Education. He obtained his doctoral degree from Michigan State University’s College of Education. Yisu’s doctoral work is about the teaching profession (out-of-field teachers) using a large-scale survey from OECD. Yisu’s research interests in education policy span across various topics, including educational finance, teacher education, sociology and economics of education. He has published in American Journal of Education, Journal of Contemporary China, Asia-Pacific Education Researcher, Journal of School Health, Sociological Methods and Research, Social Science Computer Review, etc. He is currently serving on the editorial board of Multicultural Education Review.

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