Course:HIST481/The “Diploma Disease”

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The "Diploma Disease"

The term Diploma Disease was first coined by Ronald Dore, a British Professor who specialized in studying the Japanese economy. The term refers to the set of beliefs that acquiring more formal education essentially makes someone more qualified for a certain job, simply because they have a higher degree of learning. This term also serves to criticize the excess dependence on formal educational institutes and educational qualifications as being sufficient merit for specific occupations (citation). As a result, the cultural and societal misconception is created where excelling through these state-defined processes will guarantee a secured and high-paying job. Thus, achieving certain qualifications become the main goal of able individuals in society.

Under The Civil Examination System

The imperial examination system throughout imperial China had prolonged for over thirteen centuries, established in the Sui dynasty and abolished near the end of the Qing dynasty. The goals of the system was for the state to select the best and most talented individuals for civil service and to have direct control over preventing alternate power sources from emerging. The civil service examination system is attributed for the exponential increase of scholar officials taking positions in office and the diminishing dominance of land and military aristocratic families.

There was a demand for a way to curtail the risk posed by the scholarly officials due to their abundance in wealth, knowledge and power. Beginning in 997, the state began imposing quotas on the number of successful individuals that would pass through each level of exam(1). This served to control the size and influence of the elite literati class, and in turn, maintain the political and social dominance of the imperial state and ruling family.

Owing to this imposition, many examinees had failed the examinations despite devoting their lives and careers to preparing for them. There was little prospect for success, where only 1.5% of examinees would pass the first level exam (2). Also, there was no regulation on how many times an individual could take the exam. This resulted in an unfortunate phenomenon of men living lives of "chronic examination failure" (3).

Those who failed were often limited to sustain a living by becoming school teachers and tutors, hired by families and lineages to prepare the next generation for examination success. However, those who passed examinations and were given a degree instantly became highly sought-after by various villages and rich families to come and teach their children, as they believed that the degree they held was sufficient evidence of their teaching abilities, when in fact the degree was for their ability to successfully write an examination not to teach others how to succeed in the examination. This proves the blinding assumptions made about the glorious returns from pursuits of qualifications and success via the civil system.

Students who passed even the lowest level exam were assumed to be more intelligent than the commoners, while it may have been true in many cases it was not in all. This system handing out primitive form of diploma, allowed individuals to be more qualified than their competitors who may have been more suitable for the job than them. Naturally, this meant that many families in China tried to acquire this advantage by passing the examination, in what some may call a Diploma Disease.

Under Communist Party Of China

The diploma sickness was not merely present during imperial China, though the examination system was abolished in the 1905, the disease managed to survive by clinging itself to the higher education of universities. Under the rule of the Communist Party of China, the diploma disease in its new form ensured that many parents would try to send their children to a better educational institution, called keypoint secondary schools. These were privileged schools which provided the finest teachers and facilities to its students to ensure graduates from these schools would perform well in standardized examination system, success from which would allow the students to enter universities.

As for the, cadres or members of the Party itself, they too were influenced by the diploma disease and made sure that that their children would receive the best education in China by sending them to a special school of their own, that was identical to the key schools that only the brightest commoners attended. These special schools for the children of cadres were subject to criticism as they were the class of worker/peasant background that were intended to represent the ideal of Communism: equality for all. By providing differentiated education for the cadres' children, they began their studies one step ahead of others and this would contribute to augmenting the divide between the urban and rural classes.

In terms of university enrolment, regardless of how they obtained their education, those who entered the universities were guaranteed by the state to receive a job of better quality than those that were handed out to the students with less education. In fact, one's academic performance in the universities greatly influenced where one would be located and at which level of a certain career. The guarantee of a prospective future explains the frenzy and obsession with examination preparation if a student or his family could afford to do so.

After Mao's death, the new leaders of the CCP took efforts in destroying the legacy of the Cultural Revolution. One significance of this act was that it fostered a fertile environment for the private education. However, unlike in the West, where private schools are often associated with an incredibly high standard of education, in China the state retained the power of handing out official certification to private institutions, a certificate that was crucial for schools attract students as it provided additional career opportunities for the students who attended these certified schools. By withholding accredited status for these private schools, their legitimacy was often perceived to be inexistent and did not offer great prospects for jobs or a good career. Therefore, private institutions survived by catering to students with lower academic standing that could not succeed in the public system. In other words, the state manipulated the fever for education as a social tool to regulate the growth of private schools. (4)

Defining Merit in Systems of Accreditation

Merit, or the returns of education, has often been perceived to be a successful career or high job security with generous benefits. It is evident throughout history, from imperial China to modern day PRC, that the definition of an investment worthwhile into education is the reaping of rewards from success through the education system prevalent at the time. If an individual succeeds according to standards set out by the state, then he will gain access to social mobility and raise to a higher social class, granted with economic, social and political power and gains.

The civil service examination system was the most long-lived system of accreditation during imperial China in Chinese history. Merit was defined as successfully passing one or all levels of exams, namely the local/county, prefectural and metropolitan respectively. Passing the lowest level examination itself brought about a complete makeover of one's lifestyle. The social mobility available for successful examinees was ultimately the greatest reward given to them through the examination system. The advancement of society's hierarchical structure brought about economic and social influence for the individual, his family and his lineage. Success at the second and third levels resulted in the highest regarded positions any man could dream for: serving the emperor in the imperial bureaucracy. Not only did those positions accustom boundless economic and social gains, but the political power one holds was unimaginable. Success was, thus, defined to be the ability to enter the elite class within one generation's time.

The entrance examination system for universities also provide another example of a system of accreditation. During the post-1978 reforms, Deng Xiaoping believed that the quality of education must be provided to the people of China at the expense of quantity. To bring vast economic development into China's economy, investment into science and technology is imperative, as evident through his initiative, "Four Modernizations". To do this, he reinstated entrance examinations for universities, which were banned during the Cultural Revolution, and raised admission standards. This was to increase the quality of applicants, and consequently, raise the quality of students entering the university force. By selecting the top students of the country, this will ensure and promote the rapid development direly needed by China, as the nation was decades behind the first world countries. Thus, the promise of an exciting career full of modernization and nation-building initiatives justified the frenzy of examination preparations and enrolling in the top primary and middle schools. Academic achievement, again, was seen as the sole method of social mobility and success.

Modern Day Examples of the Diploma Disease

Even in modern day, the diploma disease is deeply embedded within every society. For instance, many corporations and governments have the tendency to prefer students who received higher education from respected schools rather than the students who received their education from a less prestigious school, regardless of their individual intelligence or capabilities.

One recent example of the diploma sickness is Shing Jeong-ah, a con artist, who became a curator at the Sungkok Art Museum in South Korea by claiming that she had earned a PH.D from the Yale University in 2005. Shing Jeong, for two years from 2005 to 2007 worked as part of the museum and was only caught when a monk raised his suspicion on her career, from which point investigation was launched and her academic career evaporated. (5) This example goes to show that a person who was a university drop out could successfully pose as a graduate of the ivy leagues, simply because people were more than willing to give her a job, just based on her diploma.

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(1) Elman, Benjamin A. “Political, Social and Cultural Reproduction via Civil Service Examinations in Late Imperial China.” Journal of Asian Studies. 50.1 (1991) 13. Web. 9 Nov. 2012.

(2) Peterson, Glen. “Unit 2, Topic 1”. Learning Modules. History 481: Education and Society in Modern China. University of British Columbia, Vancouver. 17 Sept. 2012.

(3) Peterson, Glen. “Unit 2, Topic 1”. Learning Modules. History 481: Education and Society in Modern China. University of British Columbia, Vancouver. 17 Sept. 2012.

(4)Chan and Mok, “The Resurgence of Private Education,” p. 307.