Session Abstract: Across Asia growing social inequality within countries is leading to rising educational competition. As social mobility becomes more difficult, people are becoming more obsessed with obtaining educational credentials. Yet critics question if meritocratic competitions cultivate active citizens of high moral worth. These social dynamics raise burning questions about access to education and good jobs, the meaning of merit, and the politics of meritocracy. This panel employs fine-grained, intimate ethnography to provide an anthropological perspective on these questions. Moving beyond a tendency in recent anthropological scholarship to consider countries in isolation, the authors take an unabashedly comparative approach. Identifying cultural commonalities and differences, their research projects span China, Hong Kong, India, Korea, Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan. Individual papers analyze the breakneck efforts of parents to secure educational advantages for their children, the tensions between the ideals of meritocracy and the realities of social inequality in college entrance, the retreat of university students from formal politics under increasing authoritarianism, and the contradictions between women’s rising levels of education and their underrepresentation in the workforce. Key questions include the following: What is education and who is it for? What should education do and how do we achieve this ideal? Do educational systems reproduce inequality? Is education a tool for social control by hegemonic groups? How can we understand the emotional and moral dimensions of educational work and merit? By addressing these questions ethnographically and comparatively, this panel contributes much-needed in-depth contextual knowledge to contemporary debates about education in Asia and beyond.
Paper Presenter: Lynne Nakano – Chinese University of Hong Kong
Paper Presenter: Kristina Göransson – Lund University
Co-author: Yoonhee Kang, PhD – Seoul National University
Paper Presenter: Chun-Yi Sum – Boston University
Paper Presenter: Zachary M. Howlett – Yale-NUS College