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But in providing a system that allows the children of illiterate peasants to study in the nation's greatest universities and to then progress into civil service positions, China is continuing the experiment that Maugham's philosopher described. China's meritocratic examination system should be a source of pride to its people, and an inspiration to the rest of the world.
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The sheer volume of knowledge required to succeed in the Imperial examinations elevated cheating to something of an art form in China. Miniature books were devised to be concealed in the palm of a hand; shirts had important passages from the Confucian Classics sewn, in miniscule lettering, to their insides; fans were constructed with pass-notes on their obverse. Other duplicities included hiring veteran scholars to sit the exams in one's stead, and the simple expedient of copying a neighbour in the exam hall. At certain times, bribery of examiners was commonplace.
February 27 Influential CBS TV news anchorman Walter Cronkite, just returned from Saigon, in an unprecedented move, rises from his chair, points to a map of Vietnam and tells Americans during his CBS Evening News broadcast that he is certain “the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.”
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The first virtue is curiosity. A burning itch to know is higher than a solemn vow to pursue truth. To feel the burning itch of curiosity requires both that you be ignorant, and that you desire to relinquish your ignorance.
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Since the Imperial examinations were abolished in 1905, the emphasis in China has swung sharply away from the Confucian classics, and from literature and philosophy in general. After 1949, education was slanted heavily towards science as China strove to catch up with the rest of the world. The , with its condemnation of the “Four Olds”, saw efforts to stamp out Confucian thought completely. Now, it is generally acknowledged that the educational pendulum swung too far away from literature, and efforts are being made to allow students a choice of exam curriculum, enabling specialisation in literature and the arts once more.
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The current university entrance system is far from perfect; but for thousands of diligent students, it offers a ladder from provincial village schools to the nation's best universities. Residents of metropolises like Beijing and Shanghai may benefit from built-in bias designed to maintain the prestige of these cities, but urban universities nevertheless admit legions of rural success stories, often the children of illiterate parents, who have benefited from the meritocratic reach of the PRC's university entrance exams.
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