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The Influence of Agriculture on Educational Inequality in Rural China


S. J. Wong


As one of the single most important developments in the history of human civilization, agriculture remains one of the world’s most crucial and influential industries to date. After all, providing people with food is rather important. Agriculture, in fact, has a prominent though oft-overlooked impact on education in China, especially in rural areas. From long-standing historical impacts to a persistent every-day influence, agriculture significantly affects the way the children of rural China are educated.


Historically

Throughout most of its history, China has been a predominantly agricultural country. Some estimates place modern day China’s agricultural work force at approximately 35% of the country’s total labor force, whereas industrial nations like the United States sit at about 2.5%. Going back a decade, the number was about 60% of the total population, or about 700 million farmers. This agricultural focus, as well as other geopolitical factors, led to a relatively late industrialization, and even as China industrialized explosively, agriculture was among the first and primary focuses. What does this have to do with education? China’s transition into a developed nation enabled it to provide its people with modern education, but its late and sudden growth did not allow for the same carefully mapped development that many other countries enjoyed. Various government policies were instigated to solve other problems, but issues began to arise, such as rural-urban migration and subsequent educational discrepancies. As a result, poor education (especially in rural areas) is still a significant problem in modern day China despite government efforts. Though the illiteracy rate of rural workers in China has fallen to 8.09% in 2000, from 27.87% in 1985, many people in China still receive exceedingly poor education, and the number of illiterate people in rural China is still exceedingly high.


Modern Day Presence

Although to a lesser extent, agriculture continues to affect education across rural China today. A noticeable effect of the heavy agricultural focus is that farming and making a living is often prioritized over education or other aspects of life. The pervasive problem of malnutrition in rural children is one such example. Combined with the populace’s already poor education—and thus their inability to recognize and/or deal with these types of problems—issues like these may only worsen. One more factor to consider is the intergenerational transmission of education. Intergenerational transmission is when some aspect of the parent, be it social or economic status—in this case education—is transmitted and carried on by the child. The level of education that a parent possesses can highly influence the level of education that the child receives. A generation of poor education can be passed onto the next, and the next. Considering that the phenomenon was observed to have been most noticeable starting around the 1980’s, its effect can be easily seen today. Though not a direct result of China’s agriculture, it prolongs the educational inequality that agriculture originally had a role in, and continues to carry that influence to this day.


To sum it all up, agriculture, though seemingly unrelated, greatly influences the course of education that the children of rural China receive on a daily basis. Perhaps as a cornerstone of civilization, this is inevitable. But this only makes it more important than ever that something is done to help rural China receive the education it deserves.



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