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Learning to Serve: Urban Youth, Vocational Schools and New Class Formations in China

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.)

It's early afternoon, the middle of the week, early spring, 2008. Although I am perched on a low stool at the far back of a large classroom in the Nanjing Infrastructure Vocational Secondary School, I have a clear view of the blackboard at the front of the room, because almost all the students in front of me are asleep at their desks. With their faces planted on the long, narrow tables that serve as desks and their arms dangling, the dozing students provide me with a clear view of the teacher, who - oblivious to the students' lack of attention - lectures in an endless drone while facing the blackboard, her back to the room. Around us, water trickles down the walls from leaks in the ceiling and puddles onto the concrete floor. The ceiling soars more than 4 meters above us; below it hang pipes, electrical wires, and suspended fluorescent light fixtures that flicker in the cold, cavernous space.

A few students gaze out of the windows that line one wall of the classroom. From here, on the third floor of the school, we have a clear view of the on-ramp to the enormous Changjiang Bridge; watching cars and trucks pour on and off the bridge is a popular pastime for the bored and distracted students. A few students peer out the windows down into the neighboring yard, a huge lot filled with a breathtakingly large pile of garbage, where migrant workers recycle paper, plastic, tires and a mountain of bottles. The students who are not asleep fiddle with mobile phones and MP3 players under their desks, sending text messages or listening to the latest Jay Chou downloads.

This description of a secondary vocational school classroom in China may not seem very unusual; bored students, in run-down classrooms, who are not engaged with teachers or classroom material are arguably not uncommon in China's lowertier secondary schools. I suggest, however, that behind this image something important is taking place: the formation of a new social class in urban China.

This paper explores the lives and experiences of a group of young people enrolled in vocational education in Jiangsu Province, as a lens on processes of class formation in contemporary China. Classic works on the sociology of youth cultures, starting with those by Willis and by Bourdieu and Passeron,' have long argued that schools are primary sites for reproducing social hierarchies and class differences. This insight, although based entirely on research in the industrial West, would hardly have surprised an earlier generation of Chinese educational theorists; after all, at the start of the Cultural Revolution Mao Zedong began his efforts at radical social egalitarianism by targeting schools.2 Today, however, under conditions of extremely rapid social and economic change, this perspective on the relation between education and class raises several important questions. Along with reproducing social hierarchies, can schools also help produce new social classes? If so, how does this occur? What kinds of social classes are being produced in China today through the changing education system?

Based on a year of ethnographic research (2007-08) in two vocational secondary schools in Nanjing, this essay argues that urban vocational secondary schools are a privileged site for producing a new social class in Chinese cities today.3 1 explore three aspects of incipient class formation through a Weberian approach. First, I describe how vocational education is structurally and ideologically producing a separate status group of young people, who generally fall outside the hegemonic notion of class mobility and middle-class moral citizenship that is linked to human capital development in China today. Second, I discuss the background of the vocational secondary students to explore how this institutional setting is enabling new social groups to form. Finally, I explore the vocational students' perspectives on their lives, to argue that the ways in which they are creating paths towards the future are also new forms of class culture. …