(MA XUEJING / CHINA DAILY)
It has been a hot summer in many areas in China, but short study tours abroad seem to be even hotter. Parents spend tens of thousands of yuan on such study tours, especially to places where top universities are located, including the New England area in the United States, and Oxford and Cambridge in the United Kingdom.
There are busloads of students in some college towns in the UK, and they make substantial contribution to the local economy. Last September, I visited Cambridge and found that they charge a good amount of money for campus tours, largely because too many students come visiting.
But students who fly half way around the world to visit these universities are not likely to be deterred by the high admission fees. As tourists flock to such towns in greater numbers and disturb the otherwise quiet town life, local residents are starting to complain. Young academic pilgrims enjoy the sights, take photographs, and go through ritualized activities such as rowing on the Cambridge River.
Back home, their parents proudly post the photos of their children on these study tours on social media. A hidden peer pressure is building up among middle-income group parents as even those who have to work till they drop to pay for such tours are signing up for them. These tours therefore contribute to making our time an age of escalating anxiety.
These days many mothers and fathers don't believe they are doing enough for their kids unless they spend as much, if not more, money as their neighbors do. Which is very different from my childhood when we all kids roamed wild, and parents considered it natural. Today's parents don't seem to have trust in their kids' ability to play any game unless someone has organized it into tight structures.
The university tours abroad are attracting more and more parents as companies organizing them grow. There is big money in this anxiety business. These companies capitalize on educational worries of parents who care deeply about their children's formal education, almost to a fault, but seldom consider the other opportunities their children can have.
For instance, parents could send their kids to some local scenic spots where they can spend substantial time and be nourished by vitamin N (N for nature). City-based parents could let their children stay with a relative in the countryside so that they develop empathy and interpersonal communication skills by living with a different group of people. They could, for a change, buy or borrow them books so that they enhance their knowledge while letting their imagination fly.
"Being there, done that" is not necessarily educational if the exposure is short, the visits hurried, and interaction with locals rare.
Visiting revered institutions of higher learning like Cambridge or Harvard may motivate and energize children who need role models. But on such tours, children just get a quick peek of these places, without even seeing many students who leave schools during the summer vacation. Besides, due to capacity issues, students are usually not allowed to spend much time in one area.
Perhaps, future tours could be organized to not the "hot" academic institutions, but to some lesser-known college towns where full immersion is possible.
I live in western Texas where we don't get any academic tour groups from China, probably because it is even hotter here during the summer. However we have Korean and Japanese camps on the campus where students get relatively enough time to immerse in local culture. Students are paired up with local families for a weekend stay, eat in the students' cafeteria, attend classes, visit factories and offices, and also get to visit malls. And since tourists are rare, they are given more personal attention and care during their stay. I believe such experiences of immersion are more educational and leave students with better memories.
Still, if some parents want to send their children to Oxford or Cambridge, they should ask the youngsters to use their eyes and ears more, and phones and cameras less. Children learn more that way.
The author is an instructional designer, literary translator and columnist writing on cross-cultural issues.