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Comprehensive labor education needed in new era

YAN CONGGEN and SHU QING | 2022-05-26 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

Primary school students get a taste of landscaping work during summer break at Jiaozuo City, Henan Province. Photo: WWW.JZRB.COM

Labor is the most basic and important means of human existence. Through labor, humans have changed themselves and society. For individuals, labor is an ability and skill. It is not formed naturally but acquired through cultivation. Labor education has long been an important component of the Chinese education system, fundamental to basic education. Cultivating comprehensive, well-rounded student development should emphasize labor education and the overall improvement of labor literacy. 

In this regard, it is necessary to point out that each type of labor has its own significance and value, so we must carry out labor education in a comprehensive manner. However, in practice, the interpretation and implementation of labor education is often one-sided. Once, it was narrowly understood as “productive labor education” and now it is sometimes known as “physical labor education” or “work-technical education.” Therefore, in order to carry out comprehensive labor education, we should correctly understand it and create a corresponding curriculum.
Labor of love
It is commonly said that the purpose of education is to guide students to master specific skills and learn how to behave as a fully functional member of society. As a part of the educational system, labor education should follow the same principle. 
If we want to help students master certain skills, labor education should not settle for a one-time experience but should be centered on labor production. It is generally recognized that labor itself is not labor education, but there is certainly no labor education without real work. Considering this, many schools attach great importance to labor and actively enrich students’ experience in various types of work through workshops, campus farms, and field trips. However, if we only aim for students to get a taste of certain types of work, not the complete experience of harvesting and collecting products, they will not take it seriously and truly value the joy of work, nor will students grow into citizens who love work and are competent laborers. Therefore, both processes and results are vital to labor education for it to fulfill its mission. In this regard, labor education’s to-do list, launched by the Teaching and Research Office of the Education Department of Zhejiang Province, sets quite an example. It not only indicates what labor curriculum students in Grade 1-9 should complete in each grade, but also further details what results should be achieved.
Labor education is not only aimed at cultivating students’ labor literacy, but also targets promoting the spirit of labor and labor morality. Labor education promotes students’ respect for labor, resulting in the formation of a labor consciousness that views labor as honorable, respectful, and beautiful. However, labor education’s function is, without doubt, beyond this. Labor education also serves to hone and temper students’ personalities, encouraging the desire and willpower to do hard work, overcome difficulties, and bravely struggle, helping them develop healthy personalities. To say the least, labor is what makes us human, because it forms and perfects our physical bodies, and it opens our minds to the significance of cooperation, sharing, and making progress. 
Bear in mind, teaching students how to accomplish tasks and how to behave in society cannot be separated. One’s personality and spirit are formed in the process of “getting things done,” because the love for work, the ability to reach goals, and getting results are the foundations of a cultivated mind. Therefore, comprehensive labor education is by all means an organic integration of body and mind.
Comprehensive labor education
Comprehensive labor education values both productive and non-productive labor education. The policy of “combining education with productive labor” has been a fundamental principle of China’s educational work. In the new era, the connotations of “combining education with productive labor” have been expanded. In order to make sure every Chinese citizens receives proper labor education, we must correctly understand this Marxist theory. The reason why Marxism emphasizes the combination of education and productive labor is that only when education is combined with productive labor can workers, especially children, in the age of mechanized large-scale production, change their jobs and become competent in different types of work, and finally become well-rounded citizens. At the same time, only through the combination of education and productive labor, can we unleash the productive forces of education and its function in reforming modern society. 
However, this does not mean that education shouldn’t be combined with other forms of labor. There are various types of labor, such as daily housework, service labor, and creative labor, which are of great significance to the comprehensive development of humanity and society.
To carry out comprehensive labor education, we should attach importance to both physical and non-physical labor education. Prior to the era of information technology, productive labor, service labor, and daily housework were mostly physical labor, but with society’s development and the advancement of information technology, all types of labor involve multiple elements from science and technology, some of which are highly abstract labor that can be classified as sci-tech labor or digital labor. They have not only increased the creativity and intelligence of labor, but also shifted labor from physical-centered to intelligence-centered. Therefore, the combination of physical and non-physical labor is key to the success of labor education in the new era.
As society develops with time, the application of science and technology in production labor has become more common, so labor has become more complex and technology more intensive. “Labor technology education” or “work-technical education” is gaining momentum. The concept itself has made people fully realize the importance of strengthening complex labor education and teaching skills in new technology. 
Once again, it must be pointed out that labor education needs to ensure comprehensive physical and mental development. While labor education instills habits, a passion for labor, and provides necessary skills, it should also help develop students’ moral qualities. It needs to cultivate passion among students regarding labor and production, temper their wills, and improve their abilities to pursue truth and creativity, thereby enhancing their intellects. Students are also encouraged to produce and shape beautiful works to hone their aesthetic abilities, thus enabling them to experience the values and strengths of life through aesthetics. Only the integration of labor, moral, intellectual, athletic, and aesthetic education can produce fully developed human beings.
Practical activities
Designating time for practical activities not only guarantees the implementation of labor education, but also guarantees integrated education in five domains, namely morality, intellect, athletics, aesthetics, and labor. It also fosters theoretical innovation of labor education, and the practical skills of work. Although the government requires schools of various levels to offer labor courses, in reality the class time is limited, and it is not part of the high school and college entrance examination. Often, few schools delve into it and take the initiative to integrate labor education with other disciplines. Therefore, we argue that through fixed practical activity time and a series of thematic practices, labor courses for students of the same age or grade could be better consolidated.
In a way, practical activities are not a course, but a designated time slot. It’s compulsory, but also a time for flexible arrangement. Schools could account for their own characteristics and come up with distinct course designs and arrangements. Each school should also fully take advantage of this time and make sure labor education is implemented in a comprehensive manner.
However, the implementation of labor education in schools will inevitably face limitations in terms of the available technology, equipment, environment, and number of professional teachers. To ensure the effective implementation of labor education, schools need to rely on external resources and encourage students to actively participate in practical activities outside of school. External enterprises and institutions should be better facilitated to carry out labor education for students who are the future workers. 
In summary, the ultimate goal of the combination of education and labor is to cultivate the all-round development of students. For this to come true, on the one hand, labor must be conducive to the formation and development of an individual and free personality. Education, on the other hand, must promote the spirit of freedom and liberation and strive to make up for the limitations caused by the old division of labor system.
Yan Conggen is a professor from the Jing Hengyi School of Education at Hangzhou Normal University and Shu Qing is from the Zhejiang Education Publishing House. 
Edited by YANG XUE