Against educational reproduction---the experiment of a volunteer-managed school in rural China

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Cultural Foundations of Education


Sari K. Bilken


Rural education, China, Left-behind children, Volunteer teaching, Educational equality

Subject Categories



This dissertation investigates volunteer teachers' efforts to reform rural schooling in China. The recent decade witnesses an emergence of volunteerism in China supported both by the state and NGOs with the aspiration to level the expanding inequalities between rural and urban basic education. My project is based upon ethnographic fieldwork in one independent volunteer school--Springfield, and three of its related campuses, which includes participant observation, in-depth interviewing and open-ended questionnaire over four years.

I examine the volunteers' equalizing efforts in rural education in a historical context in which long-term inequality and equalization endeavors have been two persistent themes. I represent current difficulties in doing volunteer teaching from volunteers' perspectives, portray this specific group called "volunteers," and recapitulate the school evolution. I then represent the reforms that Springfield volunteers have carried out, focusing on what volunteers considered as their greatest success and frustration. Volunteers have successfully established a caring and equal relationship with their students, which in many ways resembles a relationship between parents and children. However, they constantly experienced frustration due to mismatch of the educational goal in the current educational system, and the needs of their students. I analyze this frustration in the conceptual framework of educational reproduction of cultural orders. I further interpret volunteers' agency with the concepts of "strategy" vs. "tactics" in de Certeau's (1984) exposition of the agency of the weak.


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