I am about a third of the way through China's Examination Hell. The first thing that jumps out at the modern reader is how familiar some of this is. Miyazaki was writing in Japan in 1963, but much of chapter 1 could be published unedited in the NYT and people would assume that it is about rich Manhattanites selecting preschools, test prep services, and even prenatal care with the goal of maximizing a kid's odds of acing standardized tests. I just hope that we don't go down the same road to ruin that Imperial China followed. All of this has happened before and will happen again.
Second, the mixture of official solemnity and public spectacle around the exams in China helps us understand how modern Chinese immigrants in the US, most of them descended from merchants and farmers rather than officials, could nonetheless include a substantial number of parents who send their children to test prep services and try to inculcate in their children an academic mindset that their own ancestors probably had not been able to profit from: Standardized tests were not merely a matter of personal advancement but rather a public occasion that the whole community was encouraged to celebrate.
Third, while many in the US worry about what standardized tests will do to our elite class, I worry about what a focus on narrow targets will do to education. On pages 35-36 Miyzaki notes that originally one could enter officialdom via either success on tests or overall performance at university. However, over time tests became the sole route to officialdom and so universities declined in prestige and quality. I believe that this cautionary tale should be read more broadly than just as a tale of testing or even vocational emphasis in universities. Rather, it is a tale of narrow targets. When the only purpose of an educational program is to prepare students to hit one narrow target they will aim for that target and neglect all else. The breadth, depth, and intellectual playfulness of the institution will decline, and how could they not? I am in the middle of some bureaucratic tasks involving curriculum design, and if we ever start treating narrow, targeted learning objectives as the real purpose of a class we will be in big, big trouble. Fortunately, that sort of paperwork is ignored once it has been approved.
Finally, this book shows us the timelessness of issues of exam security and test prep industries. That should give pause to anybody who says "Well, clearly we could fix everything if elite institutions just selected their students by <INSERT METHOD HERE>." As long as the stakes are high, people will game whatever process you put in place.