The temptations of tutoring

Posted on Mar 30, 2014

Tutoring is big business in Hong Kong.  Various models exists.  On one end are private tutors working 1-on-1.  On the other end are “celebrity tutors” who runs classes of hundreds (via video conferencing to multiple lecture halls1), whose airbrushed visage grace billboards and buses.  The common ground between them is that they cost an arm-and-leg, and constitute a shadow education sector apart from daytime education in schools, in which an astounding 86% of senior secondary students enrol in.2

Billboard advertisement for tutors on Nathan road.  From ohconfucius/Wikimedia.

Billboard advertisement for tutors on Nathan road. From ohconfucius/Wikimedia.

Since coming back to Hong Kong I have struggled with whether to tutor, especially when stressed, and there was especially acute soul-searching when my contract was up for renewal.  The sheep’s leg is the wolf’s mutton: the pay out is truly lucrative.  Set aside the celebrity tutors which earned international notoriety; for IB diploma chemistry, working with a company (small classes, just tutoring) pays HK$5000 (US$ 600) / day, and private tutoring can go for HKD$1600 (US$ 200) / hour.  Hour-wise this is >10 times my salary.

Capitalism is not just a kind of economy but a mode of thinking.  In Sandels‘ words, we have gone from having a market economy to being a market society.  Money doesn’t just buy you something.  It makes you someone, and a moral someone at that.  My grandma expressed dismayed that I am content with my wages: “個孫噤懶又不思上進,你話我可以點?” (“My grandson is so lazy and thinks not about improving himself, what could I say?“)  In a materialistic society, money buys you respect, which isn’t the same as honor, but close enough.

On practical terms, taking on full time tutoring means I could maintain my standard of living by working 5 hours instead of 50+ hours each week.  That means lots of time reading, working on personal projects, and learning things that I either can’t fit in my schedule now, or no longer have the capacity to after a long day.  I know someone who does exactly this, and I am rather envious of her lifestyle.

And then, there is an efficient clarity to provider-consumer relationships.  I imagine it smooth, transient, and free of emotional attachments.

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But I can’t get away from the thought that it’s a lot of money.  I look at my colleagues, a murderer’s row of teachers, and can’t help but wonder what it is that tutors sell.  After some reflections, it struck me that what is on sale sits upon a continuum with two poles.3

On one end, that tutors entails an academic lift, and thus opportunities later in life.  This strikes me as morally abhorrent.  Our society is plagued by inequality.4   I grew up in a public housing estate but attended a school with very privileged peers, and this make me acutely sensitive to how stratified our society is.  I have no qualms about rich people being able to buy shiny watches from shops; but there seems to be something rotten about rich people being able to buy their kids a shiny future, from kids whose parents are poor but no less deserving.5

On the opposite pole is the possibility that the tutors are entirely ineffective.  This calls into question why they are still in demand, and links to the value of the occupation.  A Confucius culture that values learning does not explain the exorbitant prices; I suspect what is being sold is a mixture of hopes, fears, and desperation accentuated by peer pressure.6  To capitalize on this is predatory and goes beyond a victimless sham.

Between ‘can do’ and ‘may do’ ought to exist the whole realm which recognizes the sway of duty, fairness, sympathy, taste, and all the other things that make life beautiful and society possible — John Fletcher Moutlton

Neither of these are illegal; but then, that is the lowest denominator.   No point within the continuum between these two poles strikes me as particularly palatable.7  This goes beyond my personal tastes or ideals of a right livelihood.  I think back to teachers who formed me; hoarding knowledge for sale to the highest bidder, or preying on others’ anxieties, seems deeply disrespectful to their lives’ work.

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What about free tutoring?  I haven’t made up my mind about it.  On one hand this offer parity (imaginary or otherwise) for economically disadvantaged kids, and feels just; on the other hand it perpetuate the result-driven, shortcut-enabled culture, its accompanying fears and desperation, and is indirectly disempowering teachers in regular schools.8  I am open to trying this out, and have reached out to some non-profits; ironically there’s no takers here.
For now, I am grateful for having been offered a job that, for all its demands, constraints, and messiness, aligns with my values, helps make me a better person, and goes well into an obituary.