WENBIN GAO talks to Stephen Wilmarth, educator and activist, about his visions on China and Chinese education in an era of change.


I first met Stephen Wilmarth during Lunar New Year celebrations at his house in New Haven. Chinese educators and students packed the dining room. A few young Chinese students were living with Steve at the time. Not yet ready to live independently in the United States, they formed a unique extended family to which Steve acted as both parent and teacher. 

Steve is an educator and change activist. Before he went to China, he was the co-founder of Skills21, a project focusing on programs designed to bridge the education gap between underserved and high performing school districts in Connecticut. In 2006 at the age of 60, Steve began a personal odyssey by accepting a teaching assignment in Ningxia, China. “I just thought I might be of some help in a place that lay beyond the boundaries of my most intense experiences as a teacher,” he told me.

During his ten years in China, Steve started in the northwest, but his trajectory would eventually span multiple provinces and ultimately close a link on both sides of the Pacific. He founded and directed a successful international school project at No. 1 High School Affiliated with Central China Normal University, one of China’s leading public high schools. He continued his engagement as a faculty adviser to PEER China, a Beijing-based rural education NGO that has trained 2,600 students and 700 volunteers in five provinces in the past ten years. He was also a guest lecturer at Ningxia University, Ningxia Normal University, Peking University, Tsinghua University, MIT, and Harvard.

For Steve, the real China is an ever shrinking China, lying at the receding edges of undeveloped frontiers in eternal reticence, immune from the fanfare of media and booming development—“the swirling vortex of human hopes and dreams.”

In our conversation, Steve shied away from talking about his achievements.  Instead he reminisced about his sojourns into the vast Chinese hinterlands: a midnight stroll among the carpeted stalls in a local assembly market, a dinner at the Master’s table at the Ta’er Monastery, a nearly-silent vigil shared with shepherds tending their yaks and sheep on the slopes of the Kunlun mountains, a twelve-mile hike around the perimeter of Lugu Lake in Yunnan province at the eastern end of the Himalayan mountains that included a wedding, a funeral, and a local folk-singing guide… Steve said he always felt confused, and even a little guilty. “Am I doing the right thing here in China?  Indeed, do I need these people more than they need me?” 

Each year, over two million visitors make their way to China from the United States. “Most of us are only interested in the famous historical monuments that scream out from the glossy pages of every foreign travel guide,” Steve said. In his eyes, however, these tourist meccas are not representations of the real China. For Steve, the real China is an ever shrinking China, lying at the receding edges of undeveloped frontiers in eternal reticence, immune from the fanfare of media and booming development—“the swirling vortex of human hopes and dreams.” He recalled how students at Ningxia Polytechnic University loved his interactive teaching style. Steve would stroll around the classroom and casually pick up conversations with students in the middle of their assignments. He would invite students to come on stage to give presentations. Compared to a dead-silent Chinese classroom where the only task for students was to take note of everything the teacher said, Steve’s classroom was very much alive. “It’s so condescending to say Chinese students are not naturally creative. Given the opportunity, Chinese students are as creative and talented freethinkers as any students I have encountered anywhere in the West.”

Unfortunately, opportunities for free thought are scarce. As a teacher, Steve’s first shock came during a routine flag ceremony in Yinchuan, provincial capital of Ningxia, where thousands of high school students stood motionless in a dusty sports field, seemingly as vast as Tiananmen Square itself. The scene was, in his words, “mind-blowing.” The ceremony was a metaphor for the hierarchical structure that defined the national ethos of China itself.  Steve wondered aloud if his students would break the chains that tethered them like Prometheus condemned to exist in a perpetual Greek tragedy. 

According to Apple Education’s Beijing office, Steve managed to set up the first one-on-one iPad classroom in China in 2010 in Wuhan where students freely read the Washington Post and the New York Times on their tablets as part of their English language learning. Steve admitted that he made the choice to “ask for forgiveness, rather than ask for permission,” by pulling cables from his office to the classroom at midnight to set up an open wifi node in his classroom. In spite of the efforts to sabotage the experiment by the school IT staff, Steve managed to keep the program running for a whole year before it was finally shut down by school authorities. Nevertheless, Steve’s students leveraged free access to western media into placements at a number of top-notch American universities like UC Berkeley and Emory. 

“I was struggling to deliver on the implied promise to the people we encountered in China, that we were coming to do more than just snap pictures and buy cheap souvenirs.”

What Steve never managed to explain was the paradox within himself. How could he lament the loss of Chinese culture while at the same time placing iPads in the hands of his students in a bold 21st-century learning experiment? As he said to me in our meeting, “China is an enigma wrapped in paradox, but it is a mystery to be admired.”  

During his time in China, Steve met grizzled veterans of the Chinese Civil War, when Mao and the communists first took control of the Middle Kingdom. He met people of his own age, whose lives have spanned both the convulsions and insanity of the Cultural Revolution and the miraculous economic development that lifted them out of crushing poverty.  And he caught himself dumbfounded by many of his students’ complete ignorance of the history of China in the 100 years between 1912 and 2012, as they lived out their young lives in an age of unlimited possibilities, with only a hint of the fragility underlying their ancient communities.

In the summer of 2008, Steve led a group of Connecticut high school students from Hartford to China. Some of these students had never traveled outside Connecticut before. Some had to raise funds from family, friends and local merchants to pay for the trip. While Steve was proud of his endeavor that united underprivileged students in the US with students in far western China who could only dream of studying abroad, it seems in the end like a Quixotic exercise. “I was struggling to deliver on the implied promise to the people we encountered in China, that we were coming to do more than just snap pictures and buy cheap souvenirs.”

Steve fumbled through the pictures he has accumulated over the years: glittering white mosques, old men proudly wearing their taqiyahs in combination with Mao suits, rural kids with burnt faces smiling timidly in front of the camera. Steve is a diehard aestheticist. For him, beauty and utility will eventually converge in a grand narrative of progress.  At the end of the conversation, he confided in a secret wish. “I wish I could just have ten minutes with Xi Jinping. I would tell him how beautiful China radiates in the mind’s eye. I would tell him that the strength of the nation lies in its abundant diversity of peoples and cultures. I would ask him to tread lightly and help to preserve one of the world’s most precious resources.”


Wenbin Gao is a freshman at Yale University and an associate editor of the magazine. Contact him at wenbin.gao@yale.edu.