I think this Atlantic magazine piece, “The Education System That Pulled China Up May Now Be Holding It Back,” has many key aspects all wrong.
It’s not enough to recite “culturalist” interpretations of flaws like the emphasis on “rote learning” and “innately imitative” Chinese culture, which are a crutch for frustrated Chinese youth and defensive American educators alike.
Why is the gaokao, the high-stakes college entrance exam mentioned in the article, so punishingly hard? Because there are only about 2500 some universities in China for 20 million college students out of a total population of 1.3 billion — versus 4500-Title IV eligible accredited higher ed institutions in the U.S., 2800 of which are 4 year degree institutions; 20 million college students out of 311 million total U.S. population — so there has to be some way to control the numbers of Chinese students allowed to attend. If standards were lower, more students would qualify and more universities would have to be built. Don’t underestimate the sheer volume of people in China — a nation with “second” and “third tier” cities so populous they dwarf America’s largest cities, but “no one” [in the west that is] has heard of them. If only 10% more of the college-student age population went to university in China, there would have to be thousands more colleges built immediately. Literally over night. Maybe this is in the planning stages, but certainly it’ll take some time to occur. Consider also that China’s elite universities are barely a hundred years old.
Another thing that seems way off base in this Atlantic piece is the connection between free speech and intellectual inquiry. The Chinese government can’t have the Great Firewall and the Thousand Flowers of Internet Innovations Blooming at the same time, can it? Just think how radical open courseware would be both here AND there.
Finally, when I was last in Shanghai recently, I saw many green post office buildings on every corner which doubled as banks. These are community banks, as opposed to banks set up to facilitate commerce. I’d have to dig deeper but maybe the banking system and/or cronyism is partly what stifles small business entrepreneurship. If you need deep Party connections to get a loan and start a business, then it’s no wonder “only 1.6 percent of Chinese college graduates started businesses last year” — that number probably largely coincides with elite Party membership. (If reported figures of 80 million Communist Party members can be believed, divided by 1.3 billion Chinese nationals, then Communist Party membership would equal about 6.15%, and 1.6% would be the elite children of the elite). You know, kind of like Yale’s Skull & Bones…or the Bush dynasty that keeps threatening to rear its ugly head here in America.
As for the cutthroat competition and authoritarian learning/teaching styles, yes those are problems, as is Communist Party orthodoxy…ALMOST as rigid as truth-denying birther Teabaggery, Milt Friedman-style “free market” ideology, and Grover Norquist pledges for no taxes ever, wouldn’t you say?
(These sweeping generalization articles strike me as really poorly done, catering to an aggrieved Orientalism on the part of the west. I hope people arguing for better American public education have better sense than to eat this stuff up. What would be the point?)
We won’t “out-educate” and “out-innovate” China by denigrating them, as I hope I’ve shown we have our own challenges to surmount. For example, China isn’t yet hobbled by a widespread, benighted religious fundamentalism that denies international standards of basic science, including climate science, like we are. Their struggles involve raising the standards of education for a staggering number of people, whereas here in America many who have access to education don’t avail themselves of it due to cost and other factors. Simply railing against China’s perceived flaws in their education system is defensive and diminishing — to the United States. Instead, we should focus on what our unique gifts are, and borrow the aspects of other systems that are adaptable to our system.