Friday, March 1, 2013

Values-Based Education, in China and America

Everyone knows there’s a problem. Everyone knows that Chinese children outperform their American counterparts scholastically.

Once upon a time, the Tiger Mom, aka Amy Chua wrote a book called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. In it she explained that she was bringing up her daughters according to Confucian precepts.

American parents were outraged. The felt that Chua was attacking the American way of child rearing. So they defended their own way of parenting, vigorously. They did not want their children to become automatons; they wanted them to be well-rounded and creative. They might know how to do multivariable calculus but they had spent a week working at Habitat for Humanity.

In short, American parents took offense at the Tiger Mom. Being themselves products of the great American educational system they excel at taking offense. They seemed to want to compete with Amy Chua to see who had the highest self-esteem.

In the meantime, Amy Chua’s eldest daughter matriculated at Harvard.

Without mentioning the Tiger Mom David Brooks waded into this debate today  in a column called: “The Learning Virtues.”

With his clunky title Brooks is trying to highlight the fact that Asians believe that schools should teach students good values. Education in Asia involves character building. When Asian students go to school they are taught virtue.

American students, Brooks asserts, are supposed to be seeking pure knowledge. As we shall see, it isn’t true, but Brooks seems to like the counterpoint, so he goes with it. 

Brooks drew his inspiration from a  Chinese educator named Jin Li. Having grown up in China, Li immigrated to America to pursue her studies and to develop an academic career.

As Brooks expresses it, here is what she found:

American high school students had great facilities but didn’t seem much interested in learning. They giggled in class and goofed around.

This contrast between the Chinese superstudent and the American slacker could be described with the usual tired stereotypes. The Chinese are robots who unimaginatively memorize facts to score well on tests. The Americans are spoiled brats who love TV but don’t know how to work. But Li wasn’t satisfied with those clichés. She has spent her career, first at Harvard and now at Brown, trying to understand how Asians and Westerners think about learning.

The simplest way to summarize her findings is that Westerners tend to define learning cognitively while Asians tend to define it morally. Westerners tend to see learning as something people do in order to understand and master the external world. Asians tend to see learning as an arduous process they undertake in order to cultivate virtues inside the self.

It is true that Chinese parents define learning in moral terms. Amy Chua provoked the wrath of the American parentocracy because she insisted that her daughters learn the values of self-discipline and perseverance. And she wanted them to develop a strong work ethic. Worse yet, she taught her children respect the authority of their parents and their teachers.

Where American educators have made a fetish out of adolescent rebelliousness, the Chinese system is grounded in the Confucian principle of filial piety.

Many American parents denounced Chua for practicing a form of child abuse. Besides, some were heard to mention, the Tiger Mom had removed the fun from schooling.  

Li and Brooks are wrong, however, to think that the American educational establishment is not inculcating an ethic. It might tell itself that it is motivated only by the love of learning, but it is also promulgating a value system.

It may try to hide its game by saying that it only wants children to love knowledge for its own sake, but this is clearly untrue.

Confucian learning aims at wisdom. It works to help children build their pride, not just in themselves, but in their nation and culture. It wants you to feel like you belong to something of value.

American education aims to teach you how to criticize and to diminish your nation’s accomplishments. No one should be surprised that this attitude should be producing children who lack pride, confidence and motivation. 

Beyond teaching students to criticize everything, American educators aim at well-roundedness, high self-esteem, good mental hygiene and creativity.

Whether they accomplish their goals, American teachers are trying to contribute to what they consider to be a child’s mental health.

They believe, as an article of faith, that repetitive tasks, strong discipline, filial piety and respect for authority are designed to repress a child’s innate creativity and sexual drive.

Brooks and Li notwithstanding many American children are not in school to learn. Their teachers want them to develop their fullest creative potential. Better yet, their parents expect that the learning experience will be fun.

If schools are trying to teach children the value of high self-esteem they will not want them competing for the best grades. Nor do they want them to be striving for excellence. If each child is supposed to be fulfilling his potential, there is no such thing as failure. A child who gets something wrong is merely expressing his creativity.


Sam L. said...

I translate that to "dumbing down the American people, one student at a time".

Anonymous said...

When Asian students go to school they are taught virtue.

Oh? That's a pretty broad brush and a loosely defined virtue. What is virtue in China, where it's apparently not uncommon for vendors to replace the contents of walnuts with bits of concrete, or for baby formula and pet food to be tainted with poison because it's cheaper, not to mention the endemic hacking, use of slave labor in mines (both real and virtual), and the horrific ways the state deals with unapproved children?

Or in education particularly, what does it say that Chinese exchange students have a reputation (as I've just heard from my niece, who is working on her graduate thesis in a STEM program) for rampant, unrepentant cheating?

If you wanted to discuss virtue in Asian schools, you might at least make an example of South Korea, where all students are required to study the Talmud. I'd be very interested to know what kind of results they are seeing from such a program.

There are a lot of Asian nations; many of them seem to have a cultural character that is anything but virtuous. And not all of them do a great job of teaching their children genuine knowledge. America's schools, particularly the public schools, have serious problems, I agree with that. But to say that we should be "more like the Asians" or even (as your post seems to suggest) "more like the Chinese" just sounds, quite frankly, insane. Replacing an educational culture of feel-good emotionalism with one that values "success" at any cost does not strike me as a step in the right direction.