This week, Chinese President Hu Jintao is scheduled to make a state visit to Washington, D.C.. According to some experts, his visit is the most important by a Chinese leader to the United States in years. The focus of Hu’s visit will be on economic and diplomatic issues, as well as the controversial area of human rights. But many are also asking what is it about China that Chinese students regularly rank #1 in the world in the math, science and reading, according to recent results of the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA)?
A ‘Confucian reverence’ for Education in China
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof suggests that these results are due to the Chinese system of education with its “Confucian reverence” for education that is indeed “steeped” in the culture: “In Chinese schools, teachers are much respected, and the most admired kid is often the brain rather than the jock or class clown.”
Noting that he has been visiting schools in China and Asia for the past twenty years, Kristof writes that “education thrives in China and the rest of Asia because it is a top priority — and we’ve plenty to learn from that.” When teachers are ineffective, they “can get extra training for less effective teachers” or be assigned other jobs, such as being gym teachers. “In China, school sports and gym just don’t matter,” Kristof writes, with an unspoken reference to the emphasis many American schools give to school sports and athletic achievement.
Kristof is surprised to find that the Chinese themselves criticize their own education system for stifling creativity and, as one father who has sent his son to an international school put it, pretty much “[training] seals.” Indeed, Kristof writes:
“Many Chinese complain scathingly that their system kills independent thought and creativity, and they envy the American system for nurturing self-reliance — and for trying to make learning exciting and not just a chore.”
This self-critique is all very well, according to Kristof. But he suggests that he prefers, and certainly admires, whatever it is in Chinese culture–”the passion for education and the commitment to making the system better”–that leads to Chinese students performing 26 notches above American ones.
Education is #1 in My Chinese-American Family
I’m third-generation Chinese-American and, indeed, education has always been an unspoken priority in my family. My grandparents on both sides all emigrated from southern China; my mother’s father received a degree in civil engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. My parents and all of their siblings all went to college (most at Berkeley). When my father’s mother, known to me as Ngin Ngin, died in October of 2009, five of her six great-grandchildren spoke about her and her husband’s lives at her funeral.
They all mentioned how important our family has considered education. Ngin-Ngin, who never learned to read or write in any language, was certainly proud that all of her children, grandchildren, and four of her great-grandchildren were all college graduates or in college.
I felt a bit of a pang on hearing all this talk of education and college. My son Charlie won’t be going to college.
Special Education in the US
Charlie is on the moderate to severe end of the autism spectrum and far, far behind his grade level in his academics. More and more autistic students are attending college, but Charlie has already started pre-vocational training at school.
My husband Jim Fisher and I have always believed that Charlie’s education is fundamental to his future, to his being able to live a good life that is full of meaningful work and activities and in a community where his differences are accepted and where he is loved. Jim and I are both ‘in the education business’ (as he likes to put it), so perhaps it is no surprise that we would emphasize Charlie’s schooling most of all. But I do think that my Chinese-American family’s emphasis on education as crucial has played a part.
Certainly I am grateful that Charlie is a citizen of the US. Educational programs, for autistic children in China are few and far between. (A video about one of the few schools for autistic children in China is below.) It is ultimately thanks to the civil rights movement and the belief that all children, regardless of their race or ethnicity or disability, have the right to be educated, that Charlie has been able to go to school.
The civil rights movement’s fight against discrimination on the basis of ‘what’ a person is helped to inspire individuals with disabilities to stand up for their rights. It is a law in the US that students with disabilities have access to a ‘free and appropriate public education’–not so in China.
The Chinese ‘Tiger Mother’ Book
There has been a lot of talk recently about “Chinese ways” of educating children with the recent publication of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua. A professor at Yale Law School, Chua has gained a lot of attention, and criticism, for her portrayal of her “extreme,” if not draconian, parenting style. In an excerpt in last week’s Wall Street Journal article, Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior, Chua claims that the key to raising successful kids is
I am planning to write a post about Chua’s book, which touches on many issues of deep concern to me. In reading it, I have often got the feeling that she is thinking darn this 26th-spot ranking for American schools; my daughters are going to get a first-class education, like the Chinese have–authoritarian, highly structured, with no pandering to their emotional needs, oriented around external measures of success (such as playing the piano at Carnegie Hall, winning gold medals, getting into Harvard).
The one critique that I found the most revealing is The Beijing Backlash Over Crazy Chinese Moms by Huang Hung, who is Chinese. Chua’s parenting style “glorifies suffering, lacks individual rights, and tells mothers they’re only as good as their kids” and is an odd throwback to, indeed, the Chinese “system”of educating children. Says Huang:
“It is ironic that as young Chinese mothers in Beijing and Shanghai are embracing more enlighted Western ideas about child raising, mothers from Connecticut [where Chua lives] are sinking deeper into China’s darker past in child rearing.”
Huang notes the same paradox that Kristof does: Just as Americans are admiring the Chinese system of education, the Chinese are concerned about its limits, especially in regard to how it tends to quash creativity and individuality in favor of what is often rote learning. This paradox is evident in the American-born Chua’s determination to raise two daughters who won’t drift from their Chinese roots and be, well, slackers (i.e., students who get a B here and there, play sports, and go to state universities).
And while the Chinese parents whom Kristof mentions don’t exactly wish to raise children who are “low achievers” hanging around the mall and playing videogames, their concerns about how traditional Chinese education create students who perform well on tests but can’t figure out novel ways to solve problems should not be discounted.
Maybe what we can learn from the Chinese education system is that we really should be something other than tiger mothers.
Photo by Rex Pe.
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