The Myth of China's Super Schools
November 2, 2014 10:00 PM   Subscribe

The Myth of China's Super Schools China had all the elements necessary for an industrial revolution at least four hundred years before Great Britain, but keju diverted scholars, geniuses, and thinkers away from the study or exploration of modern science. The examination system, Zhao holds, was designed to reward obedience, conformity, compliance, respect for order, and homogeneous thinking; for this reason, it purposefully supported Confucian orthodoxy and imperial order. It was an efficient means of authoritarian social control. Everyone wanted to succeed on the highly competitive exams, but few did. Success on the keju enforced orthodoxy, not innovation or dissent. As Zhao writes, emperors came and went, but China had “no Renaissance, no Enlightenment, no Industrial Revolution.”

Zhao, born and educated in China, now holds a presidential chair and a professorship at the University of Oregon. He tells us that China has the best education system because it can produce the highest test scores. But, he says, it has the worst education system in the world because those test scores are purchased by sacrificing creativity, divergent thinking, originality, and individualism. The imposition of standardized tests by central authorities, he argues, is a victory for authoritarianism. His book is a timely warning that we should not seek to emulate Shanghai, whose scores reflect a Confucian tradition of rote learning that is thousands of years old. Indeed, the highest-scoring nations on the PISA examinations of fifteen-year-olds are all Asian nations or cities: Shanghai, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei, Singapore, Korea, Macao (China), and Japan.”
posted by modernnomad (62 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
 
Chinese Taipei

That's adorable.

Why is an article critical of the Chinese education system (and by proxy, the leadership responsible) using the CPC's preferred nomenclature for Taiwan?
posted by seansbrain at 10:13 PM on November 2, 2014 [4 favorites]


Well it's also inconsistent with references to Macao (China) and Hong Kong (?). But let's focus on the substance of the article, maybe?
posted by modernnomad at 10:21 PM on November 2, 2014 [4 favorites]


Hmmm, sounds like the usual orientalist bullshit about the eternal, unchanging East with the only novelty being it's written by a Chinese person. From here it looks like a marketing campaign for Zhao to launch himself as a pundit who can soothe rightwing fears about China by appeal to stereotype.
posted by MartinWisse at 10:31 PM on November 2, 2014 [6 favorites]


Sorry! This is a great, thought-provoking article, and having lived and worked in a country that uses a Confucian education system (which I would reduce to describing simply as rote memorization and standardized testing,) I'd say it's effective at making bright individuals, possibly more per capita than our own education system ever has, but very few creative, outside-the-box thinkers.

But Asia is such a different ecosystem than the US, I'm not sure if it's fair or productive for either country to make comparisons.

Sorry for the earlier digression, but seeing the phrase "Chinese Taipei" in an article like this feels a lot like seeing Richmond, VA passively referred to as the capital of the Confederate States of America in a sports column.
posted by seansbrain at 10:32 PM on November 2, 2014 [19 favorites]


Hmmm, sounds like the usual orientalist bullshit about the eternal, unchanging East with the only novelty being it's written by a Chinese person. From here it looks like a marketing campaign for Zhao to launch himself as a pundit who can soothe rightwing fears about China by appeal to stereotype.

Seems unlikely, given that Zhao's credentials are resolutely left-wing, pro-teacher / anti-test score, as the article makes clear.

On a purely anecdotal level, as an academic in Hong Kong I teach both HK and mainland Chinese students at the university level, and it is true that many of them - but especially the mainlanders - have a hard time adjusting to the idea that there is no one right "answer" when studying in university.
posted by modernnomad at 10:53 PM on November 2, 2014 [18 favorites]


"It is worth noting that American students have never received high scores on international tests. On the first such test, a test of mathematics in 1964, senior year students in the US scored last of twelve nations, and eighth-grade students scored next to last. But in the following fifty years, the US outperformed the other eleven nations by every measure, whether economic productivity, military might, technological innovation, or democratic institutions. This raises the question of whether the scores of fifteen-year-old students on international tests predict anything of importance or whether they reflect that our students lack motivation to do their best when taking a test that doesn’t count toward their grade or graduation."

The fact that American students have never had high test scores is important if we're trying to look at the value of these tests. I'm surprised by this, because even though I haven't bought into the whole A Nation at Risk panic, I thought something had happened in the '80s to spark it. Instead, it seems like it was always comparing us to a past that didn't exist. I'm 33, so the story that the schools are now failing and everything is going to be terrible has been around my whole life.

I, too, have a few opinions Chinese education which I have developed over my years as a teacher in China, and I'm very interested in reading about how it does or doesn't work, but I found the paragraph I quoted above to be the most interesting/surprising.
posted by MsDaniB at 11:12 PM on November 2, 2014 [10 favorites]


I taught Chinese students at Coventry University for a couple of years: a pre-degree course - a kind of crash course in English-style study. They - particularly the men - were convinced that the Chinese way was preferable to European systems in almost every respect. For example they were not impressed by elections, they felt they were destabilising and prevented long term planning by government. And so on.

However they were extremely critical of Chinese compared to European education, and a common refrain was that they needed to bring Western models of pedagogy to China. I think they were envisaging it for the elite schools.

To be fair, these were young people from the most prosperous 1% in China (maybe 2%, because Cov Uni is not Oxbridge) and furthermore their parents had chosen to use that money to send them to get a Western education. So they were likely to think their system was working fine. However they did paint a consistent picture of an education system with established 'right answers' which are memorised by the students. That, they told me, is the model of success.

It is ironic to me that we are adopting that model of success in Britain, just as the Chinese are spending millions of pounds to send their highest achieving students to us for something different.
posted by communicator at 11:23 PM on November 2, 2014 [3 favorites]


It's not just about maximizing creativity or outside-of-box thinking; the hyper-competition surely can be psychologically damaging to students, when "education" is structured around completely wrong sets of incentives.

As for the US, it may do well to look at the Nordic countries, whose education system many researchers are studying--e.g. they prefer highly unstructured learning starting from a very early age.
posted by polymodus at 11:38 PM on November 2, 2014 [2 favorites]


Indeed, Finland also does very well on PISA scores, but without any rote learning or focus on teaching to standardised tests as part of the actual curriculum.

They also pay their teachers very, very well, making it an attractive profession for top university students to go into, which makes a massive difference.
posted by modernnomad at 11:53 PM on November 2, 2014 [12 favorites]


I worked at schools in Japan for half a decade, with the advantage that the language barrier was minimal. A high school science teacher once lamented to me how much he envied the American system, wherein students are taught how to think rather than the China-derived standard of teaching what to think.

I told him about how in America, everyone points to Asia as a role model because they're all so good at tests, and he just laughed and laughed.
posted by DoctorFedora at 12:15 AM on November 3, 2014 [12 favorites]


Hmmm, sounds like the usual orientalist bullshit about the eternal, unchanging East with the only novelty being it's written by a Chinese person.

Not really. I've read much the same analysis ("culture-specific barriers to innovation and lack of incentives to invest time and energy in technological development") of ancient Greece and Rome, both of which contained a great deal of intellectual ferment and talent and produced any number of remarkable inventions which, if followed up, would have led to a possible Industrial Revolution centuries ahead of 18th century Great Britain.

But they weren't followed up.

I think that growing up in the 20th century, Westerners have developed a sense that technological change and innovation is the "normal" path and that something must have gone awry in societies that don't take that road. In point of fact, it's really a rather unusual situation, and is mostly due to some very specific social innovations taken at various times and places on the Atlantic periphery, more or less by accident. The "eternal, unchanging East" is bullshit, but the idea that the road to wealth and success for aspirant elites throughout history the whole world over has been through conformity to norms and traditional social climbing seems to me quite on the nose.
posted by AdamCSnider at 12:23 AM on November 3, 2014 [16 favorites]


Hmmm, sounds like the usual orientalist bullshit about the eternal, unchanging East with the only novelty being it's written by a Chinese person.

Note that every single person in this thread who has direct experience of teaching Chinese people (including myself) disagrees.
posted by Wolof at 12:32 AM on November 3, 2014 [31 favorites]


I was just thinking, it doesn't remind me so much of the "unchanging East" stereotypes as it reminds me of the particular sort of Puritan work ethic that said that six days of 12+ hours a day working and then a near-equivalent amount of time spent sitting on an uncushioned wooden bench on Sundays was not just survivable, but virtuous. It doesn't seem that different. We have plenty of traditions that prioritize hard work and "excellence" and competition. We just also got hippies at some point? But I think all the competitive "our schools should be as good as theirs" stuff only even happens because we had that same impulse already. Enough different to pay more lip service to creativity, but definitely not enough to have any significant number of people who would be okay with "work smarter, not harder" being a mantra for US public schools, much less "stop and smell the roses".
posted by Sequence at 12:56 AM on November 3, 2014 [6 favorites]


The article doesn't talk about the role of standardized testing as part of the Neoliberal goal to restructure society, where teachers and students are highly trained (but essentially interchangeable parts) in a commercialized production system that can "benefit" from technology the same way industrial production has, all while shifting over to a for-profit model. It's undermining one of our great common goods in an effort to open another market to Capital. If it produces compliant workers and low-cost teachers, that's gravy.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:25 AM on November 3, 2014 [14 favorites]


On the flip side, I have a small amount of sympathy for administrators. Assessing education is important, and it's pretty clear to me that no system of education will benefit all students equally. Individual teachers should and do assess progress in their classes and make adjustments, and individual schools can do likewise, but when we try to assess on a society level, the administrators, already tainted with the idea that "business is best," has nothing to fall back on but numbers, standardized tests, and rankings of dubious meaning. It's no wonder they lean on those tests, no matter the damage. Their livelihiods depend on it. Sacrificing children for your paycheck is, well, one of the older professions.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:05 AM on November 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


As I understand it the fact that China didn't produce an industrial revolution is a mystery probably not easily solved by one factor. Another plausible explanation: states competed more in Europe. Furthermore, if one state decided to regressive, free thinking radicals could move to a different state and innovate there. That is, that the schooling would be a consequence of the sheer might and inertia of the Chinese state for many centuries, rather than the cause of it.

That said, it could have been a causal factor to problems. My radical ideas on teaching

-pay teachers tons more money, drastically increase the amount of them.
-Ensure schools are well equipped and staffed.
-Profit

I honestly think the number of exams or type of curriculum is just shuffling around details. One teaching method might well be more effective than the other, but ultimately I am strongly of the opinion that if one teacher has 10 pupils vs 1 teacher having 30, those 10 will probably do much better, almost no matter what they are taught. To be fair, Zhao seems to think fairly similar.
posted by Cannon Fodder at 2:14 AM on November 3, 2014 [5 favorites]


Kenneth Pomeranz and others have argued that Chinese technology and governance continued to advance at an impressive rate at least into the 1700s, and that it had the same sort of "proto-Industrial Revolution" that most of the areas of Europe were experiencing right up until Great Britain changed the game permanently. One of the things that Westerners in the 1700s loved and copied about China - and which undeniably made life better for us - was a stable, orderly, smoothly-running bureaucracy. Professionalism in government.

If the research supporting that argument is good, it certainly complicates the point that Zhao is trying to make. It might be possible to have a more highly driven, test focused education system without sacrificing innovation.

Why? Because for every creative thinker who comes up with a great new idea, there needs to be a whole lot of professionals whose creative thought has been cramped by "obedience, conformity, compliance, respect for order, and homogeneous thinking" in order for the great new idea to be brought to the rest of us. A whole machinery of engineers and accountants and judges and traffic cops and inspectors, people who have put their shoulder to the (very boring) professional wheel, is required for that creative thought to have the widest beneficial impact.

The benefit may go beyond that, though, to the creative thinkers themselves. When did the Renaissance in European art happen? It happened after art became a professional endeavour, with a long, hard apprenticeship that forced artists to learn a set of demanding skills under the tutelage of demanding masters.

I don't expect this argument to be completely convincing, but I hope that it at least provokes thought.
posted by clawsoon at 2:56 AM on November 3, 2014 [14 favorites]


The key conclusions are two fold 1) testing a la PISA is a crappy way of assessing anything other than a groups ability to perfect rote memorization 2) the US has always performed poorly on these exams going back fifty years - which I personally would draw some conclusions from, but certainly challenges orthodoxy on the right about american decline and the impact of liberalism since the 60's.

2 is something I knew but I'm glad this article is getting a wider hearing because it goes along way to defusing bullshit from the right.

This is not some "orientalist bullshit"
posted by JPD at 3:18 AM on November 3, 2014 [3 favorites]


The article was an interesting read, and I had not heard of keju before. I had always thought that the Chinese education system was a (slightly poorer) facsimile of the Japanese education system, not the other way around.

But while I'm sure the keju did little to help matters, I don't see why it necessarily follows that a nation's education system, particularly in primary and secondary schools, should be a major causative determinant of technological innovation (let alone the major determinant). Certainly, with regards to the Industrial Revolution, the major protagonists in Britain were not making their inventions after years of study in school but rather after years of apprenticeship in the professions they would later change. Personally, I would have thought the patent system was a more important contributor, since it incentivized creativity.*

I guess my question after reading this is: If the keju system is so constrictive to innovation, why is Japan so good at developing new technologies?

Also, I think the Zheng Yefu quote is unfairly critical of the Chinese viz a viz the Nobel prize comparison. The elitism and prejudice within the European scientific community is pretty blatant, even today. So I don't think that the reluctance of the Nobel Committee to choose Chinese scientists says as much about China as it does about the Karolinska Institutet.

*I would argue that the success of present day US in STEM is similarly more a reflection of incentive than the school system, and not just because of the opportunity to "make it big" in the US. After many, many decades of valuing and investing in research, the US is the place to go for scientists and academics around the world. Which means that the US get's everyone's best and brightest, not just their own.
posted by kisch mokusch at 3:52 AM on November 3, 2014 [3 favorites]


Even if it isn't orientalist bullshit, it scans like it, and hits all the right notes that appeal to my xenophobe American-exceptionalist uncle. I think that may be all that some are responding to.

My New England college freshman at c a state school have a damn hard time adjusting to the lack of single right answers in college, as well. They often devolve to a weird milquetoast "some intermediate between two polar opinions is correct, and if people adopted that perspective it would allow us to stop talking about x-random extremely important issue. "

The wee lambs.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 3:55 AM on November 3, 2014 [4 favorites]


I guess my question after reading this is: If the keju system is so constrictive to innovation, why is Japan so good at developing new technologies? they aren't a big outlier by oecd standards. Don't forget they are the second largest fully developed economy in the world.
posted by JPD at 4:04 AM on November 3, 2014


If the racism of the Nobel committee is an issue it's way down on the list. Nobel's award older work - people winning now were in school while the cultural revolution was going on.
posted by JPD at 4:10 AM on November 3, 2014 [4 favorites]


As I understand it the fact that China didn't produce an industrial revolution is a mystery probably not easily solved by one factor.

This is sometimes known as The Needham Question - there's a good BBC radio discussion about it here.
posted by sobarel at 4:27 AM on November 3, 2014


We have plenty of traditions that prioritize hard work and "excellence" and competition. We just also got hippies at some point?

This is pretty much my top-line historical analysis of what's happened in the last fifty years or so.
posted by colie at 5:13 AM on November 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


And the point is "hippies" didn't magically make the US education system worse.
posted by JPD at 5:25 AM on November 3, 2014


Note that every single person in this thread who has direct experience of teaching Chinese people (including myself) disagrees.

For what it's worth, I have direct experience of teaching students from China -- many students come to the US for Ph.D. study. If the Chinese educational system has knocked the creativity or originality out of them, it sure doesn't show. The system there may be quite bad, for all I know, but it doesn't seem to prevent students from adjusting quickly to the US model of graduate education.
posted by escabeche at 5:27 AM on November 3, 2014 [3 favorites]


-pay teachers tons more money, drastically increase the amount of them.
-Ensure schools are well equipped and staffed.
-Profit


I would love to see that model enacted, though with the additional tensions of simultaneously allowing more experimental approaches at the school and district level and revamping the worst schools (of which the US has too many).

I am old enough to remember all the articles in the 1980s about how Japan's education system was going to eat us all for lunch, which seemed to disappear as soon as their economic malaise started a few years later. The continued sense of crisis about education here, without ever doing any full-scale reworking of the system (or heaven forbid ensuring adequate and equitable funding) seems to be a long-term feature of how we approach education here, for better or worse.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:40 AM on November 3, 2014 [2 favorites]


It is worth noting that American students have never received high scores on international tests.

On average.

The problem of any comparison involving the United States is that the country doesn't really care at all about the average American.

For what it's worth, I have direct experience of teaching students from China -- many students come to the US for Ph.D. study. If the Chinese educational system has knocked the creativity or originality out of them, it sure doesn't show. The system there may be quite bad, for all I know, but it doesn't seem to prevent students from adjusting quickly to the US model of graduate education.

Don't draw conclusions from immigrants. They are fundamentally strange people who have chosen to abandon almost their entire lives to go live in another country. The very act of leaving is a huge creative leap in a way.
posted by srboisvert at 5:41 AM on November 3, 2014 [4 favorites]


For what it's worth, I have direct experience of teaching students from China -- many students come to the US for Ph.D. study.

I should clarify — Chinese students are absolutely as good as any others. I also completely disagree with the idea that all creativity has been belted out of them. What I will say is that the Chinese system doesn't encourage it, and nor does the society. The moment, however, we are talking about PhD students, all this goes out the window, as we are generally dealing with people with a high degree of intellectual independence.
posted by Wolof at 5:49 AM on November 3, 2014 [2 favorites]


I work in education for people with reading problems - though as a technologist, not a professional educator. My understanding is that structured, rigorous programmes are vital for people who fall behind. I am also aware of the PISA scores as a good international measure, where Western schoolchildren do poorly compared to Eastern ones. Finally, this interesting article.

I wonder if Western systems, which arguably fail poor and less bright children, are better for the brightest, who benefit from the greater flexibility and room for exploration and free thought? Perhaps the PISA scores are a mean, and the best Western schools do as well or better than the Eastern ones?

Or perhaps the education approach - beyond having good teachers! - doesn't matter as much as parents and children and the importance they assign to education?

It's a very interesting article, thank-you very much.
posted by alasdair at 5:52 AM on November 3, 2014


Yes, the Wikipedia article on the PISA studies suggests that high-performing American schools - that is, with rich children - do very well, but poorly-performing American schools - which turn out to be schools with lots of poor children - do much worse (all in comparison with other countries' schools). But also the poor schools have been improving in the USA, interestingly, where they haven't in (for example) Finland.
posted by alasdair at 6:05 AM on November 3, 2014


For what it's worth, I have direct experience of teaching students from China -- many students come to the US for Ph.D. study. If the Chinese educational system has knocked the creativity or originality out of them, it sure doesn't show. The system there may be quite bad, for all I know, but it doesn't seem to prevent students from adjusting quickly to the US model of graduate education.

Yet, at the same time, at least on the lower tiers of US academia, there is a blatantly racist admittance system which ignores GRE test scores from mainland chinese applicants to graduate school. Often with blatantly racist justifications about how "Chinese" scores don't match up with actual student ability.

And then, frankly, as intellectual work in the US has become stratified by access to research dollars, graduate student "research" has devolved to data collection and other sorts of intellectual "manual labor" often performed by foreign-citizen asian students, grateful for the chance of a US degree, granted after their period of indenture servitude.

I don't think this speaks to the quality of chinese grad students in the US, but they are often treated (in the sciences) as if they are only capable of routine and repetitive work... and often vigorously exploited as their visa and residency is dependent on their academic status: disagree with your PI, go back to China; don't want to work on your PIs lab data while you are writing your doctorate, go back to China, etc.
posted by ennui.bz at 6:06 AM on November 3, 2014 [3 favorites]


One of my colleagues has a very low opinion of Chinese students. He states flatly that they lie, cheat, and you can't trust anything on their CVs or resumes. He has tried several times to take on Chinese Masters and PhD students and more often than not he has been burned. His most recent student nearly had a dissertation revoked for plagiarism, only corrected by a forced re-write of the entire thing.

My colleague was born, raised and educated in mainland China. I find it strange that he is so much more critical of the students than any of the rest of us are. I've seen some obviously doctored CVs sent by prospective applicants, but have also seen some very bright, motivated students. I can't discount my colleague's life experience but I can't buy the story of an entire country of cheaters either. It's a weird thing, either way.
posted by caution live frogs at 6:10 AM on November 3, 2014 [3 favorites]


Also, a "keju" style system would be hugely meritocratic in the US. Would parents with resources game the system? Absolutely. But right now the system is positively rigged against students from poor families. An absolute testing standard would create incredible opportunities for poor kids in the US, they just wouldn't come at the expense of the rich and powerful, but from the students of "middle class" households, whose future lifestyle is subsidized by the array of "B-level" schools (public or otherwise) whose admittance is essentially based on ability to pay.

But "school reformers" would never actually go that far, because then they would actually have to guarantee something to those kids who did make the grade... which might actually cost money. Free ride to Harvard if you get the right score? There is a tremendous pool of very talented kids in the US with no opportunities whatsoever who would jump over that hurdle, many of them from Asian families, but as you can see from how the US treats asian students who are even citizens, we would never actually do this...
posted by ennui.bz at 6:19 AM on November 3, 2014


Often with blatantly racist justifications about how "Chinese" scores don't match up with actual student ability.

When I was in graduate school there was open acknowledgment of widespread GRE and TOEFL cheating in China; since the testing companies weren't immediately fixing it, the short-term workaround was to largely ignore those scores in favor of other parts of the admissions materials. At least in my very limited view of the process it wasn't racist as much as it was frustration at admitting people with perfect TOEFL scores who would show up unable to communicate.

Having just said it wasn't racist, though, I can also recall hearing people say things similar to what caution live frogs reports that were based on stereotypes and negative cultural assumptions. So I don't know -- the testing thing was a real issue at least for a while, but when it was coupled with negative racial views I wouldn't be surprised if there was a measurable bias. It was noticeable how different departments admitted very different numbers of mainland Chinese students, so I doubt it would have been hard to point to where those barriers were in the process.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:19 AM on November 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


Previously on mefi on why Chinese schools can't be more like American schools.
posted by samsara at 6:19 AM on November 3, 2014


China had “no Renaissance, no Enlightenment, no Industrial Revolution.”

This is the part that irks me. As if these things are platonic forms that every civilization strives toward but Europe beat them to it. Other socities are not awaiting their Reformation, their Albert Einstein or their Reagonomics.
posted by BinGregory at 6:27 AM on November 3, 2014 [5 favorites]


The question of why the Industrial Revolution didn't happen in China seems to get asked a lot, but it always seemed less significant to me than it's hyped up to be. Somebody had to be first, right? If we were having this discussion in India or the Middle East about a thousand years ago, we might be asking why those once-great Europeans had such crappy steel, or why they hadn't developed the concept of zero. Looking for grand cultural explanations for these things strikes me as inherently problematic, because it's just asking people to speak in broad cultural stereotypes, with no way to establish whether they really have any explanatory power.
posted by hyperbolic at 6:31 AM on November 3, 2014 [6 favorites]


At least in my very limited view of the process it wasn't racist as much as it was frustration at admitting people with perfect TOEFL scores who would show up unable to communicate.

Having just said it wasn't racist, though, I can also recall hearing people say things similar to what caution live frogs reports that were based on stereotypes and negative cultural assumptions.


You're missing one thing, as you say, US grad departments were/are well aware of what Chinese students were capable of and year after year they would admit "substandard' Chinese students. I remember one low-tier research department I spent time in that first admitted all of the US applicants, and then filled whatever slots they had left with mainland Chinese applicants using an entirely different standard. Did they speak English well? No. But, they were generally more competent than us citizens. I remember once the Chinese clique referring to me as the "smart American;" I was flattered.
posted by ennui.bz at 6:37 AM on November 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


Looking for grand cultural explanations for these things strikes me as inherently problematic, because it's just asking people to speak in broad cultural stereotypes,

Or broad realizations about culture. The exact recipe for an industrial revolution is perhaps unknown, but a strict hierarchy that exists to preserve its own traditional influence is probably not a key ingredient, being a revolution and all. Developing nations still confront similar obstacles.
posted by Brian B. at 7:27 AM on November 3, 2014


I also think there's an interesting discussion to be had about the similarities between the imperial degree system and the modern Chinese educational system, but it rings my alarm bells when somebody claims this or that Chinese system or institution was designed, or intended, to enforce "conformity" or "homogeneous thinking" or what have you. Can you imagine a historian (as opposed to a pundit) making such a statement and being taken seriously by their peers?

If you read the things people wrote about the examination system while it was still in existence, you'll get the sense that the intention of all involved from the emperor on down was primarily to identify and make use of talented and ethical individuals to govern the empire. If a homogeneous, uncreative society was really the outcome, then it was clearly an unintentional one. I would also say it is far from certain that a society of conformists was the actual result. Different schools of thought constantly vied against one another both within the imperial court and also among degree holders throughout the empire. Debates on policy matters were vigorous and emperors frequently had to step in to quell factionalism. If anything, the imperial examination system produced graduates so prone to spending all their time debating one another, and calling for their opponents to be impeached/exiled/executed, and reversing one another's policies once in office, that it's a wonder the imperial court ever got anything done.
posted by hyperbolic at 7:28 AM on November 3, 2014 [3 favorites]


As I understand it the fact that China didn't produce an industrial revolution is a mystery probably not easily solved by one factor. Another plausible explanation: states competed more in Europe.

also: lack of an already well-developed coal mining sector which was at once an essential source of heat and power for industrial (as well as domestic) use, and which was also the necessity that bred invention. All of the early steam engine were developed to pump water out of north-east English coal mines. The first horse-drawn trolleys (precursors to trains) were established to get coal from the mines down to the river for transport.

In the 1600s, the Dutch were far more advanced than the English in terms of their commerce, manufacturing, banking, fluid labour market, etc - everything that economists tend to point out promotes industrialisation. But they started running out of fuel in the 1700s as their peat reserves gave out.

China had a bustling 18th century. Again, their economy was just as capitalist and commercial as England's - had been for centuries. Their manufactures were far superior to European; there was a reason that Europeans would pay for porceline dishes imported from China into the 19th century (we still call fine porceline "china"). But their coal reserves were difficult to access and not near convenient river transport like the Tyne; rail transport wouldn't be affordable until much later. China had a major fuel crisis in the 18th century, which contributed to problems of erosion and environmental distress, famine and general unrest.

Culture matters, culture is interesting as well as important. But we also need to look at the influence that rocks have had on history.
posted by jb at 7:37 AM on November 3, 2014 [15 favorites]


also: the English were just as obsessed as the Imperial Chinese about training their elites in "the classics" as opposed to science, engineering, etc. There is a reason that Scots & Scottish universities became much more important in the Industrial Revolution than Oxbridge.
posted by jb at 7:40 AM on November 3, 2014 [6 favorites]


Brian B.: The exact recipe for an industrial revolution is perhaps unknown, but a strict hierarchy that exists to preserve its own traditional influence is probably not a key ingredient, being a revolution and all.

Here's an interesting thing, though: One of the things that European reformers loved about the Chinese exam system was that it was meritocratic.

In the 1850s, well after the Industrial Revolution was on a roll, British reformers were finally able to make a successful argument that hereditary considerations should be removed from civil service appointments and that a system influenced by the ancient Chinese Imperial Examination should be adopted.

So the Industrial Revolution happened in a nation - Great Britain - where at least part of the government was captured by "a strict hierarchy that exist[ed] to preserve its own traditional influence".
posted by clawsoon at 7:49 AM on November 3, 2014 [3 favorites]


In the 1850s, well after the Industrial Revolution was on a roll, British reformers were finally able to make a successful argument that hereditary considerations should be removed from civil service appointments and that a system influenced by the ancient Chinese Imperial Examination should be adopted.

I don't doubt China inspired more exams, but within China, some were blaming the process on their own problems.

Wealthy families, especially merchants, could opt into the system by educating their sons or purchasing degrees. In the 19th century, critics blamed the imperial system, and with it, the exams, for China's lack of technical knowledge and defeat by foreign powers.
posted by Brian B. at 7:57 AM on November 3, 2014


I don't doubt China inspired more exams, but within China, some were blaming the process on their own problems.

That's a fair point. The government always seems greener on the other side of the Eurasian fence...
posted by clawsoon at 8:03 AM on November 3, 2014


Also, a "keju" style system would be hugely meritocratic in the US. Would parents with resources game the system? Absolutely. But right now the system is positively rigged against students from poor families. An absolute testing standard would create incredible opportunities for poor kids in the US, they just wouldn't come at the expense of the rich and powerful, but from the students of "middle class" households, whose future lifestyle is subsidized by the array of "B-level" schools (public or otherwise) whose admittance is essentially based on ability to pay.

Eh, I don't know. One of the problems (or advantages) of the Imperial Examination System is that it appeared meritocratic -- anyone could sit the exam and, if they passed, move into the government system and serve their nation (and family). In reality, if you were lower in the social system than the "Gentleman" class, you were extremely unlikely to ever pass -- you could could study and take the exam, but you would be at an extreme disadvantage, and the top positions would be reserved for the most socially advantaged. The peasants who rose in the system tended to do so in times of revolution, not peace.

Also, the "well-functioning bureaucracy" was counterbalanced in most dynasties by the patronage system overseen by the eunuchs. As a lower-class person, you had a much better chance of advancement by getting castrated and entering the eunuch system than by going the Confucian exam route. So there was this (limited) meritocratic system balanced by a patronage and bribery system via the eunuchs (although I expect many of them served loyally as well; not all eunuchs were evil masterminds, and most of them were not all that well off, I believe). China was (and, as far as I can tell, is) deeply invested in patronage and nepotism (not that the US (and probably most countries) isn't, but it has always been a feature of Chinese political and economic life.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:03 AM on November 3, 2014 [7 favorites]


So the Industrial Revolution happened in a nation - Great Britain - where at least part of the government was captured by "a strict hierarchy that exist[ed] to preserve its own traditional influence".

19th century British accounts of the then-antiquated Chinese bureaucracy are rather amusing in retrospect, ranging from polite condescension to outright ridicule. The British Empire would be largely gone in a mere century, and today Britain is a mostly unremarkable nation state. Nobody stays on top forever.
posted by hyperbolic at 8:08 AM on November 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


I find the lack of Industrial Revolution considerably less interesting than the lack of... I don't even know what to call it. A major countercultural movement? Or is the one required for the other? Is it one of those things where the middle class has to occupy a particular role, to have a generation of young people emerge where a significant number develop that... hostility or whatever one might call it to the existing systems to try new things even if those things might suck? Like, China had a Cultural Revolution, and evidently educational reforms were a part of it, and casual reading suggests that for the most part it had all been abandoned by the 80s. But even that was a very authoritarian sort of reform.

In reality, if you were lower in the social system than the "Gentleman" class, you were extremely unlikely to ever pass -- you could could study and take the exam, but you would be at an extreme disadvantage, and the top positions would be reserved for the most socially advantaged.

I couldn't read this without thinking about law school tuition and bait-and-switch scholarships and the several thousand dollar bar prep programs and explaining in different interviews that no, I've never played golf. Ugh. And realizing that a major barrier to entry for me was that I was never going to be able to produce an accurate list of every temp agency I'd ever worked for and when, for Character and Fitness... ah, meritocracies.
posted by Sequence at 8:14 AM on November 3, 2014 [3 favorites]


I agree with the thrust of this article. Focusing too much on standardized exam scores just pushes everyone to achieve the same results and diminishes the importance of their individual strengths. Sure, a kid who is not inclined to math can be taught to pass the exam, but is it in his/her best interest? I think the American system of emphasizing individuality and creativity works best in creating students who more or less pursue their own strengths or at least gravitate toward that which they're most passionate about. Some people are deluded about what exactly they are best at personally but at least they are not forced into doing something they can only be middling at. At least the choice is mostly their own.
posted by ChuckRamone at 8:23 AM on November 3, 2014


ennui.bz

It would help to see some numbers or sources on your claims because my experience and understanding is the same as Dip Flash: ignoring GRE and other scores from Chinese students isn't "blatant racism"; cheating is rampant, documented phenomenon on the mainland.

You can easily find all sorts of evidence of this. A 2011 report found that "90 percent of Chinese applicants submit false recommendations, 70 percent have other people write their personal essays, 50 percent have forged high school transcripts and 10 percent list academic awards and other achievements they did not receive". Reports of cheating are rampant (e.g. 1, 2).

You're missing one thing, as you say, US grad departments were/are well aware of what Chinese students were capable of and year after year they would admit "substandard' Chinese students

If we're "missing" it it's because you haven't supplied any proof that this is a problem to the extent that it overshadows the real concerns about the qualifications of incoming Chinese students. There certainly may be racial bias at work in student selection, but academic dishonesty is a legitimate concern.

I remember one low-tier research department I spent time in that first admitted all of the US applicants, and then filled whatever slots they had left with mainland Chinese applicants using an entirely different standard.

If cheating on tests and lying on CVs is as big of a problem as the evidence suggests, of course the Chinese applicants can't be judged on the same standards because they're being dishonest in reporting those standards. If you can't rely on reported test scores or academic achievements, how do you judge the candidate? I'm glad your institution's Chinese clique called you the "smart American", but that doesn't change the problem.

Note I'm not saying all Chinese people are inherently dishonest, just that academic cheating is very well-documented on a mass scale, and that does create a problem when they seek entrance to Western academic institutions.
posted by Sangermaine at 8:41 AM on November 3, 2014


My expertise is more in British history - and yes, 18th-19th century British government and society were very dominated by the aristocracy. Examples: most of the officer class in the largely successful British army purchased their commissions and promotions, rather than receiving them on merit. The bureaucracy was dominated by nepotism, until civil service examinations - based on those of China and with heavy emphasis on cultural literacy and classics - were instituted. These were some of the institutions of an expanding, industrialising empire.

Funny enough, though, people looking for cultural/institutional explanations for growth (as opposed to environmental), often choose to ignore other institutions of European industrialisation: colonialism, slavery, land seizure, unequal treaties. Did England industrialise because the English people (or English culture) were just so innovative and industrious? Or because environmental factors (easy access to coal, low access to wood, thus heavy use of coal for domestic heating leading to mature coal industry by c1690s) combine with other factors related more to belligerence than innovation (massive amounts of capital flowing into Britain from colonies, especially slave colonies, which was then reinvested not in those colonies but in the UK)?

I find the lack of Industrial Revolution considerably less interesting than the lack of... I don't even know what to call it. A major countercultural movement? Or is the one required for the other? Is it one of those things where the middle class has to occupy a particular role, to have a generation of young people emerge where a significant number develop that... hostility or whatever one might call it to the existing systems to try new things even if those things might suck? Like, China had a Cultural Revolution, and evidently educational reforms were a part of it, and casual reading suggests that for the most part it had all been abandoned by the 80s. But even that was a very authoritarian sort of reform.

China did have a major middle-class led counter-cultural movement: the May Fourth movement (early 1920s), which lead, among other things, to the foundation of the Chinese Communist Party.

I can more easily identify a major, middle-class led counter-cultural movement in Chinese history than I can in English/British history, though the latter was my graduate study area. One maybe could say that there was a counter-cultural movement (not necessarily middle-class led) in the English Revolution/Civil War of the 17th century - but that movement was firmly nipped in the bud by the Restoration - and industrialisation in England continued to grow under existing elites. For every new elite created by industrialisation - such as the Whitbreads - there were just as many (possibly more) old elites whole heartedly jumping into investments in industry, commerce, transportation, agricultural improvement, etc.
posted by jb at 8:46 AM on November 3, 2014 [8 favorites]


Sequence: I find the lack of Industrial Revolution considerably less interesting than the lack of... I don't even know what to call it. A major countercultural movement? Or is the one required for the other? Is it one of those things where the middle class has to occupy a particular role, to have a generation of young people emerge where a significant number develop that... hostility or whatever one might call it to the existing systems to try new things even if those things might suck? Like, China had a Cultural Revolution, and evidently educational reforms were a part of it, and casual reading suggests that for the most part it had all been abandoned by the 80s. But even that was a very authoritarian sort of reform.

Don't forget the Chinese Communist Revolution itself when you're thinking about "a generation of young people emerge where a significant number develop that... hostility or whatever one might call it to the existing systems to try new things even if those things might suck".
posted by clawsoon at 8:48 AM on November 3, 2014 [2 favorites]


China did have a major middle-class led counter-cultural movement: the May Fourth movement (early 1920s), which lead, among other things, to the foundation of the Chinese Communist Party.

Also, the the Taiping Rebellion, started by a failed exam candidate. Now this was somewhere between an peasant revolt, an ethnic uprising, and a religious movement, but, still....
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:52 AM on November 3, 2014 [4 favorites]


If you really want to see a broken education system, note how India's rate of adult literacy compares with China's.

I have a half-baked theory that this is the result of the centuries-long commitment to meritocracy in Chinese political theory - even if, as GenjiandProust points out, it was often only nominally meritocratic - where Indian political theory explicitly limited higher education to the Brahmin caste.
posted by clawsoon at 9:09 AM on November 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


Somewhat related to this topic, I can recommend a book by Howard Gardner, entitled "To Open Minds". Gardner wrote this book some years ago, it's a compelling read with lots of insights about Western and Asian modes of education - and how both modes could learn something from the other.

A few anecdotes:
- Gardner took his school age son with him, to Asia, to research the book. Gardner at one point was struck by how perfectly Chinese kids were able to write their characters; a teacher in the classroom would walk up and down the aisles and carefully watch each kid write; if there was a mistake, the teacher would literally take the student's hand and then guide the students hand in a way that resulted in a correct representation of a Chinese character.

- Early on in their visit to China, Gardner and his son were accompanied to their hotel room by one of Gardner's hosts, a school teacher; Gardner's son (he was early elementary school age) asked his father to let him open the hotel door with the hotel key. The kid fumbled a bit, unable to quickly negotiate the lock, so the Chinese teacher immediately stepped in and too control of the kid's hand, guiding it to the door and turning the key in the lock.
posted by Vibrissae at 9:44 AM on November 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


What I find most interesting about this article is that its thesis isn't really that new. This is an argument that was first developed during the May 4th period in China: jiuguo and qimeng (national salvation through enlightenment). I have found this thought to be pretty prevalent among ex-patriot and international elite Chinese thinkers in the past ten years. I think that while it contains some interesting ideas the overall argument is too dependent on the desires of those making it. As mentioned earlier Kenneth Pomeranz and other historians have argued pretty successfully that the idea of unchanging East is the actual myth.

It is kind of hard for me to be critical though because my own desires are that the US stop trying to follow the Asian educational model. Not because it stifles creativity, but because it may crush a happy carefree childhood.
posted by wobumingbai at 10:38 AM on November 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


How do we get students involved in prediction? Prediction is where the intellectual rubber hits the road, and politicized education gets the stomping it deserves. Building a prediction of the future, even only a very small part of it, involves taking all of the systems you understand, combining it with all of the data you can find, and correlating that into a guess at the future.

It could even be as simple as just planting 20 trees from the same batch in 20 different places in the world, pointing web cams at them, and asking 9th graders to guess which ones are going to grow, and how high.
posted by quillbreaker at 11:44 AM on November 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


Human beings are famously bad at predicting things. Most correct predictions are just luck. That should not be the point of an education
posted by JPD at 12:09 PM on November 3, 2014


I don't know anything about Chinese schools, but his recommendations at the end of the article sound pretty good:
Zhao believes that the two major changes that should shape education policy are globalization and technology. Students need to understand the world that they will live in and master technology. Repelled by test-based accountability, standardization, and authoritarianism, he advocates for the autonomy of well-prepared teachers and the individual development of their students. He strongly urges that the US equalize the funding of schools, broadly redefine the desired outcomes of schooling beyond test scores, and eliminate the opportunity gaps among students of different racial groups.

He rejects the current “reforms” that demand uniformity and a centrally controlled curriculum. He envisions schools where students produce books, videos, and art, where they are encouraged to explore and experiment. He imagines ways of teaching by which the individual strengths of every student are developed, not under pressure, but by their intrinsic motivation. He dreams of schools where the highest value is creativity, where students are encouraged to be, as he wrote in his last book, World Class Learners, “confident, curious, and creative.” Until we break free of standardized testing, this ideal will remain out of reach.
A year or so back I decided to register at Khan Academy, just to see what it was like, and maybe rescue some of the rusty mathematics skills I learned so long ago. It was a revelation! Small lessons followed by small tests - designed not to go on the permanent record, but rather to give the student (and maybe the teacher) active feedback on how much they currently understand, made math a totally different subject. Suddenly it was effortless and fun! Don't understand something? Watch the video again. Tests and homework became the same thing.

Traditionally, the burden of education has always been on the student. Go to the lecture, listen and take notes, then go away and actually learn by doing homework. Once in awhile take a test and have a letter or number stamped on your forehead. Ignorance is punished mercilessly. Success within the system depends on the student's strength of will and ability to develop good work habits. Technology gives us a chance to break out of that by giving the teacher the ability to track what each student knows as soon as they do the assignments, and adjust individual lessons to fit. Education can become a system that trains understanding, rather than the ability to reach pre-determined goals.
posted by Kevin Street at 12:30 PM on November 3, 2014 [2 favorites]


How do we get students involved in prediction? Prediction is where the intellectual rubber hits the road

This is a good thought and a good idea. Science would be the best subject area to start in, since the method is to make a hypothesis and then test it. Recast the hypothesis as a prediction, and away you go.
posted by kadonoishi at 2:10 AM on November 4, 2014


No triangle trade or annihilation of indigenous people in the Americas, either! It's cute that people think the industrial revolution has nothing to do with those, though.

Instead, China flavours tributary relationships with subject states that govern themselves, but rely on Chinese trade to thrive. After a bit of a speedbump that looks like it's working just fine, given that you are almost certainly putting words on the Internet via something built in, if I remember right, Shenzhen.
posted by mobunited at 4:30 AM on November 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


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