A woman a fellow teacher of mine tutored lamented how the educational system for her daughter will end up beating the creativity out of her by the end of primary school. I suspect part of it comes from existing cultural traditions:
- emphasis on filial piety strengthens expectations that children support parents in old age, encouraging said offspring to find stable means of support instead of more individualistic paths that may hold more risk
- historical imperial civil service examinations over a large territory gives a safe and stable path for scholars and the learned to better themselves, embedding the idea of tests as a means to a better life
- focus on Confucian classics in examinations means it’s safer and more profitable to not rock the boat ideologically, instead using existing quotes and sayings to lend weight to arguments (many of my students write papers mentioning proverbs and idioms, not as features to enhance their arguments, but as pillars of support themselves, as if the mere fact that someone said it a long time ago is itself evidence in support of an idea). It’s similar to how Western education often focused on the Greek and Latin classics, or was connected with Biblical religious apologetics, but the transition that moved education from that in the West was not so matched yet in China.
- the cultural concept of “face” discourages students from speaking out in class or sharing insight that is not safe from criticism, or asking questions that shows ignorance to other students.
In addition, modern factors play a significant part from what I can tell:
- continually oscillating ideologies and crackdowns during the Maoist eras and subsequent decades makes it less safe to encourage strong debate in literature, political science, and philosophy. Math, science, and engineering — fields China is doing pretty well in — are more prone to having “right” and “wrong” answers you can’t really deny.
- the focus on tests favors more quantifiable questions/answers rather than areas that would have to be graded more fuzzily. Hence why math, science, and engineering are favored while the humanities are devalued. When tests are given on the English language, the focus is on highly unnatural technical/diplomatic language that shoehorns in grammar structures and sentence patterns that can be easily checked off a list to see if students know them.
- with so many people in China, it’s important for students to distinguish themselves, but the system encourages doing nothing but focusing on passing the “gaokao.” The college entrance examination is, as my students have shared with me, one’s entire life in senior high school, with one or two days of testing deciding one’s entire future. As one of my students lamented to me, studying 16 hours a day for three years got her nothing but a score instead of being prepared for life or adequately engaging the world. But it’s a matter of game theory: if you don’t make your child study endlessly for the gaokao, that puts them at a risky disadvantage against students whose parents did make them study so hard.
- Chinese classrooms discourage two-way interaction between teacher and student, instead favoring a one-way transfer of knowledge from teacher to student in a lecture format. The university I teach at is not rich or prestigious, and the students lament a lack of teachers who are “masters” to give them a path. All classrooms here are lecture-hall style with chairs and desks bolted to the floor, preventing activities with students in a circle. Class sizes are too large; in senior high school, classes of 70 students are not uncommon. Group work is minimal and long hours of droning teachers allows students to put their brains on autopilot during class.
These is my own idle pondering about this issue, and I don’t know how grounded in fact any of it is. But I wanted to get some of these ideas out, not because any of them are particularly new, but to try to understand the causes. Since I’m having my students do analysis, I should be doing it too.