NYT Columnist Brooks on Chinese Education

This was kind of a fun read. (Read the rest at the New York Times website, here.) Any thoughts?


Jin Li grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution. When the madness was over, the Chinese awoke to discover that far from overleaping the West, they were “economically destitute and culturally barren.” This inspired an arduous catch-up campaign. Students were recruited to learn what the West had to offer.

Li was one of the students. In university, she abandoned Confucian values, which were then blamed for Chinese backwardness, and embraced German culture. In her book, “Cultural Foundations of Learning: East and West,” she writes that Chinese students at that time were aflame — excited by the sudden openness and the desire to catch up.

Li wound up marrying an American, moved to the States and became a teacher. She was stunned. 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.

You can look at the slogans on university crests to get a glimpse of the difference. Western mottos emphasize knowledge acquisition. Harvard’s motto is “Truth.” Yale’s is “Light and truth.” The University of Chicago’s is “Let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched.”

Chinese universities usually take Confucian sayings that emphasize personal elevation. Tsinghua’s motto is “Strengthen self ceaselessly and cultivate virtue to nurture the world.” Nanjing’s motto is “Be sincere and hold high aspirations, learn diligently and practice earnestly.”


16 thoughts on “NYT Columnist Brooks on Chinese Education

  1. Interesting article!

    The documentary “2 Million Minutes” makes some of the same points. The short version is here:


    Also, Brooks says “It’s easy to see historically why this came about.” I’m not sure his explanation (that we separate scientific inquiry from religion–and hence morality) is convincing though. Are there other compelling explanations of why this is the case?

  2. the comparison is interesting but not quite trustworthy as it is way too generalistic …

    How about the many loafers in Chinese higher schools and many students with very very poor resources and dropped out of school? And many who just don’t study very hard because they have good parents or the like?…

    And how about those extremely hard working American students say in those private institutions? …

    It does not seem to make much sense to compare the hardest working Asian students with the average high school students in USA>

  3. I agree with Tim and Huaiyu that the essay makes very broad generalizations which are of questionable explanatory value. Just from Brooks’s essay, it’s hard to teel how much Li is writing about actual educational practices in China today; the few pages I was able to see in Google Books didn’t entirely clarify that, although there are some references to social scientific research on contemporary Chinese education that I noticed, so the book may paint in less broad strokes than Brooks.

    The main thought I had was that Brooks, at least, seems unaware of the following double irony. Notwithstanding whatever truth there is to the “cognitive” versus “virtue” focuses in loosely-defined “Western” and “Confucian” approaches to education, in recent decades there has been much more whole-person-based liberal arts education in the US than in China (especially if we set aside Chinese ideological education). The second irony is that right now, there is a trend toward more pre-professional or “results oriented” education in the US, at the expense of broader liberal arts, and an increasing interest in liberal arts (and, perhaps, more creative students) in China! For one perspective on this, here is Wesleyan’s president, an outspoken defender of liberal arts education, writing about his recent experience lecturing in Beijing.

  4. Having much sympathy for the American liberal arts education, I tried to read your president’s essay – but didn’t get through. Is it a website with restricted access? Thanks!

    • Hi Kai, I don’t think there should be any restriction! I just tried the link and it worked from here…so I’m not sure what to say. Sorry!

    • Thanks, Steve! I still don’t know why the link is not accessible from here. I will try again…

    • Kai, I just noticed that the piece is cross-posted here, and maybe that works? I can also just paste the whole thing here on this blog, if needed!

    • Hi Steve, this new link is accessible, thanks! Yes, it is a fine piece indeed. What your president writes about the “hypercompetitive technology-driven age” rings especially true in Taiwan where there is a long tradition of 通識課程 but which doesn’t receive much attention neither by students, nor by professors. Here it’s all about law, medicine, science, and other more pragmatic forms of knowledge which enable you to make money. There has always been some form of “moral education” (mostly based on a rather rigid understanding of the Confucian tradition). But “moral education” is certainly not “liberal education”. I am curious about the future development of such attempts in China…

  5. Nice Comments, Steve, and thanks for sharing your president’s talk in Beijing – great to know that this good turn of educational move is happening in China now.

    I agree fully with the sense of irony you pointed out and the new stress on whole-person education in USA. As I understand it, the US ED system has been very largely industrialized, and yet it is nice to find new approaches that aim to counterbalance the industrial emphasis on knowledge and technology learning.

    To me, the trend of Chinese education system in the past 100 years or so reflects a stereotyped imitation of Western industrialized educational models, though often balanced by some conventional influences as well. I can see the irony that as the new Chinese schools continue to follow the example of Western model, they may be surprised to find a more sophisticated endorsement of the conventional ideal of education (e.g. Confucian character building) reviving in the West.

    One question: In the photo of your presidents’ talk, the Chinese translation of “liberal arts education” has been blocked. For me, it has been a difficulty to translate and get across the basic meaning of “liberal arts education” to Chinese ears. Just wonder if you know some good options for translating and interpreting in this context…(that is not only elaborating it in the Western context as your president did, but making connection with some traditional Chinese vocabularies if possible…)

    • Hi Huaiyu, thanks! The term used at the Beida event, I believe, was “博雅教育.” That certainly has some classical resonances! I gather there are different terms; I’ve also run into “通识教育,” but that seems to have more of a “general education” flavor. What do you think?

    • Many thanks Steve!

      I agree that 通识教育 may not be a good candidate (certainly a good translation for gen. Ed) but 博雅教育 is indeed a nice try.

      I guess the key here is how to understand the word “liberal” in this context. The Chinese character 博 (wide, broad, large) does not seem to correspond to the word “liberal” well. Nor does the word 雅 (well-tasted, noble) an exact counterparts of “arts.”

      I of course do not know how to translate. But given the phrase 博雅, it may make more sense to translate it as 博文, as the word 文 (letters, arts) seems to correspond to arts better. Another choice seems the simple translation of “人文教育,” if we understand liberal arts education in its true meaning as the cultivation of free and civil persons…

      What do you think?

    • I agree that 博雅教育 is not a very good direct translation of liberal arts, but in a way it nicely gets at the *point* of liberal arts, which is the rather Confucian idea of using broad learning to teach the whole person — to teach the whole person to be a better person (often today one hears “to be a leader”) and not just to acquire a bunch pf technical knowledge. Isn’t that more or less 博雅?

    • Interesting, Steve.

      When I hear the word 博雅, as I trust many Chinese intellectual might, the primary sense I can get is “broad interests and talents in artistic tastes and savoriness.” There is no question that the Confucian moral person should take artistic training as a most important, if not the central engagement. – However, there is also a difficulty as the term may hardly get across the wide range of disciplines (in addition to art and letters)(e.g. maths, chemistry, science etc) that are also essential parts of liberal arts education…

  6. Paradox though it be, I think there is a lot of truth to Brooks’ point about the intellectualization of learning in the West due to the separation of faith and reason and the privatization of morality. I think this is one of the major reasons why despite widespread lip service to liberal education in the U.S., actual learning in that context is often rather stunted. For Plato, knowledge of the good was the defining feature of liberal education. For others, even if knowledge of the good is not central, liberal education is a matter of pursung knowledge and abilities that are good in themselves.

    Yet in American higher education today one is unlikely to find the good treated as something about which it is possible to have knowledge. We can study lots of value systems, but are rarely told that we should work hard to discern which of them might be correct. We are told instead not to pass judgment either way. It becomes axiomatic that one person’s opinion about the good is as good as any other’s. Without a robust notion of what is good in itself to strive for, there is nothing left but instrumental value, even in knowledge and education.

  7. I follow this blog because of my interest and work in Chinese religion and philosophy, on which I have published one book and have two more on the way. I give this credential because I am a medical doctor, having changed to science after receiving my AB and MA in literature. Hence I have my own perspective on this.

    In my New York City practice I see many young people who cannot find jobs or must make do with ones that do not use their abilities. The sad truth is that the good jobs require technical knowledge and there is no sign that this will change in the future. Companies only hire those they believe will be “productive,” that is make money for them. Liberal arts generally do not.

    The only answer seems to me to make humanities more attractive to those enrolled in job-oriented fields and to try to make employers see value in this. Humanities would supplement technical studies, except for the smaller number with a passion for them who are willing to accept the economic consequences. Thus it is more realistic to try to add humanities to finance programs than to induce employers to hire philosophy majors.

    I do not think this is a happy situation but those starting out in life, particularly in this time of high youth employment, need to think of supporting themselves first.

    Nonetheless, going back to requiring some broad background should be possible, though much thought needs to be given to better ways to demonstrate the value of liberal arts.

    Geoffrey Redmond MD

    • Hello Dr. Redmond. It’s always a pleasure to find out who is part of our blog community, even more so in the case of professionals like you who continue to follow your interests in scholarly topics.

      I share your lament about some of the current attitudes regarding the liberal arts. At Fairfield University, where I work, we still require a full 62 credit core curriculum in the arts and sciences for all majors (out of a total 120-132 credits required for graduation). A group of faculty recently undertook a revitalization project for our Humanities Institute, which has largely been a low-profile endowed fund for research. The revitalization is now in a fundraising stage, but I thought you might be interested in some of the discussion and references for further reading that we shared with each other on a small blog I made for the purpose. It is here: http://hifellows.wordpress.com/. I’ve shut off comments there, but I’d be happy to discuss any of that content with you in continued correspondence as your interest levels dictate. Thanks for your comment!

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