Western educators tend to ascribe the success of Asian students on international assessments of student performance to Asian culture, by which they seem to mean the high value that Asian families place on student achievement and success in school. Those with deeper knowledge of Asian culture also suggest that the value placed by Confucian societies on the veneration of one’s elders and on hierarchy generally makes it much easier for teachers to control students and produces classrooms in which students are much more likely to do as they are told, and to pay attention in class. This, in turn, makes it possible for Asian schools to have larger class sizes and therefore for those schools to give more time to teachers for planning lessons and improving school performance.
Eastern educators look at Western schools, especially American schools, and they wonder how the American teachers are able to produce students who go on to create new companies and industries that end up dominating the global economy, while Asian brands struggle. But Western schools do not have a curriculum on creativity. One could argue, as we do, that the creativity the Asian societies see in the West is a function of our culture and values. We value the individual more than the group, just the opposite of the Asian societies. Indeed, we celebrate the rebel, while Asians joke that they hammer down the nail that sticks out.
Asian countries are not so sure they should celebrate their performance on international comparisons of student performance, thinking the creativity not measured on those tests is more important than the achievement on the formal curriculum that is measured. But Asians are afraid that the culture of the West that produces the creativity brings with it social disorder and even violence, which they want no part of. Meanwhile Westerners are very envious of the academic achievement of the Asian countries, but want no part of what they see as the conformity and social control that comes with it.
I would argue that the truth is much more complicated that these stereotypes would suggest.
First, Westerners are far more likely than Asians to believe in the immutability of culture, which gives Asian countries an enormous advantage in the struggle to improve outcomes for students. China is a good example. In the latter half of the 19th century, the dominant power in that part of the world was overcome and humiliated by Western countries seeking favorable trade relations with China. As the century came to a close, and the collapsing Chinese government went into its death spasm, thoughtful young Chinese asked themselves what had gone wrong and what needed to be done to restore China to its former glory. Many, especially those in the new Communist Party, blamed Confucianism, Taoism and the other dominant religious beliefs embraced by the Chinese, saying that the pietistic religions had taught Chinese to accept their fate rather then to do what was necessary to improve their lot. The Confucian inheritance had taught the Chinese to accept the old and traditional ways of doing things even when they patently were not working and to accept the leadership of a corrupt and venal leadership that had gravely weakened China. Mao Tse Tung did not venerate Chinese culture. On the contrary, he set out to destroy it.
China was not the only country to be humiliated by the West during the 19th century. Much the same thing happened to Japan when Admiral Perry opened that country to Eastern trade with his Black Ships. The concessions made by the government brought it down and the new government, demanding changes in what they saw as unequal trade agreements, went to Europe to renegotiate those treaties. The Japanese trade delegation was astounded by the technologies and modern institutional forms they saw there and went back to Japan determined to catch up to the West by adapting what they had seen to the needs of Japan. When Mao died, and Deng Xiao Ping succeeded him, Deng did much the same for China, inviting Western companies to invest and set up business in China so that China could learn from the West and become rich.
When we asked Minxuan Zhang, a principal architect of Shanghai’s impressively successful modern education system, what had enabled them to build such a high quality education system so quickly, he said, without hesitation, that the main factor was the way Deng opened up the system to ideas from the West. When we asked the people in Hong Kong, which has a very different but also very successful education system to account for the success of their system, they said it was the unique way in which they had been able to combine the best from the East with the best from the West. We get much the same story in Singapore. All of those governments view culture not as a given but as mutable, as a choice. They are out to get rid of what does not work and to adopt elements of the cultures of others that will work for them.
What is striking about this to me is that education systems can make an immense, perhaps decisive difference in the capacity of countries to adapt to the constant changes that take place in the global economy and politics. It is a case of adapt or die. Culture is “the way we do things here.” If a country does not change the way we do things here when it needs to change them, then it will die. I conclude that the Asian advantage may not be their culture, but their willingness to change their culture if it is not working for them.
There is an irony here. All of the key East Asian countries were humiliated or colonized by the West and, in the process, opened themselves, sooner or later, to new ideas and influences. Many Western countries, never colonized or humiliated, have been much less open to new ideas from other quarters. The result is that the countries that have been on their knees and then, as a result, were most open to new ideas have been the ones most able to adapt to a rapidly changing world, building their DNA from old genes and new, from Western genes and Eastern genes.
My view is that the Asian countries are building more effective education systems not because of the their Confucian culture, but because they have been drawing on the strongest elements in the culture of both East and West and in the process have been able to create education systems better adapted to modern needs than countries that have not done so. The question is whether the West will be as willing to learn from the East as they have been to learn from us.
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