The View

Aping the Chinese education system and the suicide of high achievers

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 September, 2015, 10:35am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 September, 2015, 10:35am

Among the initiatives that have been announced during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States is a plan to double the number of Mandarin teachers in the U.S. so that a million American students can study the language by 2020.

The more plugged-in American parents are one step ahead, already jostling to get their kids into Mandarin-medium kindergartens popping up in places like Manhattan.

Asian students have always performed well on standardised international aptitude tests. For a long time Westerners didn’t really care; they scoffed at the superficiality of supposed “rote learning” techniques, and trumpeted the virtues of a more inquisitive and innovative tradition.

And many Asian parents agreed, voting with their wallets by sending their children abroad to study. Today, students from the Mainland make up the largest group of foreigners studying in American universities; Xi’s own daughter recently earned a degree from Harvard.

Yet in a globalised, hypercompetitive economic landscape, ideas flow in both directions.

Singapore, for instance, does a good business selling mathematics textbooks to places like Massachusetts. The U.S. state’s public schools incorporated the books because they are apparently good. And they happen to be in English.

Some observers say other Chinese pedagogical methods have more subtly invaded the American education system, pointing to the proliferation of cram schools, and a growing mania for exams.

Moreover, in recent years American primary schools have hollowed out the liberal arts curriculum, cutting classroom time on subjects like poetry and civics as they strive to raise core competencies in science, math and literacy.

Proponents say this is just what the flabby and airy-fairy American education system needed: more hard thinking and competitive pressure. The modern knowledge economy requires high-skilled workers, and meeting these challenges calls for more rigour and accountability at schools.

Yet Chinese-style trends in the American educational system are not just a top-down phenomenon.

In “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” Amy Chua exalted the unrelenting discipline and drive her Taiwanese immigrant parents instilled in her growing up in middle America, and dismissed the soft, “self-esteem” obsessed parenting habits she witnessed in other U.S. households.

One reason Chua’s 2011 book was a best-seller is because American parents, responding to the rising premium on educational credentials in the market place, were receptive to this message.

They had binned their Dr Spock books long ago; in some places in America now, everyone’s a tiger mom.

One gruesome statistic that bears this out: rising suicide rates among high-achieving students. This used to be an Asian phenomenon, now it’s spreading. In Stanford, California, the city has hired guards to patrol the local railway tracks, a top spot for high-achiever suicides.

It is no wonder that the creeping Sinofication of American education has been facing a backlash, with critics blaming the trend for “killing the joy of learning” and sabotaging the mental health of youngsters.

Interestingly, some of the loudest voices of the backlash grew up in China. This includes Yong Zhao, a naturalised American who last year published a book titled “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World.”

In the book, Zhao first of all warns Americans not to even think of trying to compete with the Chinese on test scores. The elaborate “keju” exam system – which allowed imperial bureaucracies to find capable administrators - had been in place for thousands of years. In its present form - the “gaokao” -- it is rigorous, detailed and undoubtedly transfers a breadth of knowledge – that’s why it is “best”.

But, Zhao argues, rather than helping students meet the challenges of the global knowledge economy, it actually fails them. That is why it is also “the worst” system. It stamps out a spirit of inquiry, and suppresses innovation and creativity.

The irony is that while more Americans are trying to make their kids perform more like Chinese students, the Chinese themselves are trying to escape the gaokao -- but can’t.

Or as Zhao puts it: they don’t know how to “kill the witch”. Individual parents fear that if they experiment with a different pedagogical approach, they will lose out to those who stick with the old ways. It is the prisoner’s dilemma of the Chinese educational system – and in the globalized economic landscape, increasingly of school systems everywhere.


Cathy Holcombe is a Hong Kong-based financial writer