Book review: Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?, by Yong Zhao

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 October, 2014, 11:16pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 October, 2014, 11:16pm

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?
by Yong Zhao

China's touted rise to the top of the world education ladder has been declared a "Sputnik Moment" for the US - the nation must learn from China to maintain American status as a scholastic leader and superpower, it's said.

Education expert Yong Zhao, who has written more than 20 books, disagrees. "Chinese education produces excellent test scores, a short-term outcome that can be achieved by rote memorisation and hard work, but … it does not produce a citizenry of diverse, creative, and innovative talent," he writes in his critique, Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?: Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World.

Academic vices he addresses include institutionalised cheating: in June 2013 in Hubei province, Yong recounts, a riot erupted after students were barred from pursuing a cheating scheme their parents had paid for. Smashing cars, a mob of tiger parents and cubs screamed: "We want fairness! There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat."

Besides fuelling cheating, China's hyper-competitive system stifles creativity, smothers curiosity and distresses students, among other minuses, according to Yong.

Blame the legacy of the old imperial civil service testing system: keju. Tied to the belief that advancement was only viable on its narrow terms, keju fostered a tame, obedient citizenry led by the study-freak bores who aced the exams.

Students today are forced to handle hardship that can shade into child abuse, according to Yong, who reports the pressure never stops - no naps nor Sundays off.

Yong, who has devised language-learning computer games and designed schools that "cultivate global competence", is especially hot on the worth of extracurricular traits. "Confidence, resilience, grit, mind-set, personality traits, social skills, and motivation have been found to be at least as important as cognitive skills in the workplace," he writes in Big Bad Dragon.

A possible retort to Yong is that he overstates his case: his core claim that Chinese schools churn out mindless robots versed in drudgery smacks of stereotype.

But, Yong says: "The evidence to support China's excellence in education is embarrassingly thin, but it's been well marketed."

The government has tried to change the system, the Sichuan-born Yong notes. Alas, reform efforts have failed. Knowing or assuming others will continue to do more homework, seek private tutoring, and prepare for tests, few parents, children or schools will curb the workload for fear of losing out.

Consequently, the dreaded dragon Yong takes to task remains mired in inertia.