How China Kills Creativity
Image Credit: Aaron Huo

How China Kills Creativity

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Nowadays people may admire China’s economy, but not Chinese creativity. Chinese architecture and art, music and movies are derivative, and many a Chinese enterprise is merely a carbon copy of an American one. China’s best schools may produce the world’s best test-takers, but the United States’ best schools produce the world’s most creative talent.

In his book The Social Animal, David Brooks outlines the four-step learning process that teaches students to be creative: knowledge acquisition (research), internalization (familiarity with material), self-questioning and examination (review and discussion), and the ordering and mastery of this knowledge (thesis formulation and essay writing).

However, this isn’t a linear process, Brooks points out, which means that the learner ‘(surfs) in and out of his unconscious, getting the conscious and unconscious processes to work together – first mastering core knowledge, then letting that knowledge marinate playfully in his mind, then wilfully trying to impose order on it, then allowing the mind to consolidate and merge the data, then returning and returning until some magical insight popped into his consciousness, and then riding that insight to a finished product.’

‘The process was not easy, but each ounce of effort and each moment of frustration and struggle pushed the internal construction project another little step,’ David Brooks continues. ‘By the end, (the learner) was seeing the world around him in a new way.’

But what permits our brains to turn a chaotic sea of random facts and knowledge into an island of calm understanding? Believe it or not, it’s our emotions that permit us ultimately to become creative thinkers. In his book The Accidental Mind, the neuroscientist David J. Linden explains how emotions organize our memories:

‘In our lives, we have a lot of experiences and many of these we will remember until we die. We have many mechanisms for determining which experiences are stored (where were you on 9/11?) and which are discarded (what did you have for dinner exactly 1 month ago?). Some memories will fade with time and some will be distorted by generalization (can you distinctly remember your seventeenth haircut?). We need a signal to say, “This is an important memory. Write this down and underline it.” That signal is emotion. When you have feelings of fear or joy or love or anger or sadness, these mark your experiences as being particularly meaningful…These are the memories that confer your individuality. And that function, memory indexed by emotion, more than anything else, is what a brain is good for.’

What this means is that memories are ultimately emotional experiences, and that effectively learning must involve the learner emotionally. The very best US schools are seen as such because they inspire their students to be curious, interested, and excited; China’s very best schools gain their reputation by doing the opposite.

Thinking is the conscious effort of applying our memories to understand a new external stimulus, and creativity is asserting individual control over this process to create a synthesis between memory and stimuli. In other words, thinking is really about applying previous emotional experiences to understand a new emotional experience, whilst creativity is the mixing of old and new emotional experiences to a create an entirely new and original emotional experience. 

The best US education institutions endow students with creativity by providing a relaxed and secure learning environment in which students share in the refined emotional experiences of humanity by reading books and developing the logic necessary to share in collective emotional experiences through debate and essay writing. A dynamic learning environment allows students at many US schools to feel joy and despair, frustration and triumph, and it’s these ups and downs that encode the creative learning process into our neural infrastructure and make it so transformative. 

A Chinese school is both a stressful and stale place, forcing students to remember facts in order to excel in tests. Neuroscientists know that stress hampers the ability of the brain to convert experience into memory, and psychologists know that rewarding students solely for test performance leads to stress, cheating, and disinterest in learning. But ultimately, the most harmful thing that a Chinese school does, from a creativity perspective, is the way in which it separates emotion from memory by making learning an unemotional experience.

Whatever individual emotions Chinese students try to bring into the classroom, they are quickly stamped out. As I have previously written, from the first day of school, students who ask questions are silenced and those who try to exert any individuality are punished. What they learn is irrelevant and de-personalized, abstract and distant, further removing emotion from learning.  If any emotion is involved, it’s pain. But the pain is so constant and monotonous (scolding teachers, demanding parents, mindless memorization, long hours of sitting in a cramped classroom) that it eventually ceases to be an emotion.

To understand the consequences of Chinese pedagogy, consider the example of ‘Solomon Shereshevskii, a Russian journalist born in 1886, who could remember everything,’ whom David Brooks writes about in The Social Animal:

‘In one experiment, researchers showed Shereshevskii a complex formula of thirty letters and numbers on a piece of paper. Then they put the paper in a box and sealed it for fifteen years. When they took the paper out, Shereshevskii could remember it exactly…Shereshevskii could remember, but he couldn’t distil. He lived in a random blizzard of facts, but could not organize them into repeating patterns. Eventually he couldn’t make sense of metaphors, similes, poems, or even complex sentences.’

Shereshevskii had a neural defect that prohibited his brain from prioritizing, synthesizing, and controlling his memories to permit him to formulate an understanding of self and the world. Like many a Chinese student today, he could experience, but he could not feel.

Chinese schools are producing a nation of Shereshevskiis, students with photographic memory and instant recall, but who can never be creative.

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