China Power

How Much Does School Matter?

China’s leaders see education as the key to creative success. But can schools really inculcate creativity?

Late last month, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said in an online conversation with the public that education now mattered more than the economy for China’s future, and that China ought to cultivate creative thinkers. 

It would probably be self-serving and politically savvy of me to agree. But considering China’s significant domestic problems—bankrupt banks, runaway pollution, skyrocketing inflation, a state-owned enterprise-dominated economy, the wide disparity between rich and poor, ethnic conflict, corruption, amorality, gangsterism and the annual Central China TV Chinese New Year’s broadcast—I wouldn’t count China’s lack of a Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg as the most pressing challenge we face.

I know I regularly rant and rave about the problems in Chinese schools, but that’s because it’s in my nature to rant and rave about my work. The question I’m asking myself now, though, is whether schools—which are charged with teaching students how to read and how to count—can really cultivate creative thinkers?    

Science and economics suggest the limitations of schooling. Americans and Chinese alike are debating the merits of Amy Chua’s strict model of parenting, but the authors of Freakonomics tell us that available economic data suggest that a child’s earning power as an adult is strongly correlated with a parent’s genes. Amy Chua may be widely viewed as a narcissistic mother, but because her two daughters have as parents two Yale Law professors who also happen to be best-selling authors, they’ll still probably make money in life no matter where they end up.

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In The Accidental Mind, neuroscientist David Linden tells us that there’s no scientific evidence to suggest that math drills, Mandarin lessons, and violin practice will make a child smarter than his genes will permit. Still, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that you can make a child a lot stupider by denying him or her the external stimuli necessary for mental development.

And that’s always been my main problem with Chinese schools and Tiger Mothers. By locking up students all day in a sterile, dimly-lit, cramped room to memorize textbooks, Chinese schools are depriving their students of the social experiences and personal exploration necessary for their growth as citizens and individuals; in other words, Chinese schools are just feeding their students stale white rice when their bodies also need fruit, vegetables, and meat. 

Too often schools here, schools teach students to see the world in a narrow-minded, academic manner—to judge people by their IQ and academic credentials. This mindset can be severely debilitating when they enter the workplace.

But while this can end up being bad for the economy, does it matter for a person’s long-term well-being? Time heals all, and eventually we all somehow manage to sort ourselves out. At least, that’s the eternal message packaged in best-selling books, operas and Hallmark cards. And this message sells because it’s largely true. There may be millions of unemployed twenty somethings in China, but how is this different from the situation in the United States? And because most professional skills can be learned in the workplace, when China’s university graduates lower their expectations they’ll eventually be able to contribute constructively to the Chinese economy. 

The fact is that although Premier Wen may think highly of the US higher education system, if he wants to understand why the United States is such a creative and innovative culture he should try reading Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

The United States was born with bountiful resources, and blessed to be protected by two oceans that made it immune to the shameless destruction in the rest of the world. (‘God has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States of America,’ Otto von Bismarck once said). The country was founded by hardworking Puritans who made busy-ness the business of America, and who were obsessed with self-improvement and practical learning. And throughout most of its history, the United States was an immigrant nation with a virtually limitless frontier; it was an endlessly optimistic nation because the poor and disenfranchised could move westward to reinvent themselves, and make their fortune. A nation borne of self-learning and self-invention naturally worships these Gods before anything else. 

All this isn’t to say that China should abandon education reform. But it should also be clear that schooling’s role in society—and the development of creative, free-thinking individuals—is much more limited than this current cohort of Chinese leaders believes.