anywhere but here

Recently, Lyn Jeffrey pointed to an article in the Christian Science Monitor on the reverse brain drain, where elite US trained Indian and Chinese scientists are opting to take their children back home for  a higher quality education.

In Shenzhen, parents place their children in international schools and pay for all sorts of cram schooling because yes, they want them to receive a higher quality education.

The question of where a child will receive a better education seems to me to be about the institutionalization of educational values as much as it is a grass is greener situation. Educational systems cultivate many values that are not strictly “academic”. Successful Chinese students, for example, elegantly handle the stress of competitive testing, while successful American students thoughtfully express personal opinions on a wide range of subjects.

In Shenzhen, students do well in maths and science. The system does succeed in teaching all sorts of basic skills and, despite complaints about too much homework and asking students to learn higher level abstract thought before they may be ready. The system is so successful at producing excellent mathematicians that I have art students who can achieve 700 on the math section of the SAT, but are regularly mocked as being “bad” students.

When I was in the US, class discussions tended to be lively. The system succeeded in teaching the ability to position oneself with respect to other ideas, despite complaints that students weren’t doing enough “real” academic work. The system is so successful at producing excellent rhetoricians that I had students who prefaced their comments with “I haven’t read the book, but…” and still remained more or less on topic.

I have enjoyed teaching both Chinese and American students. To repeat a rather banal stereotype, the Chinese system has institutionalized the value of “ability” while the US system has institutionalized the value of “expresiveness”.  Capable Chinese and expressive American students are both a pleasure to instruct because bright students in both systems can use their technical and rhetorical skills in creative ways.

What needs emphasizing is that both ability and expressiveness are values that nourish intellectual development. Ability without expressiveness is dull and expressiveness without ability is boring. The Chinese system assumes that students only learn through repetition that aims to produce high-speed perfection. As a result, many students are dulled by and cynical about education by middle school. This comes off as “unable to express themselves (不能表达自己)”. The US system assumes that students will learn despite unstructured assignments and little accountabilty to complete homework assignments. As a result, many students are bored by and cynical about education by middle school. This comes off as “bad fundamentals (基础教育不好)”.

Both Chinese and American students who are not able to teach themselves to go beyond the limits of their respective system find themselves struggling to mature intellectually without much help or guidance. Moreover, both systems justify their pedagogical failures through the language of “gifts (天赋)” in the subjects they can’t teach – effectively blaming the victim. Thus, American students learn they are “normal to stupid” or “gifted” in math class, while Chinese students learn they are “normal to stupid” or “gifted” in English class. Unfortutely, both systems seem to fail more than they succeed.

More to the point about draining brains in whatever direction they might flow – what qualifies as a “good” education is context specific. What kind of person do you want to become? An engineering type – well then the Chinese system works. A lawyer type – well then the American system works. And as China and the US both need engineers and lawyers, it seems to me that if a student can succeed in one of the two systems, she’ll also find her place in the other. Moreover, as there is a limit to the number of successful engineers and lawyers that both countries need, both Chinese and American education systems have ways of selecting the few, the proud, the elite members of the rising/shrinking middle class.

I worry, however, about the flourishing of engineering and law (as prototypes of “good” jobs) in a world where we still haven’t learned to think about what kind of multi-cultural lives we want to create. Indeed, most of us, here, there, and elsewhere are ill-prepared to grapple with local ethical problems, let alone the ethical problems of globalization. Neither mainstream engineering nor law are professions that forward ethical debates about what the collective good might be. Instead, these are professions which forward projects like modernization (in China) and business (in the US) as if these were self-evidently desirable social goods.

Those engineers and lawyers who do grapple with ethical questions tend to do so at the margins of society. Moreover, most of us end up working somewhere along the capable-expressive spectrum without really reflecting on what we’re  doing. This is why I appreciate well-trained people like Lyn, whose creative thinking (also here) continues my education.

NOTE: This morning I corrected my description of the US system as producing “creative” students to say that a more accurate characterization of American education is that it cultivates “expressiveness”. I am interested in creative uses of both ability and expressiveness. However,  American trained, I am better able to recognize and to appreciate creative uses of expressiveness than I am creative uses of ability. I wonder how much of debate over where education is “better” is simply a manifestation of the value system in which each of us has studied.

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