The simplest way to summarize her findings (Jin Li’s) is that Westerners tend to define learning cognitively while Asians tend to define it morally. Westerners tend to see learning as something people do in order to understand and master the external world. Asians tend to see learning as an arduous process they undertake in order to cultivate virtues inside the self.
Jin Li’s arguments make a lot of sense to me. The Chinese education values hard work and sees it as the only way to perfection. But perfection itself is loosely defined. In the Chinese context, it is more about excelling others than exploring the truth. Rankings are constantly posted and a tension between peers is always present. As I see it, the Chinese education places too little importance of teamwork.
Critical thinking ia another missing link in Chinese education. The lack of critical thinking of Chinese students is especially salient in graduate school. In my first semester’s seminar class, I simply felt reluctant to ask questions. My mind seemed to be accepting whatever it encountered, without ever asking “Is this true” or “Why is this so”. This weakness in critical thinking may have stemmed from the reverence for authority in Chinese culture. In a classroom setting, the teacher is the authority. Teachers are painted as knowledgable and superior figures offering guidance to students. Students are therefore supposed to follow the lead and work hard towards perfection. A fundamental fear of authority prohibits the development of our critical thinking.
My mentor, a senior business executive for a large company, once mentioned how hard it is to find a good executive in Asia. Senior leadership roles require much more than only completing the assigned tasks. “Hong Kong education is better than the mainland,” he says, “but it’s still far from satisfactory in terms of building up people’s leadership and teamwork ability.”
I’ll end my discussion with a joke I saw a couple of days ago. “A typical discussion session in *** (a university in France) works like this: French students identify the problems. Then German and Chinese students solve it. British students tell jokes when people are tired. Finally, American students present their project in front of the class.” It may be exaggerating, but there’s certainly some truth in it.