Saturday, December 07, 2002

The New York Times may not allow columnists to disagree with its editorial page, but it apparently does allow op-ed pieces to conflict with columnists. For example, Chinese dissident Gao Zhan's critique of the Chinese education system directly contradicts Nick Kristof's glowing praise for it a few weeks ago. Who's right?

Actually, the two columns agree on quite a bit; Kristof asserts that academically speaking, "Chinese parents demand a great deal" of their children, that "Chinese students may not have a lot of fun", but that they "are driven by a work ethic and thirst for education" that leads them to study many hours a day, seven days a week. Gao writes that "[t]he competition in big city schools is intense", that "[s]tudying 15 hours or more a day is commonplace", and that "[l]est you think the pressure is only on the children, parents are not exempt." They disagree on the breadth of students' education; Kristof writes that "the brightest kids are not automatons; many are serious enthusiasts of art, music, poetry or, these days, the basketball plays of Yao Ming", while Gao complains that "the system discourages intellectual inquiry, especially in the humanities".

But mostly, they disagree over whether all this drive for educational achievement is really a good thing in the first place. Kristof lauds the country's "educational success", attributing it to the attitude that "good students do well because they work harder", and the fact that "parents set very high benchmarks". Gao is principally concerned that the Chinese educational system is "hopelessly politicized, a vehicle of propaganda". But she also frets that "[t]he pressure on children can be cruel" and that students are "poisoned by cutthroat contests for academic success". In other words, this isn't primarily a difference about methods, or even the results of methods; it's about the very goals of the educational system. Kristof admires China's schools for producing outstanding academic achievers; Gao considers their successes irrelevant at best, and instead criticizes them for being "inhumane", producing "hotheaded nationalists and submissive cogs"--albeit scholarly ones.

And her extra-academic priorities are shared by plenty of non-Chinese educational critics. In a Washington Post commentary, writer Christine Woodside expresses unusual concern for a little-noticed (and not-usually-deplored) development on the American educational scene: the decline of recess. Although she raises the argument that a break in the daily schedule might actually improve classroom learning (a tough sell, empirically speaking, given China's experience), most of her claims focus on her concern that American schools might be (believe it or not) "forbidding fun".

Now, few such educational "reformers" openly express indifference as to whether children actually learn anything in school. But nobody could advocate making, say, driving school or medical school less rigorous, with fewer tests and more stress-free activities so that students won't feel so much pressure, without the obvious inference being drawn that the complainer cares little about the quality of the nation's drivers or doctors. And Gao's and Woodside's assertions that a less intense educational program would in fact be a more intellectually successful one are about as plausible as, say, the claim that children have more fun in a highly competitive school than in a slack one. There may be a tiny grain of truth to both statements, but anyone who makes them without massive caveats should be considered most likely completely disingenuous.

One can perhaps understand how a woman raised in an oppressive, totalitarian society could come to oppose highly disciplined education systems in general, associating them in her own mind with propaganda and perpetuation of state power. (That's not to say that the association is empirically valid; after all, Chinese students have been more involved in dissident activity, on average, than most segments of that society.) But what explains the popularity, here in the free world, of the notion that education--by far society's most powerful agent for personal, social, economic and technological advancement--is less important than adding to the modern Western child's copious quantities of leisure time?

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