Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

Nussbaum on Chinese and Singaporean Education Models

Not really Chinese or comparative philosophy but tangentially relevant, I suppose, and interesting. The whole piece is here, at the New Republic. Here are Nussbaum’s summary, concluding remarks:

It is time to take off the rose-colored glasses. Singapore and China are terrible models of education for any nation that aspires to remain a pluralistic democracy. They have not succeeded on their own business-oriented terms, and they have energetically suppressed imagination and analysis when it comes to the future of the nation and the tough choices that lie before it. If we want to turn to Asia for models, there are better ones to be found: Korea’s humanistic liberal arts tradition, and the vision of Tagore and like-minded Indian educators. I’ll take up their more enlightened approaches in my next column.

I’m looking forward to her next column. Comments and discussion are welcome.


July 2, 2010 - Posted by | Education Models


  1. Quite some time ago I read a symposium volume published in Singapore whose name I forget. Tu Wei-ming participated and may have been the featured headliner. As I remember, Tu repeatedly had to intervene to resist efforts to claim that his thought supported the Singapore model.

    That’s roughly accurate but it was awhile ago and I haven’t seen the book since.

    Comment by John Emerson | July 4, 2010 | Reply

  2. My main reaction to Nussbaum’s column — thanks, Manyul, for bring this to our attention — is that she’s offering such an oversimplified picture of Singaporean and Chinese education as to be completely unhelpful. This feels more like a potshot in US education debate (albeit one that will convince only fellow-travellers) than any kind of genuine critique of Singapore or China. As some of the commentators on the TNR website say, does she really know anything about Chinese secondary education?

    On the other hand, I confess to knowing nothing about “Korea’s humanistic liberal arts tradition,” and would love to know more!

    Comment by Steve Angle | July 5, 2010 | Reply

    • I was shocked to hear that Korea had any remotely enlightened model for education. My experience under Korea’s educational policies tells me that it hasn’t devised anything new or thoughtful about its education system after beating kids with reeds for not memorizing passages became the standard…for China…a millennium or longer ago.

      Some philological questions, though: How old is the idiom, “填鴨子,” and is there a Korean equivalent?

      Comment by Joshua Harwood | July 5, 2010 | Reply

      • The idiom, which describes a method to feed Beijing Duck (sometimes Beijing Duck is called “填鸭”), is probably from Ming or Qing Dynasty. But the method can be traced back to “填嗉” in the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589.A.D). See, for instance, 齐民要术.

        I don’t know when the idiom is applied to education, but my guess is that it cannot be earlier than the 20th Century.

        Comment by Pengbo | July 5, 2010 | Reply

        • “填鴨子” is applied in reference to rote learning, I gather in the sense that it’s a cramming of information that will be regurgitated later. You’ve given a far more thorough answer than I expected, though. Thanks for that.

          Manyul had mentioned that we are poo-pooing a bit on rote learning. I rely on rote learning for some things (as educator and student), but my experience in Korea has been that Korean teachers assume that its practicality carries over to nearly all educational endeavors, even though it’s horrible for education in syntax acquisition, critical analysis, and problem-solving (versus growth of an individual’s lexicon, for instance, wherein rote learning is beneficial to a certain, highly personalized end).

          Comment by Joshua Harwood | July 8, 2010 | Reply

  3. The whole ‘liberal progressive” vs. “rote learning authoritarian” way of framing debates about education is something of a cliche by this point. What’s kind of interesting is Nussbaum’s confidence that this very tendentious and partisan way of characterizing our educational options–along with the assumptions about individualism, autonomy, and authority it depends on– can be applied to China and Singapore without any qualifications.

    Comment by Dennis Arjo | July 5, 2010 | Reply

  4. Nussbaum betrays her ignorance of the Chinese situation by suggesting that the progressive Deweyan education model was for some time productively tried out by China. For the most part Dewey’s influence was assimilated by the New Culture movement, which if we see the Cultural Revolution as the logical extreme of this iconoclasm, then the current faults of the authoritarian leaning models in China and Singapore are more a result of this European radicalism. European Enlightenment values taken to the extreme by the movements for thought liberation in China during the 20th century are more to blame for what Nussbaum is concerned about than the traditional Confucian models. She should try reading something substantial about Confucianism, and be sensitive to the current revival of Confucian values in greater China. Moreover, when has it ever been fair to condemn the cultural ideals of a people for their shortcomings in practice? By such a standard the West should be obliged to abandon its liberal democratic values (which are rooted to some degree in Greek, and Christian traditions).

    Comment by Joe Harroff | July 6, 2010 | Reply

  5. I’d like to hear more from readers of the blog who’ve gone through the education systems in China or Singapore recently, or who have children currently in them. I don’t know enough about the differences of education in Hong Kong from China, but I imagine they have been pretty substantial, given the British influence.

    I think Joe is right (comment 4), though Nussbaum seems to be condemning the practices more than the recent plans or goals — practices that seem to resist the good intentions of the latter. But if you’re going to criticize a “model” of education, I wonder (along with Joe) if it’s fair to criticize the practices rather than the plans or goals.

    Also, I’d like to be a small voice of support for rote learning; I think it gets a bad rap. Memorizing takes great mental discipline; I wish they would do it more with my own children. It’s fair to say that rote learning shouldn’t be overemphasized, but we shouldn’t pooh-pooh it too much either.

    Thinking critically, analytically, and creatively is hard to do, much less to teach. Purely speculating, it seems to me to be connected to social norms guiding competitiveness and individualistic display in game-playing and other social situations. Maybe Asian cultural norms tend to downplay some of those aspects of individuality so that affects the education system from the outside in. Any plausibility to this?

    Comment by Manyul Im | July 6, 2010 | Reply

  6. As someone who have gone through the Chinese education system no so long ago, I find Nussbaum’s remarks too rough to assess. Still, I’d like to make a numbers of points that come to mind after reading the article:
    1. An observation: as compared to foreign students with the same degrees, Chinese high school graduates generally are more competitive than Chinese college graduates. If this is true, then perhaps the problem of the Chinese primary and secondary eduction is less serious than that of higher eduction system. This brings about the questions about the goals of education at different stages, and perhaps the Chinese ways of doing things are better at earlier stages.
    2. As I see it, what plays an prominent role in Chinese education from primary school to high school is learning to the test via doing MANY exercises. I’m not sure whether this counts as rote learning or not, but the primary purpose is to understand the contents of textbooks,especially how they can be tested. The only thing that appears like, for me at least, blind memorization is the study of Politics (which amounts to,roughly,basic Marxian economics and philosophy in a Chinese style…)
    3. As to the primary and secondary eduction, the Chinese Ministry of Education do (A) encourage creative thinking and active participation (B)try to introduce other methods of evaluation to supplement tests. But (A) is almost “useless” as far as test score is the major concern for college admission, (B) opens the doors to corruption. It’s not the case that official tests (e.g. college entrance examination) is immune to corruption, but they are much more cleaner than the alternatives, given the current situation. Unlike Nussbaum, I don’t think political pressure plays a special role here

    Comment by Pengbo | July 7, 2010 | Reply

  7. Thanks, Manyul, for this very interesting link!

    I have always found teaching and learning to be extremly political activities – and, I have to admit, I think that comparing different education models is quite difficult, since the idea of education is so deeply embedded in cultural patterns which tend to be elusive.

    I say this as a German (and, I should add, as somebody who has never enjoyed the German education system very much). I don’t really understand the American debate that Nussbaum’s remarks obviously are part of. I agree that her account of Chinese and Singaporean Education Models is quite biased. And, of course, like Manyul, I sometimes feel that memorizing texts (poems like Schiller’s “Glocke” or Goethe’s “Erlkoenig”) would help to strengthen mental discipline (Germans do not memorize texts any more). And I feel deeply moved and inspired by the spiritual image of Confucius as a teacher… But, still, I think Nussbaum HAS a point: like her, I am deeply suspicious of attempts to recommend to Westerns the imitation of current Chinese educational practices.

    My first point is that the Chinese education system today, is part of a Communist state (NOT a Confucian state). Thus, I doubt whether the Chinese government, in its cynical attempt to preserve its power at any price, is able to spread a true vision of Humanism. Remember that Wu Mi and other Chinese Humanists haven’t found much support during the 20th century.

    More specifically, as somebody who has lived in Taiwan for a while and teaches philosophy in a Taiwanese university, I am confronted on a daily basis with some quite disturbing aspects of traditional education in Asia: all too often, teaching is not about developing capabilities, but about preparing exams; the goal, too often, is memorizing instead of thinking through and truly understanding a text; and “competitiveness and individualistic display” (Manyul’s words) are more or less absent in too many class-rooms. BUT (and this is an important addition), but, at least, the Taiwanese education system is part of a democratic state and transmits the values of an open society… Not China.

    With this, I do not want to say that the American idea of competitiveness should be the only educational standard for education systems around the world; not at all. Neither do I want to recommand the German model. But if we want to improve education, we should indeed aspire to a higher ideal than a very poor status quo… The Greek paideia, maybe, or Tagore, or even Confucius (the original, not the idealized sage)…

    Comment by kaimarchal | July 7, 2010 | Reply

  8. In celebration of its Golden Jubilee, the Indo-American Society (IAS) is proud to convene the first ever Indo-American Summit on Higher Education during 30, 31 July 2010 and 1 August 2010 at the Hotel Grand Hyatt, Mumbai.

    The Summit will present participants with an invaluable opportunity to collaborate with key business, political and academic personalities at a national and international level and address important issues, particularly in regard to policy framing and regulations and international partnerships.

    Comment by Indo us Summit | July 10, 2010 | Reply

  9. Thanks Manyul for the interesting link.

    While I think the current Chinese education system (esp. college education) has much to be desired, I agree with most of the comments on the bias of Nussbaum’s statement.

    I just want to put a note on the relation between the priority of imagination and rote learning models. Let me say that nobody like rote learning when they were children. But I have to acknowledge that the classical Chinese texts that I was forced to memorialize and recite in my childhood were “extremely” helpful to cultivate a deep understanding and insight into the subtle meanings of ancient Chinese thoughts over time.

    To put it in conceptual terms, I would like to say that rote learning and imagination are not necessarily opposed to each other. On the contrary, a deep familiarity with the material through reasonable practice of memorization may well provide a solid base for real imaginative capacities. Just like in musical performance, one cannot truly have imaginative expressions without first memorize the piece really well. And that’s what is meant by the term to “learn by heart.”

    All in all, I believe both rote learning and imagination/analysis could be important. What really matters is a good balance of the two in an education system. The Chinese system may be too oriented for rote learning at this stage. But on the other hand, the US education system may have overstressed the importance of analysis and imagination. Indeed, I don’t know how can one develop real mathematical reasoning and imagination without a firm grasp of the multiplication table in the first place.

    Comment by Huaiyu Wang | July 13, 2010 | Reply

  10. Manyul is right to call into question the wholesale rejection of rote learning. Clearly a deep familiarity with the core texts of the Confucian tradition are a sine qua non for imaginative appropriation and reconstruction of the tradition. I just returned from a trip to the Chinese countryside to visit my wife’s family. I was impressed with the ability of an 8 year old neighbor girl to recite the 三字经 (Three Character Classic) in its entirety. She learned this in the public school. It remains to be seen how (and if) she will incorporate the material into her life in an increasingly chaotic society run on capitalism with Chinese characteristics.

    But clearly, if the past is any indicator, the resurgence of traditional Confucian values will be predicated on the “lesser learning” (小学) as a kind of groundwork for the possibility of creative adaptation. The key would be to push for more Confucian (or Daoist/Buddhist) material in the rote learning process and get away from the science-math-Marx/Lenin/Mao/Deng ideology. The former material is inherently open to interpretation and thus could facilitate an open and pluralistic democratic society in China, whereas the latter material tends to lend itself to a dogmatic reading closing off the possibility of developing imagination and creative potential.

    Comment by Joe Harroff | July 18, 2010 | Reply

  11. Nussbaum strikes again!

    I am sorry to chime in late but if you are interested, I uploaded a post at my place in praise of Ars Memoriae 記憶術

    People forget how much a part “learning by heart” had always been a foundation of learning here in the West too… which US President could simulanteously write famous passages which presumably he had memorized in Greek with one hand and Latin with the other (hint: it wasn’t George Bush!)

    Anyway, my post is long, but here it is if you have a chance. Cheers

    Comment by peony | July 27, 2010 | Reply

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