Thursday, June 16, 2011

What China Can Teach Us about the Value of Liberal Learning

Are American parents appalled or threatened by what author Amy Chua portrays as the excessively demanding Chinese approach to education and childrearing in her best-selling book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom? Many of us defend our less-disciplined, more permissive style of parenting by citing the creativity and superior critical thinking skills that our approach fosters. Our children’s generation may lose ground to the Chinese on math rankings, but they will have the lock on thinking out of the box. Is this a fact or our convenient rationalization?

Thomas L. Friedman’s Op Ed article in yesterday’s (June 15, 2011) New York Times (Justice Goes Global), may throw that argument under the bus. The same Chinese culture that emphasizes rote learning over creative thought could be on the verge of a metamorphosis. Friedman points out that the person recently named most influential foreign figure in a China Newsweek special issue is not a powerful business executive or politician, but rather a popular Harvard political philosopher named Michael J. Sandel. How did a U.S. professor become a Chinese superstar? With the help of technology, Professor Sandel’s classroom is now virtual; his public television philosophy course series is available online and has gained popularity around the globe, even in China.

Sandel’s classes explore issues of morality and justice. Students are encouraged and expected to challenge, debate and reason with each other in the classroom. Access to Professor Sandel’s lectures has been greeted with much enthusiasm in China and elsewhere in Asia. Educators and students have begun to recognize the power of discussion-based learning and see the strong connection to creativity and innovation. In at least one Chinese university, the undergraduate education is experiencing a major reform that will incorporate deeper philosophical thinking, reasoning and debate into the curriculum.

Friedman suggests that questions of morality and justice are global issues which students everywhere can and are eager to discuss and debate on a deeper level. Even the Chinese have come to recognize the benefits of liberal learning, the responsibility to challenge and question, as a means to produce more innovative and creative thinkers. Kudos to China, though we shouldn’t treat too lightly the significance of this potentially radical change in the country's approach to education. We have already lost ground to Asia in the production of scientists, engineers and professionals in other STEM fields. What might it mean for U.S. productivity and leadership if China and other Asian nations adopt an academic model that will emphasize innovation too? I’m not suggesting that we obsess about U.S. world dominance. Yet we should not overlook the connection between critical and innovative thinking skills and economic security. These are the skills that will enable future generations to create and keep jobs and industry in the U.S.

Herein lays the value of a liberal arts education. A student’s major is almost irrelevant. The more pertinent factor is whether students are compelled to question, challenge, debate and think critically while exploring issues across a broad spectrum of disciplines. Though it is easy to comprehend why students in today’s economy feel a need to pursue a more concrete course of study directly identified as pre-professional training, in the long run the absence of the critical thinking piece will catch up with us.

So as we compare our parenting style to those of our Chinese counterparts, we should not assume too hastily that we have the inside track on creativity and innovative thought. Strict discipline will probably continue to be the childrearing norm in Chinese households. However, let’s not be lulled into a false sense of security about our creative edge. They just might not be too far behind in that department too.

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