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The Ugly Models

Why are liberals so impressed by China and Singapore’s school systems?

American leaders, impressed by the economic success of Singapore and China, frequently sound envious when talking about those countries’ educational systems. President Obama, for example, invoked Singapore in a March 2009 speech, saying that educators there “are spending less time teaching things that don’t matter, and more time teaching things that do. They are preparing their students not only for high school or college, but for a career. We are not.” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof regularly praises China, writing (on the eve of the Beijing Olympics) that “today, it’s the athletic surge that dazzles us, but China will leave a similar outsize footprint in the arts, in business, in science, in education”—implying his strong approval of China’s educational practices, even in an article in which he decries the Chinese government’s ferocious opposition to political dissent. But Obama and Kristof and all the other U.S. proponents of Singapore and China’s educational systems apparently aren’t thinking very hard about the relationship of those policies to democratic debate and democratic autonomy. Indeed, they are glorifying that which does not deserve praise.

What do educators in Singapore and China do? By their own internal accounts, they do a great deal of rote learning and “teaching to the test.” Even if our sole goal was to produce students who would contribute maximally to national economic growth—the primary, avowed goal of education in Singapore and China—we should reject their strategies, just as they themselves have rejected them. In recent years, both nations have conducted major educational reforms, concluding that a successful economy requires nourishing analytical abilities, active problem-solving, and the imagination required for innovation. In other words, neither country has adopted a broader conception of education's goal, but both have realized that even that narrow goal of economic enrichment is not well served by a system focused on rote learning. In 2001, the Chinese Ministry of Education proposed a “New Curriculum” that is supposed to “[c]hange the overemphasis on … rote memorization and mechanical drill. Promote instead students’ active participation, their desire to investigate, and eagerness … to analyze and solve problems.”

Singapore, similarly, reformed its education policy in 2003 and 2004, allegedly moving away from rote learning toward a more “child-centered” approach in which children are understood as “proactive agents.” Rejecting “repetitious exercises and worksheets,” the reformed curriculum conceives of teachers as “co-learners with their students, instead of providers of solutions.” It emphasizes both analytical ability and “aesthetics and creative expression, environmental awareness … and self and social awareness.” The language used in both of these reforms harks back to the ideas of the great progressive educators John Dewey and Rabindranath Tagore, both of whom visited China, and both of whom once had considerable influence throughout East Asia. Singapore and China are trying to move toward open-ended progressive education that cultivates student creativity—just as we seem to be moving away, with the increasing emphasis on teaching to the test that has been the result of No Child Left Behind.

Observers of current practices in both Singapore and China conclude that the reforms have not really been implemented. Teacher pay is still linked to test scores, and thus the incentive structure to effectuate real change is lacking. In general, it’s a lot easier to move toward rote learning than to move away from it, since teaching of the sort Dewey and Tagore recommended requires resourcefulness and perception, and it is always easier to follow a formula.

Moreover, the reforms are cabined by these authoritarian nations’ fear of true critical freedom. In Singapore, nobody even attempts to use the new techniques when teaching about politics and contemporary problems. “Citizenship education” typically takes the form of analyzing a problem, proposing several possible solutions, and then demonstrating how the one chosen by government is the right one for Singapore. In universities, some instructors attempt a more genuinely open approach, but the government has a way of suing professors for libel if they criticize the government in class, and even a small number of high-profile cases chills debate. One professor of communications (who has since left Singapore) reported on a recent attempt to lead a discussion of the libel suits in her class: “I can feel the fear in the room. …You can cut it with a knife.” Nor are foreign visitors immune: NYU’s film school has been encouraged to set up a Singapore branch, but informed that films made in the program may not be shown outside the campus. China, needless to say, does not foster creative thinking or critical analysis when it comes to the political system.

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.

Martha C. Nussbaum is professor of law and philosophy at the University of Chicago. She is the author, most recently, of From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and the Constitution.

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