Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society by Mario Vargas Llosa.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

First thoughts on "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon"

The first couple chapters set the stage by talking about the Western infatuation with Chinese education and the history of the Imperial exams.  Apparently there is nothing new about Westerners proclaiming that we need to emulate Chinese education.  Jesuit missionaries were impressed by the effort that went into the Imperial Exam system centuries ago.  Zhao, born and raised in China before pursuing an academic career in the US, makes a historical case that our infatuation with China is misplaced, noting (among other things) that the Industrial Revolution passed China by because of an authoritarian education system that emphasized Confucian teachings over science and technology.  This resulted in China's humiliations at the hands of foreign powers in the 19th century.

The basic historical survey seems consistent with everything else I've seen, as far as the facts go, and well-argued as far as the analysis goes.  Nonetheless, I want to quibble with the author on two points where I think he's not pushing as far as he could with the implications of certain assumptions.

First, in the introduction, Zhao argues that we are mistaken to emulate China's exultation of effort over all else.  He says that it's an unrealistic expectation that carries the implication that if the poor fail it's their own fault for being lazy.  Certainly that is one way to apply such an attitude, and we often see the poor in the US castigated for alleged laziness.  However, I'm not convinced that the problem is our attitude towards effort, but rather a combination of (1) our attitude towards the poor and (2) elevating a theory of education to a theory of everything.

In the trenches of higher ed, the notion that failure comes from lack of effort has a brighter, shinier twin that says that anyone can succeed if they try.  This brighter, shinier twin eschews many traditional metrics of success and ability in favor of concepts like "growth mindset" and "grit" and argues for democratizing access to advanced study and elite institutions.  Maybe you share their perspective, or maybe you don't.  (For my own part, I believe that success is mostly effort but not solely effort, so I'm in a mushy middle.)  Regardless of your own view, the attitude that equates success with effort is one that can be harnessed in the service of progressive causes just as easily as it can be used to attack the poor.  Indeed, in the modern American context, those who argue that academic success has a strong connection to innate abilities are seen as playing on a slippery slope that equates academic failure with biological traits, traits that the less savory in our society then argue are more common in certain groups.

My point is that if you have a theory of what causes academic success or failure, you can, if you wish, use that theory to argue that the poor are lazy, or genetically inferior, or less virtuous, or whatever other trait you correlate with failure.  Likewise, you can use that theory to propose ways of uplifting the poor and disadvantaged, or at least ways of making their situation less bad than it currently is.  Some of those proposals may be more patronizing than others, but the point is that once  you have a theory of success and a theory of failure, how you apply it to the poor and disadvantaged depends on additional factors in how you view the poor and disadvantaged.  The problem is not your theory of education, it's your theory of the poor.

Of course, elevating a theory of education to a social and economic "theory of everything" is not a new thing in American society, as Hofstadter noted.  Our colonial predecessors wanted to use education to produce better Christians, the people of the Founding era saw education as the key to republican* virtue, social reformers from the 20th century to today have viewed education as the solution to social and economic inequality, and business and the defense establishment see it as the key to technological superiority.  Education solves all ills, we believe.  How you apply that notion to the poor depends on your attitude toward them, not your preferred educational theory.

Also, Zhao argues that the Chinese education system kept China from participating in the Industrial Revolution.  To a large extent that's true--certainly they did little to train a class of scientists and engineers.  However, all great technological advances ultimately require an enterprising business class with the flexibility, ambition, and fearless, stupid, naive over-confidence to go out and risk everything on that.  Imperial China didn't have an MIT or even a Tsinghua, but Cambridge and Oxford were scientific backwaters during the Industrial Revolution.  The UK nonetheless enjoyed the fruits of the Industrial Revolution because their society made room for entrepreneurship.  Perhaps China's real weakness was not its schools but rather a rigid social structure that allowed less room for technological and economic innovation?  Indeed, to this day, while America has some fine engineering schools that produce great entrepreneurs, most American entrepreneurship (at least outside the high-tech realm) does not come from universities.  In fact, most entrepreneurship cannot and should not come from the academic world.  The function of most academic disciplines is a conservative one, and the key to a healthy society is to maintain that important conservative function without building all of society around it.

*In the sense of a Republic, not a political party.

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