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 re-reading Systems of Survival by Jane Jacobs.

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Saturday, April 18, 2015

Zhao, Chapters 5-7

In Chapters 5-7 of Zhao's book, I feel like the worst parts of China's education system are what America's would be if every bad part were turned up to 11.  Chapter 5 talks about the hitting of arbitrary targets:  Whatever the Emperor wants, the Emperor gets.  If it is decreed that a big wall will be built, then damn the expenses, the wall will be built.  If Chairman Mao wants to increase steel production, then steel production will be increased, even if it is to the detriment of every other activity in society.  If professionals (academic and otherwise) need to publish in order to get promoted, and the only thing that matters is the number of publications (because bureaucracies need numerical metrics) then fake journals will be utilized.  If k-12 schools are going to be rewarded for the number of patents filed by students (Zhao is apparently not joking) then k-12 students will file patents of zero quality, and if the system is going to reward this then the  patent office will be obliged to accept and approve those patents.

I feel much the same way about the paperwork demands of the modern American higher ed bureaucracy.  It has been decreed that reports on outcomes assessment are to be written, so those reports are written.  However, thoughtful, meaningful data collection and analysis are non-trivial activities, and the System has no ability to fund the massive efforts that would be required to produce thoughtful evaluation of anything other than the most mass-produced course delivery.  Mass production sounds good to some technocrats, but "Innovation! And! Transformation!" also sound good to them, so the system continues to tolerate the intellectual diversity that is anathema to standardized, mass-produced assessment.  As a result, the system accepts meaningless reports to show that the requisite numbers of reports were filed.*  Moreover, the only thing that The System values even more than the production of reports is ensuring that no boats are rocked, and a truly meaningful look under the hood might tell us...well, it might tell us that the phrase "Gentleman's C" refers to a problem that is timeless and universal rather than old, musty, and covered in ivy.

In chapter 7, Zhao notes that China's rulers are not and have not been oblivious to the problems of exclusive reliance on standardized testing.  The Imperial Exams were abolished a bit more than a century ago, but the competitive test prep habits inspired by those exams have not easily faded.  When the universities give weight to measures of creativity (an oxymoron if ever there was one) parents push this children to excel at those measures and bribe the evaluators.  When the universities give weight to patents (!) the children produce the requisite numbers of junk patents.  If they reward performance in artistic or athletic talent competitions, the parents prepare their children accordingly.

Some  of this is surely a consequence of 1300 years of test prep habits not fading easily.  Cultures do not change overnight, as evidenced by Marxism's utter failure to change Chinese culture. (I hasten to note that the Chinese people's refusal to replace their traditional social structures with Marxism is a very, very good thing!)  However, Chapter 6 offers another point for why these hyper-competitive academic habits have not faded easily:  In both the past and the present, the highest-status jobs in China have been and are government jobs with academic requirements, not private sector jobs.  When there are few paths to advancement, people will do anything and everything that it takes to get on one of those paths.

In the US, we most definitely do NOT have a problem of assigning low status to private sector jobs.  However, we may be seeing a narrowing and bifurcation of career paths.  In the alleged "service economy" there will be the people paid well for jobs at desks and the people paid poorly for everything else.  There are problems with the economic sustainability of this model (e.g. what, exactly, will we produce for sale to the rest of the world?) but if we leave that aside for now, and just focus on the social and educational elements, a bifurcation of opportunity will raise the stakes of elite education, and with those rising stakes we will see more intense competition, and more cutting of corners.

I want the reader to consider the hypothesis that the health of an education system relies on the economy more than the health of an economy relies on the education system.  I do not simply mean that higher GDP means more money to inject into the education system; you can inject cash into good or bad schools and get good or bad results.   Rather, I mean that a robust and sustainable economy with a breadth of desirable paths and opportunities will be conducive to a more robust and sustainable educational  system, with more intellectual breadth and a wider variety of approaches and paths for a wider variety of students.  On the other hand, an economy with bifurcated opportunities will see intense competition for the handful of pathways to the better opportunities.  Competition can be a very good thing, but intense competition for the wrong sorts of things does not lead to better learning or better innovation.

*Let me reassure you that I am, needless to say, merely reporting unfortunate tales related to me by colleagues at other, less conscientious, institutions.  My own institution is, of course, an exception, producing exemplary assessment reports of the highest caliber and most thoughtful analysis.

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.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Next book: Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?

My most stressful recent deadline has passed.  I have many more to go, but the worst is over.  In the near future I will start reading and blogging about Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China has the best (and worst) education system in the world.  It should be interesting to examine Chinese education a mere century after the end of a system that lasted 1300 years.