Nussbaum Critiques the Educational Models of China and Singapore

The Ugly Models
Martha C. Nussbaum
The New Republic
July 1, 2010

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.”

Martha Nussbaum


Evidence of market success of the American model

Three piece of evidence that support the claim of Professor Nussbaum, but purely based upon the criteria of the success of different education models in the global market place.

First of all, in some of the most productive and wealthy professional industries in China, such as investment banking, high-technology, legal services and accounting services, Chinese employees with undergraduate and graduate degrees from top universities in the US and other developed countries are overwhelmingly more successful than their workmates without such degrees.  To prove this, one only needs to look at the recruitment criteria set by the companies in those industries, domestic and multinational, as well as huge difference in compensation package.  Formal school training in the US and other western developed countries has also been rewarded in the Chinese market in the academic, cultural and entertainment industries.  Every LLM student and MBA student in the University of Chicago knows this better than anyone else.

Secondly, more and more rich and well-educated Chinese families are sending their children to the US and UK to study in some of the most elite boarding schools and liberal arts colleges, not on scholarship, but paying for everything.  Chinese intellectuals has started worrying about the increasing size of "flight" of well-educated and wealthy Chinese immigrating to western countries (e.g. Australia and Canada), which is largely driven by the consumption needs of good public education system and better colleges that are otherwise not met in China. The Chinese government is also providing funding to scholars and students to study in those top universities, with condition that they must go back to China to teach and serve the motherland.   

As far as I know, the above trend has been rather stabilized in Hong Kong and Singapore. In both two places, top universities are offering very high premiums to recruit faculty with graduate degrees from top universities in the US and other western countries, clearly with the hope that those faculty will transform the education and research in those universities.

Thirdly, to better prepare their graduates for a career in the market, some top Chinese universities have created programs for their students to take one or two years of their higher education in a good American university.

It’s just hard to square the above trend with the claim that the American model of higher education is failing in the market. It does not mean that the American higher education has nothing to improve.  In addition to its virtues to building an maintain democracy, it enjoys certain advantages in the market place and attracting more consumers and new entrants. Very much like the representative democracy and the free market, no one is claiming that liberal arts education and the graduate programs in the US is the best or the only way to organize higher education in a society, but it seems the most promising one, so far.