Nussbaum Critiques the Educational Models of China and Singapore
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.”