In his latest op-ed for the New York Times, “The Learning Virtues,” David Brooks discusses some key observations on Chinese and American understanding of learning, taken from the book “Cultural Foundations of Learning: East and West” by Jin Li. Here is a quick summary of his observations:

China America
Stereotype Super student Slacker
Learning is Moral Cognitive
The purpose of learning is to cultivate inner virtue to understand and master the external world
University mottos emphasizes Confucian precepts to emphasize personal elevation

Tsinghua’s motto is “Strengthen self ceaselessly and cultivate virtue to nurture the world.”

Knowledge acquisition

University of Chicago’s motto is “Let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched.”

The purpose of schooling The learning process itself is the crucial focal point. The perfection of learning virtues (sincerity, diligence, perseverance, concentration & respect for teachers) ideally brings a person to a higher moral and intellectual state. Teachers arouse students’ innate intelligence and curiosity. Greater emphasis on questioning authority, critical inquiry, and sharing ideas through classroom discussion.
Cultural emphasis Learning is the arduous accumulation of understanding.

Learning is when you have that “aha” moment of sudden insight



The last difference is really notable. Doesn’t it break down basically to inspiration versus perspiration? I’m alluding, of course, to that famous quote of Thomas Edison, “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” The next time you talk to a Chinese student, ask them which they think is more important. Whatever their answer, it will tell you a lot about this student.

While these observations are interesting, the differences, as Brooks points out, tend to fall along and reinforce the stereotypes and cultural beliefs about learning in the East & West. None of these, of course, can reliably predict student performance, teaching effectiveness, or anything related to how learning actually happens in China or the US.

Still, a solid cultural understanding of Chinese and American beliefs about learning can really help with deciphering the differences between Chinese and American education systems, and to understand the motivations behind education-related decisions made by students and educators.




  1. Sally says

    Interesting article, Angela. Neutral stance, thought provoking.

    I tend to think if you ask a Chinese student about which is more important in learning, from his answer you can tell a lot about the imposed values in Chinese education system but not about the student. Maybe what is most important for him in learning is neither inspiration nor perspiration, but fun! Chinese education system in the past and even today doesn’t give much room for students to explore who they really are, instead it puts unified caps says “who you should be” on everybody. Imagine EVERYONE in China looks like Confucius-humble, persistent and self-disciplined with long hair! Horrifyingly boring, isn’t it!

    By the way, i don’t mean being humble, persistent and self-disciplined is wrong, they are all wonderful virtues! But everyone is genetically prone to some than the other. That’s the issue! like my secondary school teacher once said “sometimes you can’t differentiate the horses from the donkeys,but you’ve got to speak different languages to them because however similar they look they are still different!” This sarcastic comment does speak some truth. 😀

    And I do agree with Confucius that learning is about self elevation meaning be the best of yourself and even more, but through exploring inner virtue and let it shine, not cultivating a set of social stereotypes which is against human nature. This “molding” scheme might give a sense of safety to the ruler which is why it’s designed that way, but it definitely kills talents, spirits, possibilities, ultimately happiness.

    I felt what you are doing is not just spotting talents and guarding fairness in opportunities, but also a paradigm shift of what education actually is!

    I didn’t expect myself writing so much! Thanks for making me think.

    • Angela Sun says

      Hi Sally, thank you for your thoughtful comments.

      There are definitely students who internalize the values of a Chinese education system more, or less, than others. And you’re right, there’s nothing wrong with being humble, persistent and self-disciplined at all, which is why you end up learning so much about each student when you ask them WHY they believe what they believe. It’s how they explain their values that gives you such insight into each student.

      There’s no doubt that personal experiences or non-academic learning also shape kids into who they are, and these experiences are not always fun or positive ones. I’m not sure it matters so much if these experiences incline them to be more ‘Chinese’ or ‘Western’ in their values – what does matter, in my experience, is how each person reflects on and learns from these experiences.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *