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:[custom_table]
|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.”
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.