中美教育逻辑对比 – Comparing the underlying models of education in China and the US

这学期系里从国内来了一位访问学者,除了跟本系的教授做研究之外,由于对美国的大学教育也很感兴趣,就经常去教室听课,希望看看美国大学的教育究竟是个什么样子。不知不觉间一个学期已经结束了,这几天就到了学习期末。一次闲谈间这位交流学者很有些感慨,说自己以前对美国教育很崇拜,但现在感觉不是那么回事,美国教育方式看来不如国内。

我觉得很有意思,就追问了几句。这位学者解释说,他看见教授上课只是提纲携领,但并不涉及很多技术细节,因此他认为学生学不到技术,不像国内,教师的教学重心都在技术细节上。我说你先别急着下结论,等看了最后的学生报告再说。到了学生报告会那天,这位学者有所改变,认为虽然多数人也就一般般,但有的小组专业水平之高,技术含量之多,出乎意料。在他看来,这是学生个人水平差异大的结果。而我则认为,除此之外,这也反映出美国教育逻辑的不同之处。

近年来国内高校资金充裕,纷纷鼓励教师、学生出国访问,而且往往都是申请长达一年的交流,申请人数之多,已经令一些美国知名大学应接不暇,甚至不得不对来自国内的交流学者、学生申请人予以名额限制。不过很有意思的一点,就是很多人到了美国大学,交流一段时间之后就会产生与上面提到这位交流学者一样的感受,即美国大学除了校园漂亮,极有高等学府的氛围,其他似乎也没有什么太神奇的地方。去年一位北大来的知名教授授课,第一天就在课堂上毫不掩饰地惊叹教学设备太老旧了。

不过这就自然而然带出一个问题:如果美国的大学也就不过如此,那么何以美国整体而言无论在科学技术,还是人文社会研究方面都在世界上处于领先的地位,各种创新层出不穷?如果中国的大学水平早已迎头赶上,何以今天在核心技术方面要仰人鼻息,创意缺乏,山寨盛行,以至于美国人发明了一个C2C的概念,即Copy to China?人文社科方面的差距当然就更不用提了。

在我看来,如果出国交流得出了这么一个结论,也就只能说大把的银子都打了水漂,白白浪费了。因为很明显,中国人留学海外百多年,而太多人至今仍然是抱着“西天取经”“师夷长技”的心态来到美国。而事实上,美国的领先之处并不是在课堂上能学到的,美国教育的强大之处,并不是教科书里有什么奇门秘籍,也不是那些令无数国人神往的所谓“牛校”,而是在于整个教育体系背后的思想逻辑。

在国内受过完整教育的人都知道,中式教育最大的特点,是自上而下的灌输,具有强制性,很少虑及学生的情况。尤其在当前,大气候要“超欧赶美”,争做世界老大,小气候是国内就业严重不振,人人都要给自己找饭碗,甚至从幼儿园起就已经力争“不要输在起跑线上”。结果整个教育体系已经固化在通过技能灌输来“培养人才”的思维范式上。

而美国式教育则完全不同。与中式教育模式相比,核心理念的差距在于美国教育的重心不是“培养人才”,而是在市场经济的机制下“发现人才”和进而推动“利用人才”。具体而言,从学前教育开始,美国教育体系就强调给予学生比较充分的自由度去发展个人的兴趣爱好。很多人都知道,美国学生是一直从小学玩到高中,负担很小。国内小学生都要常常加班加点到半夜,而这对于美国学生是无法想象的。但是请不要以为这仅仅是课业负担轻重的问题。这点区别恰恰是两种教育模式本质区别的开始。

中国人大概都知道《伤仲永》的故事。其实里面的道理很简单,一个人的天赋能否得到持续发展,儿童到少年时代是很关键的时刻。天才多是在人的早期就会显现出来,迄今似乎没见过老来突然成才的。今天国内从幼儿园就开始的填鸭式“培养人才”模式在实质上就已经不知道让多少具有天赋的儿童早早“泯然众人矣”。在我看来,美国宽松教育模式的有效之处,就在于在起点处给予具有天赋的儿童以个人发展的空间。很多中国学生以进美国“牛校”为荣,美国人也如此。但区别在于中国学生很多是靠着应试教育的底子进去,而能进去的美国学生常常是资质非凡外加勤奋。这也就是为什么“牛校”毕业以后能打出一片天的中国人很少见的原因之一。

这里为什么要谈到“天赋”?美国是世界上最大的市场经济国家,其教育逻辑也毫无疑问地受到市场经济模式的影响和制约。市场不会去主动“培养人才”,而是要“发现人才”和“利用人才”,即发现具有天赋者。在美国,具有天赋者很快就会被市场发现,或者找到自己的市场。与此同时,各种资源就会快速流向具有潜力的天赋。在这个时候,天赋的作用和潜力就会被急剧放大,并带来经济意义上的巨大回报。

从另一个角度看,美国教育模式其实也是一种很残酷的市场淘汰机制:每一个人都有接受基本教育的权利,但是主流的资源最终会流向具有最高天赋者,也就是真正的社会精英群体。市场会观察寻找那些具有天赋者,并在适当的时刻提供给他们各种机会和支持。而那些资质平平者,则不会得到市场的青睐,因为按照市场的原则,投资给他们将是一种浪费。大家常常会感叹Google短短时间里就能成长为世界级的企业。其实只要明白美国教育的这种逻辑,就能明白为什么这种奇迹总是发生在美国。

1970年代末期中国开始向美国派遣留学生。当时中方对美方的安排不满,提出要求全部的留学生都要进入美国最顶尖的大学。同时在国内开始设立“少年班”之类的机构。邓小平也提出了“计算机要从娃娃抓起”的要求,希望通过这种“培养人才”的方法来推动技术的进步。但是今天看来这样的策略并不成功。据报道早期“少年班”的成员基本都已移民美国,似乎没有谁已经成为中国科技界的领军人物,而且中国也没有出现微软、谷歌这样的科技创新企业。从这里就可以看出主观“培养”模式的缺点在于只能出“技师”而不能出“大师”。中国不可能没有具有盖茨、乔布斯、布林一般潜力的天才,但是绝对缺乏让天才成长的环境。

几年前“虎妈”曾经在中国美国都火了一阵子,引起了不少关于中美教育对比的争论。而一旦看到了美国教育模式背后的逻辑,任何人都可以很轻易识别出“虎妈战歌”根本不是什么有效的教育方式,无非仍然是填鸭式的“拔苗助长”而已了。没错,个人可以通过长时间密集的训练来提高技能。但是能达到什么境界,就要取决于个人的天资了。只有儿童的天赋与训练完全匹配时,才有可能达到预期。而一般而言,这样主观匹配成功的概率又能有多大?更大的问题,是一旦过了那个关键的才智发展时期,一个人的潜能可能从此就完结了。

“发现人才”“利用人才”的逻辑在美国大学教育里就很清楚。对于那些有潜力的学生,即有兴趣学习而且愿意花时间学习的学生,教授往往会给予额外的指导,或者雇佣为学生雇员,并且利用自己在学校内外的各种关系,给这些学生更多的机会去发展自己的兴趣甚至未来的职业。我曾经问过一位老教授,如果他看见有学生没有兴趣学习将如何处理。老先生说那就可能得到一个很差的成绩。除此之外,他就根本不关心了。美国教授完全没有那种传统中式“培养人才”的概念。

当然,这种模式也不是没有问题。在一方面美国可以有世界上最新的创意和最强大的公司企业,而另一方面,大批普通的美国学生又缺乏必要的技能,结果毕业即失业,成了“占领华尔街”运动的主力。相反在中国和印度这些国家,由于教育体系对于技能的强调,每年可以培养出大批的工程技术毕业生。但是这些国家的问题在于创新不足,导致就业不振。于是最终的局面,就是美国每年大量地“收割”中印的技术人才,使两国成为美国重要的劳动力来源。

(写到这里忽然想起多年前的一位中学同学。这位同学可谓是怪才一个,他的不少科目从来都是不及格,但是人人都知道他是个发明小天才,经常会捣鼓出一些令人惊讶的设计。有一次他把自己的设计寄出参加一个国际大型比赛,竟然还得了奖。学校接到通知后高兴的不得了,校长要他的班主任上台讲讲这个学生的先进事迹,搞得班主任哭笑不得,因为这个学生一直是班上成绩最差之一。那个时候考大学还是一件很困难的事情,以他的成绩自然无望。就在我读大学二年级的时候,这位同学受不了父母的责骂而愤然自杀了。)

现在出国留学、交流的人很多,还有日渐增多的“小留”,所以国内对美国的教育很是关心。大家都说国外的教育好,但常常也都说不出个所以然。国内对中国教育和美国教育的对比往往有失偏颇,误以为就是两条不一样的生产流水线,一条比另一条产品质量好一些而已。但实际上,教育模式的不同反映出的是两个国家多方面的差异。对中国人而言,最起码的一点,看不到两个国家各自教育模式背后的逻辑差异,就无法深入了解对方真正的长处在哪里。

This semester, a visiting scholar from the mainland visited. In addition to his research, he was also interested in the American university system and as a result would often audit courses. He wanted to see what exactly the US university system was all about. Time flew by and the semester soon came to a close. Talking to our visitor, I got the sense that he was full of mixed feelings: he said that he used to adore the American Education system, but after auditing the courses, that was no longer the case. Now, it seemed to him that the Chinese system was actually better.

I found this interesting and asked him to expand upon this. Explaining, he said that the classes he attended seemed to be broad outlines, but did not go into many technical details and STEM students did not really fully study their subject. In China, on the other hand, professors focused on the details. I told him to reserve judgment until he saw the student presentations. After said presentations, his point of view did change. He thought that most of the students were average and unremarkable, there was a small group of students who knew their stuff very well; they knew technical specifics to an almost unexpected degree. He thought this was basically due to the student’s abilities being different. I agree with him, but think that in addition to this, it also reflects the underlying differences in logic between the American and Chinese systems.

Over the past few years, universities in China have seen ample investment and one after another, teachers and students alike are encouraged to apply to visit foreign universities, and even apply for year-long exchange programs there. There are a lot of applicants, so much so that some leading American universities are feeling overwhelmed, even to the point of having to institute a quota system to limit the number of foreign exchange students from China. What is interesting, however, is that after spending a bit of time at an American university, many students wind up feeling the same way that our visiting scholar did. Sure, there is a pretty campus and an atmosphere that is conducive to learning, but the place does not seem to amaze as much as expected. Last year, a famous visiting professor from Beijing University wondered quite openly as to how the equipment here could be so old.

This naturally raises a question: if American universities are not all the are cracked up to be, how come America is a world leader not only In STEM, but is also a leader in humanities research, and a source of seemingly endless innovation? If Chinese universities long ago caught up to America’s, why is China at the mercy of others when it comes to technology, why is there a lack of innovation, why are knock-offs prevalent, to the point that American have had to invent C2C (Copy to China) as a concept? The gap in the social sciences and humanities goes without saying.

For me, if this is the conclusion exchange students come to, they are clearly wasting their money. What is very clear, or should be, considering that Chinese students have been studying abroad for more than a hundred years now, is that too many people hold America up as some sort of Mecca or holy place for their studies. Actually, the reason for America’s leadership is not to be found in the classroom. The American education system’s success is not to be explained by the quality of its textbooks. Nor is it to be explained by those endlessly fascinating “cowboy schools”; no, the explanation lies in the logic inherent in the thinking of the entire educational system.

Every educated Chinese citizen knows that the particularities of the Chinese system: top-down indoctrination, little choice, and little room for free thought. Especially in our current climate of “catch up to Europe and America”, fight to be the number 1 country in the world, and our microclimate of an industrial slump, everyone having to find their own jobs, and our “don’t get left behind at the starting line” attitude, which beings from Kindergarten. As a result, we now have a solidified paradigm of “grooming talent” through the skills we teach.

The American system is completely different. If we compare it to the Chinese system, the core idea is quite different from the Chinese central focus of “grooming talent.” In America, it is rather “finding talent” using the mechanisms of the market economy and promoting the use of said talent. Concretely, what this means is that from the very beginning of their studies, American students are given a degree of freedom in order to develop their hobbies and interests. Many people know that American students do not face a very heavy workload in school. Chinese students often hitting the books, burning the midnight oil, which is unthinkable for their American counterparts. But, please don’t think this is simply a question of academic workload. This is just the beginning of the differences in the two systems.

Chinese people know the story of Shan Zhong Yong*. The moral of the story is quite simple: a person can develop their talents, with childhood and youth being key periods. Talent is very obvious in the younger years, and I have up till now never seen a case of talent spontaneously appearing in old age. The current Chinese system of “stuffing the duck” and “grooming talent” has probably snuffed out the aspirations of countless talented children. In my view, America’s loose education style definitely has an upside: given talented children the time to develop themselves. Many students are proud of getting into Ivy league schools, as are American students. The difference is that CHinese students get into these schools on the basis of their high test scores, whereas their American counterparts are admitted based on their qualifications and/or extraordinary diligence. 很多中国学生以进美国“牛校”为荣,美国人也如此。但区别在于中国学生很多是靠着应试教育的底子进去,而能进去的美国学生常常是资质非凡外加勤奋。这也就是为什么“牛校”毕业以后能打出一片天的中国人很少见的原因之一。

Why are we talking about talent? America is the world’s biggest market economy; the logic of the market has therefore unquestionably influenced its education system, warts and all. The market will not take the initiative to “groom nurture?! talent”, but will rather work to discover talent and use said talent, including discovering talented people. In America, those who have talent can be quickly discovered, or they can find their own market. At the same, all sorts of resources will quickly flow to talent with potential. Thus, talent’s use and potential can be dramatically expanded, and have huge economic returns.

In another sense, however, the American education system can be seen as a brutal elimination mechanism: everyone has the right to basic education, but most resources will wind up flowing to the most talented, who wind up forming a real social elite. The market tries to find the talented and then provide them with opportunities and support when they need it. Those who are rated mediocre will not be smiled upon by the market, since according to market principles, investing in them will be a waste. Everyone oohs and has over Google’s explosive rise to the top. But, once we’ve understood the logic behind America’s education system, these types of miracles are always found in America.

In the late 1970s, China started dispatching foreign exchange students to America. At that time, China was unhappy with the way things were going, and requested that Chinese exchange students enter only top-tier universities. At the same time, they founded “junior class” * associations. Deng XiaoPing introduced his “early computer education” requirements, thus hoping to “nurture talent” and help technology progress in China. Looking back on it now, this strategy has not worked out. It seems that all of early “junior class” members moved to America, and there were few people left to serve as leaders in the world of Chinese technology. China hasn’t yet seen its own version of Microsoft or Google, or any other innovative technology companies, for that matter. It is here that we see the shortcomings of our “nurturing” style of education: we produce technicians, but not great leaders. It is not possible that China does not have a Gates, a Jobs, or a Brin, or people of their caliber. It is the absolute lack of an environment for such talent that explains our lack of technology leaders.

Over the last few years, “tiger moms” have become a topic of discussion in America and China, stirring up all sorts of debate. But anyone who has seen the basic logic behind the American educational system can easily see that “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” is not an effective method. It amounts to our old friends “pulling up seedlings”* and “stuffing the duck”*. Doubtless, a person can improve their skills through long hours and practice. But how far we are able to advance largely depends on individual talent. Only with a child’s talent and practice simultaneously can one reach expectations. In general, how likely is one to succeed, subjectively speaking? An even bigger problem arises: once out of the key talent development window, a person’s potential can still be tapped out.

“Discovering talent” and using talent are clear aspects of the logic behind American universities. Professors will tend to give extra guidance to those students who have potential, are interested in their studies and willing to spend the time. They may hire them as student employees, and use the connections that they have both in and out of the school to give these students more opportunities and even help them in their future careers. I asked an old professor how he would deal with a student who was uninterested in their studies. He said he would give them a bad grade and then not trouble his mind with them again. This old professor certainly did not have our traditional attitude towards nurturing talent.

This style of education presents its own problems, of course. On the one hand, America may have the world’s most creative and powerful corporations. On the other hand, many average American students lack the necessary skills, and as a result graduate into unemployment, and become the leaders of the “Occupy Wall Street Movement”. China and India, on the other hand, with their education systems which put a big emphasis on skills, train a large number of engineering graduates. But the problem in these countries is the lack of innovation, resulting in sluggish employment. After all is said done, America “harvests” a large number of Chinese and Indian talent, making these two countries a large source of labor for America.

(Having written thus far, I thought of a middle school classmate of mine. He was definitely a unique talent. He failed many of the classes he took, but everyone knew he was a little genius when it came to inventing things, and we would often see him fiddling around with amazing designs. He once sent one of his designs to a large international competition and actually won a prize! School officials were very happy when they were notified. The principal came to talk to our class about his exploits. The teacher was dumbfounded, seeing as he always got the lowest grades in the class. When it came time to take the University Entrace Exam, his grades were still hopeless. In my sophomore year, this classmate got tired of his parents’ constant angry harping about his grades and killed himself without warning.)

With many exchange students, with more and more younger students, China is more and more concerned with American education. Everyone always talks about how great foreign education is, but no one is capable of putting their finger on why exactly. Comparing the two systems always carries an inherent bias with it. The mistake we make is trying to compare two different production lines, with one simply producing higher quality products. Actually, the two education styles reflect many different aspects of two very different countries. The most salient point for Chinese people is that without understanding the logic behind each education system, we can not really understand in any real way the strengths of each.

6 Comments

Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

egorLreply
May 8, 2014 at 5:20 am

Really interesting article. Any way to contact the author?

julien.leyrereply
May 8, 2014 at 11:46 pm

Unfortunately, the article came from my1510.cn, which is now closed – we had contact with Bai Weilin through the website’s internal messaging system only. You might be able to trace the author directly online through their weibo / blog maybe??

julien.leyrereply
May 8, 2014 at 11:50 pm

Here’s a link to the post on their sina blog: http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_4edc7a7b0102ehx2.html

egorLreply
May 19, 2014 at 1:54 am

Thanks!

egorLreply
May 19, 2014 at 1:56 am

Also, not that I mind, but who is “unliking” these articles? :p

Beer pong and study: where do Chinese universities fit in?Marco Polo Project blogreply
September 17, 2014 at 7:23 am

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