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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

A cutthroat education

Roger Cohen, the esteemed The New York Times columnist, recently proclaimed that Asia’s ferocious emergence signals the end of the era of the white man. The declaration was extreme in conception, but he was perhaps audibly echoing the feelings that have been fermenting. It was reasonable in thought.

The reason for this outlook is Asia’s ascent. Come to Asia and fear drains away. It’s replaced by confidence and a burning desire to succeed, so suggests Mr. Cohen. Accordingly, with changes at multiple levels occurring at breakneck speed, it is only a matter of time before the aforementioned situation realizes itself. And he attributes this phenomenon to Asia’s culture of education and achievement.

In a way, Mr. Cohen is both right and wrong. Because, simply said, the Asian culture of education is, to an extent, both constraining and rewarding.

Constraining because this culture upholds the importance of results above all else. Progress is measured as a function of cutthroat competition. Grades emerge as an indicator of excellence and academic achievement becomes a predictor of further successes. Moreover, it prizes conformance to a societal construct of excellence, a familiarity which further breeds continuity. In this culture, optimal academic performance is the goal.

But it is simultaneously rewarding because of its simplicity. This form of education is systematic and methodical. There is a gradual, progressive means toward the attainment and application of knowledge. One, in an orderly fashion, learns the fundamentals of a discipline and then proceeds to practice theoretical assumptions. The establishment of an intuitive, if authoritative, attempt toward mastery takes precedence. By this extension, one learns through frequent, deliberate practice.

Yet this system is beset with its own flaws. Here, the distinction between excellence and failure is clear. Clinically however, this distinction suggests a frame in absolutes. But the process of learning is not merely a protocol-oriented approach. Learning is not a rigidly mechanical or structural process. Instead, learning is also a product of confusion. Ideas are not confined or divided into clear-cut polarities. They are intertwined in nuance, contradictions and ambiguity. Identities are juxtaposed. Entities both coalesce and conflict. Consequently, their relationship is defined by non-definition.

This nuance is essential. It repeats itself in cyclical processes. One only needs to look at America – a nation of renewal and reinvention. Random strands of ideas create movements. A society experiences these cultures, absorbs them and exhausts them. Then, dissatisfied with the monotony, someone suggests a newer idea, which in turn engenders countercultures. Ideas are manufactured, used and then replaced by more innovative ones. These countercultures rebuke their predecessors. The form evolves, but the fundamental cycle continues.

Some have further suggested that the irony of education is its ability to teach individuals not to just perpetrate a preexisting system, but to ultimately facilitate a system’s destruction and replacement. For instance, in his work A Talk to Teachers, James Baldwin asserts that [t]he paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.… But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around. What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in [achieving that goal], that society is about to perish. In this sense, the sole stride of a systematic learning process that seeks perpetuity – so often the pride of the Asian educational model – is symptomatic of a society in decline.

Mr. Cohen was perhaps correct in anticipating Asia’s fierce intellectual growth as a prelude to a new era. But he could’ve viewed the situation not from a zero-sum perspective. It isn’t. Instead, it can be an era full of possibility and opportunity. That world marks the beginning of an era without distinctions.


Spring is the season of renewal, and ZACH HAN welcomes your comments again to zklhan@ucdavis.edu.


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