This week, we started work on the Paul Monroe collection of documents. In a nutshell, Paul Monroe was involved with a number of international products that tried to innovate the educational systems of countries like China and Iraq. I'm sure we'll learn more about him in the weeks to come, but for now, I want to bring your attention to a piece he wrote on practical education and theoretical education. This piece was written in the context of working on the educational system in China. The question of whether China should go with a more practical, then defined as vocational, or theoretical education, the training of the mind, was posed and Monroe said that the divide between practical and theoretical was a myth. He said the solution was to teach theoretical concepts and methods to apply those concepts to build a much better understanding of the things being done. This was the true practical education.
This piece was written in 1922, when the KMT still had control of mainland China. Fast forward 91 years, a World War, communist revolution and cultural revolution later, and you'll see a China still very much focused on a variation of that classical definition of practical education. What I'm speaking of isn't vocational education in the traditional sense of the word. It's on the emphasis Chinese education has on rote memorization to produce quick results in the short term. Test based learning is still dominant in China.
I looked into what cultural traditions could have been so deeply ingrained into Chinese culture that, despite the massive changes the country has faced, have allowed rote memorization to remain dominant. Of course, the root of many Chinese traditions is Confucianism. The Confucian system had people study the four books and the five classics. The Civil Exam established during the Han Dynasty and used until the Qing Dynasty tested students on how well they had memorized these books. This started the trend of memory based learning in China, but it hardly reached the masses. Mainly wealthy people were able to afford an education. The thing that may have truly ingrained memory based learning in China was Mao's /cultural Revolution. Despite shunning the "bourgeoisie" and burning many old books and sources of knowledge, Mao employed a similar idea. He had people memorize his little red book, and killed those who didn't.
Despite the powerful historical events that may have ingrained this culture into the Chinese people, the world around it has been able to alter education in China. Chinese students now study a wider variety of subjects than in the past. There is an emphasis on STEM in China as well. However, as mentioned in the article linked before, the national exam known as the gao kao
has a huge effect on the lives of Chinese students and forces them into learning for the test. China has slipped into a manufacturing position and, for now, is seemingly content with allowing other countries to come up with innovations. With this kind of role for the nation, will education ever have the push to teach students subjects instead of tests? Will the market eventually force China to change its education policies? Or, will Chinese culture have to change yet again?