Education as salvation?

I was chatting with one of my colleagues the other day about schools in Hong Kong. He’d recently watched a documentary about one of Hong Kong’s most reputable secondary schools. He found the students’ – and staff’s – academic single-mindedness and general fervor impressive, but not in an entirely favorable way. He wondered if some of this intensity might be the product of transference – that is, the pious zeal of the some of the school’s staff and supporters who were members of religious orders seemed to spill over into their educational thought and work, shaping the school’s whole culture.

I think he’s on to something, but I think it goes far beyond the cultures of individual schools or their staffs. I believe Hong Kong culture in general imbues academic education with almost salvific power. As I mentioned in an article on choosing a kindergarten (forgive me for quoting myself):

To many Hong Kong parents, getting their children into the right kindergarten is simply essential. Why? Well, most obviously, the right kindergarten leads to the right primary school, which leads to the right secondary school, which leads to Harvard, Yale or Oxbridge (or maybe Hong Kong U or HKUST), which leads to . . . Nirvana, I guess, as once you push the argument this far forward, Hong Kong people's visions of their children's futures dissolve into soft-core money-and-status porn.

Education is a secular faith in Hong Kong. I don’t think that’s putting it too strongly.

The evidence is everywhere, from the parents driving their kindergarten-aged children like packhorses in order to build up their chances of getting into ‘name’ primary schools, to the deference shown to people who have attended – or, maybe better yet, whose children are attending – famous universities in the UK or USA.

But how did this belief develop? Part of it no doubt is attributable to the general historical/cultural valuation of education common to all Confucian societies. But in Hong Kong I think this broader value has been distilled and intensified due to peculiar historical circumstances.

Recent arrivals to Hong Kong may not realize how much the city and its culture have changed over the past 20-30 years, at least in educational terms. The Hong Kong of the 1970s and 1980s was still an immigrant-dominated, industrial society. Few people in Hong Kong had the chance to attend university, especially those who’d escaped the mainland.

Even in the early 1990s, Hong Kong had just two universities, Hong Kong University and Chinese University, and there were places for just 5% of graduating secondary school students each year. This meant a university degree had a disproportionately high value, especially as Hong Kong’s economy was growing non-stop, and making a rapid transition into a post-industrial, service-oriented model. The upcoming handover also triggered a period of ‘brain drain’, as many educated/professional people left Hong Kong for what they believed would be more secure futures overseas.

But things changed very fast in the 1990s. The Hong Kong Government panicked a bit, and decided to meet the perceived need for more educated brains by rapidly expanding the number of university places. New universities (e.g. UST and the Open University) were founded, and colleges and polytechnics were hastily upgraded into universities -- e.g. CityU, PolyU, Lingnan, and Baptist. In just a few years, the number of young university degree holders in Hong Kong exploded.

These eager university graduates were unlucky enough to emerge into the Hong Kong workforce just as the Asian financial crisis hit. And to make things even worse, many of the ‘brain drainers’ starting coming back to Hong Kong. Starting salaries for fresh graduates plummeted, and have not really recovered since.

So even as Hong Kong people pushed harder and harder to ‘succeed’ in education, especially to get hold of a university degree certificate, that very certificate is in some ways worth less than ever. This seems ironic, but of course it’s not. For the moment, higher education is still a necessary step on the road to financial/social success for most Hong Kong people, but since so many more can now realistically play the education success game, the stakes have been raised. It’s more important than ever to own the best ‘brand names’ you can.

But how long will even this last? First, the law of diminishing returns must be setting in for some people, especially those who are getting degrees from less desirable institutions. Will the parents of not-particularly-academically-inclined children continue to expend the enormous energy needed to push them on into university if the returns are so low?

And on a broader level, will the faith that ‘education means a good life’ ultimately erode, too? Will even those who have attended the right schools, achieved the high results, graduated from the excellent universities, and gotten the promising jobs be satisfied with their accomplishments?

It’s interesting to note that the number of Christians in Hong Kong is growing rapidly (and this is the case in other Confucian societies, too; see this article, for example), and that this growth has been particularly prominent amongst the better-educated, seemingly ‘successful’ people. Are they finding that education doesn’t quite equal salvation?

Perhaps the misplaced zeal of the religious schools ends up coming full circle after all. As they say in Christian circles, God works in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform . . . .


An encouraging article on education

I don't normally find much to love in the New York Times, but I thought this article was quite wonderful. What's it about? How your kid isn't going to get into Harvard. It's written by a Harvard alum who, as is the custom at that school, helps the university screen out the majority of its thousands of potential applicants. Here's how he describes one of his interviewees:

What kind of kid doesn’t get into Harvard? Well, there was the charming boy I interviewed with 1560 SATs [note: just a few points off perfect --ed.]. He did cancer research in the summer; played two instruments in three orchestras; and composed his own music. He redid the computer system for his student paper, loved to cook and was writing his own cookbook. One of his specialties was snapper poached in tea and served with noodle cake.

Yikes. The author also cheerfully recounts the hopelessness of getting his own four kids into the big H.


Great article! It goes back to the discussion about you only being able to have the perspective once you've climbed the hill yourself! Most of the aspiring parents I know just would not understand that article.

Talented or hard-working?

I recalled immediately skmama's comment in this thread when I started reading this article. It's aimed at answering a simple question: what's the best way to raise a smart kid? The bottom line? It's better to praise and reward him for working hard than for 'being smart'; in fact doing the latter is the potential source of big problems. The article is from Scientific American magazine, and note that the author did some of her research in -- you guessed it? -- Hong Kong.

Clashing worlds of education

This article from the LA Times is almost heartbreaking. It's about a mainland Chinese university lecturer who's given up his life in China to come to Los Angeles to teach Mandarin to high school kids there:

In LA, his own wall of China

I don't know whether to feel more sorry for this teacher, or for his students. In any case, you could not find a more poignant illustration of attitudes to education that are worlds apart.

The Kindergarchy

One of my favorite essayists, Joseph Epstein of the Weekly Standard, has contributed quite an effort to the latest issue.

Titled 'The Kindergarchy: Every child a dauphin', Epstein rues the excessive efforts so many parents make in trying to raise 'perfect' children. There's perhaps a bit much about his own childhood growing up in Chicago (and his parents sound a little too far over on the uninterested side of the continuum to me) but many of his conclusions struck me as very sensible. One such theme: it's best if children grow up thinking for themselves and not depending so constantly upon others' approval and praise. That's a common-enough notion, even today.

But Epstein parts ways with the current conventional wisdom in his blunt assertion that you can't prepare your kids to be free-thinking and self-reliant; conversely, building up kids' sense of their own specialness and hyping the value of their outspoken but immature opinions is likely to backfire:

Why shouldn't parents do all in their power to make their children's lives less bumpy, more concentrated and carefully planned, thereby increasing their prospects for a happier, more satisfying life? No reason at all, really, except that trying to do so often comes to seem so joyless and the children who emerge from such ultra-careful upbringing so often turn out far from the perfect specimens their parents had imagined.

As a teacher at Northwestern University (not long retired), I found the students in my classes in no serious way I could discern much improved for all the intensity of home and classroom attention most of them received under the Kindergarchy. A very small number, those who had somehow found passion for books and the life of the mind, were remarkable, a number proportionally probably little different than in any generation of students; the rest were like students everywhere and at all times: just wanting to get the damn thing called their education over with and get on with life with the best start possible.

The most impressive students I had over my 30 years of university teaching were those I encountered when I first began, in the early 1970s, who almost all turned out to have been put through Catholic schools, during a time when priests and nuns still taught and Catholic education hadn't become indistinguishable from secular education. Many of these kids resented what they felt was the excessive constraint, with an element of fear added, of their education. Most failed to realize that it was this very constraint--and maybe a touch of the fear, too--that forced them to learn Latin, to acquire and understand grammar, to pick up the rudiments of arguing well, that had made them as smart as they were.

So often in my literature classes students told me what they "felt" about a novel, or a particular character in a novel. I tried, ever so gently, to tell them that no one cared what they felt; the trick was to discover not one's feelings but what the author had put into the book, its moral weight and its resultant power. In essay courses, many of these same students turned in papers upon which I wished to--but did not--write: "D-, Too much love in the home." I knew where they came by their sense of their own deep significance and that this sense was utterly false to any conceivable reality. Despite what their parents had been telling them from the very outset of their lives, they were not significant. Significance has to be earned, and it is earned only through achievement. Besides, one of the first things that people who really are significant seem to know is that, in the grander scheme, they are themselves really quite insignificant.

Growing up with only minimal attention sharpened this sense of one's significance. One's fierce little opinions were all very well, but without the substance of accomplishment behind them, they meant nothing.

The bit about his 'most impressive students' seems quite apposite to the Hong Kong educational scene.

Overall, bracing stuff!


as always Mr. Tall.


Guilty as charged. 

Creativity and 'critical thinking'

Way up in this thread I voiced my misgivings with the promotion of 'creativity' as a goal of education. I've just read an absolute gem of an essay by Roger Kimball that takes on this term, and its equally unattractive fraternal twin, 'critical thinking', and gets down and dirty digging out what these terms really mean in most education schools and universities.

Kimball's essay is long and wide-ranging. He begins by identifying the assumed, if often unvoiced, function of 'critical thinking' in education, i.e. it's a cover story for a corrosive, negative cast of mind he coins 'criticismism'. I like that. Then Kimball unloads a series of intellectual fusillades against three philosophers he sees as the fathers of criticismism: J S Mill, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Richard Rorty, an American 'pragmatist' who died recently, but who has been extraodinarily influential in many fields.

Kimball also references several thinkers I admire, e.g. Jaques Barzun, Paul Ricouer and Roger Scruton.

Here's a brief quotation to give you a bit of the flavor:

It is an axiom of criticismism that the extent of our disillusionment is a reliable index of our wisdom: the idea that somehow the less we believe the more enlightened we are.

Great stuff, if you enjoy free-form philosophical debate for high stakes.

More on 'critical thinking'

In my previous post in this thread, I referred to a long but interesting essay from Roger Kimball on the farce that passes for teaching 'critical thinking' in many American universities.

Today I've got a reference to an article that's perhaps less intellectually swashbuckling, but that's more constructive. It's by Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist at the University of Virginia, and it's fascinating. Titled 'Critical thinking: Why is it so hard to teach?' (note that it's a .pdf file), the essay concisely lays out some of the same problems in the purported teaching of critical thinking that Kimball notes, but goes on to define what 'critical thinking' really is, and how we actually come to be capable of engaging in it.

Willingham's conclusion is that critical thinking is not a discrete 'skill' like riding a bike or reading music, so it's impossible to learn to think critically as an exercise in and of itself. Critical thinking can't be separated from our knowledge of what we are thinking about, so learning facts is crucial to being able to think critically about anything. As Willingham himself sums up:

What do all these studies boil down to? First, critical thinking (as well as scientific thinking and other domain-based thinking) is not a skill. There is not a set of critical thinking skills that can be acquired and deployed regardless of context. Second, there are metacognitive strategies that, once learned, make critical thinking more likely. Third, the ability to think critically (to actually do what the metacognitive strategies call for) depends on domain knowledge and practice. For teachers, the situation is not hopeless, but no one should underestimate the difficulty of teaching students to think critically. 

Of particular interest in our context is Willingham's example that compares how western and Chinese children engage in 'critical thinking' to try to solve a particular problem.


Is kindergarten/preschool really worth it?

A very good article in City Journal tries to answer this question. A preview: the answer's not a simple yes/no.

I particularly enjoyed this article's critical look at the romantic assumptions that underlie most current western educational theory:

Central to the typical early-childhood educator’s worldview are three ideas: that it’s better for young children to learn through play than through work; that children learn best and are happiest when they can help direct the pace and content of their own learning; and that a child’s mental abilities develop at a natural pace that adults cannot do much to accelerate.

My main man Sigfried Englemann is also featured prominently; there's even a photo!

Chinese vs Western education; music lessons

I enjoy reading the highly provocative and idiosyncratic columnist at the Asia Times who goes by the nome de plume Spengler. This past week he's written a real barn-burner on the looming educational/intellectual gap between China and the West. The secret? Piano lessons. Seriously, read it; it's rare to get the chance to read a truly original thinker, and agree or disagree, you will not come away indifferent. 

Here's a taster:

It must be a conspiracy. Chinese parents are selling plasma-screen TVs to America, and saving their wages to buy their kids pianos - making American kids stupider and Chinese kids smarter. Watch out, Americans - a generation from now, your kid is going to fetch coffee for a Chinese boss. That is a bit of an exaggeration, of course - some of the bosses will be Indian. Americans really, really don’t have a clue what is coming down the pike. The present shift in intellectual capital in favor of the East has no precedent in world history.


Getting your kid into Harvard, redux

In an earlier comment in this thread I linked to a Wall Street Journal article that explained in the bluntest possible terms how your kid's not getting into Harvard.

Fortunately -- or unfortunately, depending on your perspective -- this message has not made it across the Pacific to the PRC. Just the opposite, in fact, as this article from the International Herald Tribune vividly illustrates. It describes the phenomenon of the 'How my kid got into Harvard' tell-all books that are topping the best-seller lists in the mainland. 

I'll give you the kicker to the article right here: last year, how many kids from the PRC applied for admission to Harvard? 484. How many got in? Five. 

Read the article to see how much effort is being expended in the quixotic attempt to raise that number . . . .

Direct Instruction resurfaces

This short article by John McWhorter in the The New Republic brings up the obvious question anyone who knows anything about Direct Instruction (and who's willing to be honest about it) inevitably asks: why on earth isn't this proven approach to teaching kids to read being widely used, especially amongst disadvantaged kids who need it most?

Is college worth it?

The following video clip from ABC News in the USA provides a concise human-interest angle on the over-selling of university education over there. With post-secondary education costs rising in HK, coupled with a bad job market for fresh grads, I wonder how long it will be before similar complaints start to be heard here? Maybe it will take a while, in that kids here aren't under quite as much financial pressure when they graduate, especially since it's expected they'll still live with their families. But that can't go on forever. Anyway, here's the clip:

'Critical thinking'

Just a quick addition to my long-running obsession with the edusphere's bloviating about 'creativity' and 'critical thinking'. This article by Direct Instruction advocate and blogger D-Ed Reckoning breaks down beautifully what 'critical thinking' is all about. 

The bottom line: there's no discrete 'skill' called 'critical thinking' that's portable from one fresh context to another. You have to know content to think critically about it. 

Educational progressivism

Via the estimable education/Direct Instruction blog D-Ed Reckoning, comes this quite wonderful video introduction to 'progressive' educational methods in schools.

After an initial orientation section demonizing memorization and practicing-to-mastery – the classic example of memorizing the multiplication table is dumped on immediately – the video goes on to herald the advent of:

  • learning by doing
  • learning via projects
  • a child-centered approach
  • learning in practical, ‘real-life’ contexts and applications
  • collaborative/group learning (aka ‘cooperating with each other’)
  • promoting 'creativity'
  • and finally, asserting that the world is changing so fast that we can’t hold on to the past; we must prepare our children in new ways to deal with an unknown future.

The kicker? The video was produced in 1940. It goes to show that there's very, very little new under the sun in the edusphere. The 'progressive' approach to western education today is in a sense very conservative/traditional, in that it's so very carefully preserving the views of late nineteenth to early twentieth-century educational philosophers such as William Kilpatrick and John Dewey (both of whom appear in the video, btw).

More Dan Willingham on education methods

It’s Daniel Willingham week at the Core Knowledge Blog. I’ve commented on Willingham’s work before; I find his content-centric cognitive approach to teaching kids to be just about the best fit for my own views of what makes education effective.

He’s written three posts so far; all are brief, and eminently worth reading:

The first, Why Don’t Students Like School?, answers that question with an assertion you may find shocking: it’s because your brain really isn’t very good at thinking. It’s most suited for a number of other functions.

He then goes on to explain how Understanding is Remembering in Disguise, focusing on the powerful role memory plays in learning. This is pure heresy to the ‘creative thinking’ crowd.

An even bigger heresy is the subject of post three: In Defense of Practice, i.e. by ‘practice’ Willingham is really talking about ‘drilling’, i.e. practicing a skill or knowledge of a domain beyond the point of remembering/understanding, and on to automaticity or mastery. ‘Drill and kill’ is anathema in the western education establishment, but Willingham convincingly argues that developing true mastery is crucial in preparing kids to move on to genuinely higher-level learning – maybe even ‘critical thinking’.

All three posts so far have good comments, too, especially the first one.

You may also want to check out a recent NYT editorial by one of my other education heroes, E D Hirsch.


Beware 'critical thinking' in education

I've included a number of entries in this thread related to the plague of 'critical thinking' in current educational theory.

This essay by R R Reno, from the website of the excellent Christian journal First Things, captures my worries about its corrosive and pervasive influence in higher education. Critical thinking these days has nothing to do a Socratic quest for truth. In Reno's words it's just:

'. . . a deck-clearing operation—not to prepare students for truth, but to prepare them for life without truths.'


Interesting stuff - have you read his book?  I was particularly interested about how IQ can be boosted before age 10, but then 'reverts' to its baseline.  Reading through the comments I couldn't but be grateful to be priveleged enough to live here and have my children educated in HK rather than one of the US inner city schools.

Direct Instruction surfaces . . . .

The long thread of comments on this article contains quite a number about Sigfried Engelmann, the father of Direct Instruction, a tightly-scripted, teacher-driven, heavy-on-assessment teaching method that's absolute poison to progressive educators.

Engelmann's ground-breaking and shockingly successful work is usually buried assidiously by the education establishment in the west, but every now and then somebody gets desperate, gives his methods a try -- and what do you know? They work.

So it is in this story reported by the Sydney Morning Herald. An Aborginal leader from the remote Cape York penisula discovered Direct Instruction, traveled to Oregon to get the good word from Engelmann himself, then implemented a DI-based program of study in his own school. It's a great success so far, but I'll be watching for backlash stories.