Memory, Education, and Culture

“Many examples can be found of people who speak Mandarin to a high level but who do not understand how China works… They may have learnt their Chinese shut up in their study reading the Analects.”
— Geoff Raby, Australian ambassador to Beijing, quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald on May 19, 2011. Raby seems to have been criticizing his boss, Kevin Rudd, Australian Foreign Minister and former Prime Minister. Rudd studied Chinese under a scholar known for his translation of the Confucian Analects.

I am one of those people, aspiring to speak Mandarin at a high level, who spends a good portion of my time pondering not only the idiosyncrasies of language-learning, but also the relationship between language and the philosophy of education. American education is world-renowned for its emphasis on the development of critical and analytical thinking skills, while Chinese education is often criticized for its emphasis on “rote memorization,” or “the regurgitation of knowledge.” But yesterday I got to thinking about how the importance of language acquisition in both cultures seems to imply different skill sets: while English-learning requires little memorization (twenty-six letters to be exact and a few diphthongs), and emphasizes “sounding out words,” critically analyzing the sounds that go into words, and discerning their meaning through prefixes, suffixes, and contexts, Chinese-learning necessitates the memorization of a catalogue of symbols, sounds, and meanings, rather simultaneously, and besides the radicals, and the patient acquisition of a character vocabulary, there’s little one can do to reason through a character when seeing it for the first time.

A recent article on the advent of unbridled plagiarism in the contemporary Chinese education system and society, suggests a “culture of mimicry” may be to blame. The article cites, “For the civil service examination that functioned from 1000 to 1900, potential government officials were chosen based on their ability to memorize and regurgitate quotes and passages in their essays. Confucius, the preeminent philosopher who has influenced the Chinese mindset and way of thinking for centuries, always argued that he wasn’t creating anything, but merely transmitting the insights of sages from earlier days.”

Indeed, my friends who teach in China have all experienced an out-of-control amount of copying and pasting in their classroom assignments, sometimes with little remorse or consciousness of any wrongdoing from their students. But if not only the Chinese educational system, but wider cultural values, which are apparent even in language itself, are at root here, how do we Westerners consider the way in which our own convictions regarding ethics are culturally-specific, and create a dialogue toward a deeper understanding of ethics and education in general? Do we in the West, perhaps, too quickly dismiss the value of memorization and mimicry, fearful that Confucius was actually right in believing that there’s (and to use our own tradition’s way of putting it) “nothing new under the sun?” Is this why Chinese is so hard for us to learn, because we don’t value flash cards the way we do geometry proofs, or is there hope for us after all?

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