Thinking about Public Education – China and East Asia versus the United States and Western culture

November 26, 2014

To understand the Chinese mind, we should start with Confucius (552 – 479 BC), who is arguably the most influential person in Chinese history and by extension the rest of East Asia: Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and Southeast Asia—thanks to China being a regional super power for more than two thousand years, while its merchants helped spread Chinese cultural influence and thought to the other East Asian countries they traded with.

An important Confucian influence on Chinese society and the rest of East Asia was his focus on education and scholarship, and it’s no secret that Chinese (and other Asian) students put in more hours in classroom study today than their Western counterparts—even in the United States.

In fact, we can measure the influence of Confucius on Asian-American students in the United States. For instance, in 2012, The Washington Post reported, “Researchers found that (high school) graduation rates vary by race, with 91.8 percent of Asian students, 82 percent of whites, 65.9 percent of Hispanics and 63.5 percent of blacks graduating on time.”

In China, the hallmark of Confucius’ thought was his emphasis on education and study. He disparaged those who had faith in natural understanding or intuition and argued that the only real understanding of a subject comes from long and careful study.

Confucius goal was to create gentlemen who carried themselves with grace, spoke correctly, and demonstrated integrity in all things. He had a strong dislike of the sycophantic “petty men,” whose clever talk and pretentious manner easily won them an audience of easy to fool people.

Confucius political/educational philosophy was also rooted in his belief that a ruler should learn self-discipline, should govern his subjects by his own example, and should treat them with love and concern.

To understand the importance of education in Western culture, we first look at what Plato (about 423 – 346 BC), Socrates (about 469 – 399 BC) and Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) thought.

When Plato talked about the education of the body, he said we had to take Spartan military gymnastics as a model, because it was based on physical exercises and prescribed severe control over all pleasures. Plato also argued for the public character of education and that it had to be given in buildings especially built for that purpose. In these schools, boys and girls should receive the same teaching and that the educational process should start as soon as possible, as young as three-to-six-years old.

Socrates believed that there were different kinds of knowledge, important and trivial. He acknowledges that most of us know many “trivial” things, and he said that the craftsman possesses important knowledge, the practice of his craft, but that this is important only to the craftsman. But Socrates thought that the most important of all knowledge was “how best to live.” He concluded that this was not easily answered, and most people lived in shameful ignorance regarding matters of ethics and morals. Socrates devoted much thought to the concept of belief, through the use of logic.

Aristotle, however, said that the purpose of the state was to educate the people—to make them virtuous. He said, virtue was the life principle of the state. The goal of the state was to educate with a view toward its own institutions (to preserve them)—through the political education of all citizens.

It is also arguable that the Bible probably has a large impact on what many Westerners think about the value of an education, but the focus of the Bible is mostly on fear of the Lord when it comes to learning—a mixed message at best when compared to what Confucius, Plato, Socrates and Aristotle thought.

Proverbs 9:9-10 says, “Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.

Proverbs 1:7 – The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.

2 Timothy 3:16 – All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,

2 John 1:9 – Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.


Watch the video to discover that the agenda of the Common Core State Standards in the United States is similar to the agenda of the Prussian Model of Obedience.

In conclusion, the value of an education is clearly defined by Confucius providing a solid foundation for East Asia, while in the West, the message is murky and confusing at best, because the Bible focuses on fear of the Lord, and that Scripture is profitable for teaching and training the righteous compared to Plato’s focus on harsh Spartan physical training in addition to severe self-control over all pleasures starting at an early age, and Aristotle focused on preserving government through political education of the people—in other words, brainwashing them.

Socrates may have been closer to the way Confucius thought about the value of an education, but not as clearly defined as Confucius.

Out of this muddle of Western thought eventually emerged the 18th century, Prussian Industrial Model of education more aligned with what Aristotle thought, and this system was adopted by most of Western Culture during the industrial revolution, including the United States.

The Prussian system instituted compulsory attendance, specific training for teachers, national testing for all students (used to classify children for potential job training), national curriculum set for each grade and mandatory kindergarten.

The Prussian public education model attempted to instill social obedience in the citizens through indoctrination. Every individual had to become convinced, in the core of his being, that the King was just, his decisions always right, and the need for obedience paramount. There was no room for individual thought or questioning authority that would develop in the United States and other Western countries after World War II.

Maybe the blind obedience that gave power to dictators like Hitler had something to do with that change in Western thought about public education, but today, with the emphasis on the Common Core State Standards and harsh punishment of children and teachers who don’t measure up, the United States may be returning to the harsher Aristotelian, Prussian Model of education to brainwash children so they grow up and give blind obedience to their leaders.

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Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

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China’s Holistic Historical Timeline


Eating Bitterness

January 15, 2011

Mainland Chinese are different. They are willing to eat more bitterness than others to learn.

The reason I’m writing this post is due to Amy Chua’s Essay in The Wall Street Journal and a response from Funny Little World where Nang Ngot wrote in a comment, “You can have a system like China that churns out smart but obedient drones. There, the collective behavior guides the intellect.”

Mainland Chinese are not obedient drones any more than all Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists or Hindus are obedient drones within their cultures.

Within every culture, each person is an individual. In China, the difference is how the individuals see themselves in relation to the whole. That does not make them drones.

There’s even an ancient Chinese saying that supports being disobedient, which explains why the central government in Beijing is having so much trouble with corruption at the local level. “The emperor lives behind high walls and is a long ways from our village.”

In simple language this means, “What the emperor doesn’t know won’t hurt us.”

Where Jews and Christians have the Bible and Islam has the Quran, the Chinese have a culture governed by a mixture of Confucianism, Taoism and in part by Buddhism.

The Chinese do not need a temple, church or mosque to tell them what to believe and how to act.

Although there is no Confucian bible, the basic guide that Confucius left behind is as significant as the Ten Commandments, the Bible and the Quran.

In Chinese culture, those guidelines were designed for living a moral life and the family teaches the children as the child grows into an adult.

The Chinese family has done this for thousands of years until it became part of the culture, as Christianity is to the West and Islam is to the Middle East.

Stanford.edu says, “A hallmark of Confucius’ thought is his emphasis on education and study.”

Nicholas D. Kristof, writing for the New York Times, says, “Perhaps as a legacy of Confucianism, its citizens have shown a passion for education and self-improvement — along with remarkable capacity for discipline and hard work, what the Chinese call “chi ku,” or “eating bitterness”.

Kristof  is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard College and then studied law at Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship, graduating with first class honors. He later studied Arabic in Cairo and Chinese in Taipei.

Kristof writes, “China used to be one of the most sexist societies in the world — with female infanticide, foot binding, and concubinage — but it turned a corner (in 1949 when Mao said women hold up half the sky) and now is remarkably good at giving opportunities to girls as well as boys….”

At China Education Center.com, I learned that many scholars believe the history of education in China started in the 16th century B.C., and Confucianism has had the largest impact on education for more than two thousand years of Chinese history.

In fact, during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 219 AD) a form of public education was established. Not only for the elite but also for the common man so both would become better gentlemen.

In contrast, it wasn’t until 1918 that all states in the US had laws requiring children to attend at least elementary school. In 1900, only 6% of children graduated from high school. By 1996, 85% were graduating from high school.

Compared to China, the importance of earning an education in the United States is relatively new and doesn’t have as strong of a cultural component.

Discover more on this topic at Mean Chinese Supermoms are Right while Positive Self-Esteemism is Wrong

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Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of the concubine saga, My Splendid Concubine & Our Hart. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too.

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