David Brooks’ recent NYT op-ed featured Brown professor Jin Li’s research on the comparative values of Eastern and Western cultural approaches to learning:
Westerners tend to define learning cognitively while Asians tend to define it morally. Westerners tend to see learning as something people do in order to understand and master the external world. Asians tend to see learning as an arduous process they undertake in order to cultivate virtues inside the self.
These “learning virtues” include “sincerity” (an authentic commitment to the task) as well as diligence, perseverance, concentration, and respect for teachers. Li’s analysis is thought provoking, but I wonder whether the difference has less to do with East versus West and more to do more modernized versus less modernized cultures.
Classical education in the West was also concerned with education’s power to shape the values of the citizenry (read: upper-class, white men). In Plato’s Republic, education is a tool for forming the various classes in society. Up until the 1870s, American colleges were training grounds for future clergymen; twice-daily chapel, bible study, and church attendance were required. Starting in the 1870s, it became increasingly important to educators that universities supported the nation’s progress on scientific and technological fronts, and so the Academy shifted towards specialized research and away from value-formation. All of this is detailed in Julie Reuben’s The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality.
What Li describes as an Eastern attitude may be more accurately described as an ancient Confucian attitude, one that is becoming increasingly outdated as China ramps up its process of modernization, focusing more on outcomes than process-driven formation. If it turns to the U.S for advice on education, Andrew Delbanco, professor at Columbia University, nicely summarizes what it may encounter: “corporate-minded university presidents [who] spout platitudes about ‘outcome metric’ and ‘game-changing’ technologies.”
Move aside postmodernists. The utilitarians have arrived to fill the void left after every value judgement and truth claim has been razed to the ground.