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K12 China's Department of Education

Chinese Department of Education Failure

2015 More than 130 million people have graduated from vocational schools and colleges in China since a law on vocational education was promulgated in September 1996, according to a report delivered by the top legislator on Monday. In 2014, there were about 18 million students in secondary vocational schools, compared with 12.7 million in 1996, he said. The number of students enrolled at vocational colleges stood at 10 million last year, an increase from 1.23 million in 1996. Zhang said vocational schools and colleges were the main training ground for technical workers.
According to the report, the annual investment surged from 114.1 billion yuan (18.4 billion U.S. dollars) in 2006 to 345 billion yuan in 2013, posting an average increase of 17 percent annually. A project initiated in 2009 to exempt students of secondary vocational schools from tuition has benefited 34.6 million people, it said. Over the 19 years, a proficiency evaluation system has also been established, with five levels ranging from beginner, intermediate worker, to senior technician. The report showed that more than 200 million people had participated in evaluations of vocational skills by the end of 2014, with about 160 million obtaining certificates. Among the certificate holders, about 1.47 million were senior technicians, the most skilled workers, and some six million were technicians. http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2015-06/29/c_134366144.htm

Reports on Rural China from Shanghai by Maizi Translated by Cathy Song

Here's a question I pose for my white collar friends: what if I never graduated from middle school, and had become a migrant worker? Would you sit down for a cup of coffee with me at Starbucks? The answer, unequivocally, is that youwouldn't. That is simply not a possibility. If we compared our experiences growing up, you will find that for the things that you take for granted, I have sacrificed and exerted huge amounts of efforts to acquire.
From the moment I was born, our life's path swerved away from each other. I was given a rural resident card while you got a city one. If I grew up keeping my rural residence, I wouldn't be able to work in the city today. I would also be denied social security, and proper medical care. You might ask: “Why must you come to the city? Isn't the country good enough? The air is fresh, and it's never crowded.” But the country has no proper healthcare system. During the SARs scare our country seemed to “suddenly” realize that its rural healthcare was completely defunct. Plus, we have a very small consumer market. Because farmers make very little money and can't afford much, companies refuse to distribute products in our areas. During the New Year only a tiny percent of families can afford the color T.V to watch the New Year's broadcast. The majority of families are still fighting for their basic survival. This is why I want to be in the city. For the object you were simply born with, this city resident card, I have had to fight and struggle.
College was the only way out of rural China. I needed to work very hard to graduate from elementary school, to be accepted into a middle and high school. I was a lone traveler on a narrow and precarious bridge above a deep valley, and while I was on it, I watched my friends and classmates fall one by one. Meanwhile, the road ahead of me became increasingly narrow. Should I have been happy or worried? Because of fierce competition, I was terrified that any misstep might drag me off course. Apart from studying, I was never able to have a hobby or partake in extra-curriculars, not that the school ever offered any opportunities. On the first day in high school, our principal told us that we had only one goal during those three years– Gao Kao.(college entrance exam) So, during that time, I woke up at 5:30 every morning, and went to bed at 11:00 PM. During holidays, I was memorizing test questions.
For you, there is no question that you'll graduate elementary school and go onward to middle and high school. The competition isn't that fierce, and your homework load isn't that heavy. You can take the time to develop a hobby, to read the books you want, to play basketball, to take excursions to the countryside to enjoy its blue skies. If you don't want to work so hard for Gao Kao, and your grades aren't atrocious, you can opt for a school who's willing to recruit you without test scores. And even if your scores are indeed atrocious, a third tier university will still accept you. Meanwhile, I have to earn exceptionally high marks to get into that same third tier university, since universities demand more from out-of-state students.
We take the same test. The minimum score requirements for you and me are not the same. But once we're accepted, our tuition fees are again the same. Every person pays 6000 RMB per year – that's for tuition only, which comes out as 24,000 RMB for all four years. Housing (1500 RMB), and books (1000 RMB) add up to around 4000 RMB – and I'm only talking about eating cafeteria food the entire time. Four years of college comes down to 50,000 RMB. In 2003, a university in Shanghai announced that it was raising its annual tuition to 10,000 RMB due to the “campus renovation” That means 40,000 RMB for four years of tuition alone. Count in living and text book costs and a university education adds up to 66,000 RMB. For families who live in the city, 66,000 RMB isn't much. For a rural family, 66,000 RMB is a life time's worth of savings. I come from a coastal province that has been getting steady foreign investment. We were better off compared to some inner provinces, but still, after a year of hard labor, we were hard pressed to save much. A family of four who consume only the very basics can save 3000 RMB each year. That means to send one child to a four year college at 66,000 RMB a family needs to save for 22 years. That's assuming that no one gets sick. It also means that no matter how talented the second child is the family must still deprive him or her from attending college since they can only afford to send one.
I was lucky compared to others. By throwing together all the funds we had, and by taking out student loans, I was finally able to pay my first year of tuition. Meanwhile, I watched those students who'd been accepted and the heartbreak their families experienced for being unable to send them to school. I felt a pervasive sense of wrongness. Our education industry nowadays don't only recruit the best students, they recruit the students with the richest parents.
But, finally I found myself on a University campus! I worked hard and earned a scholarship. During the holidays, I worked to save spending money. I couldn't bear asking my parents for money. Every cent they made was an exchange of their sweat. That money was sweat money, blood money.
Upon coming to Shanghai, I realized that compared to my classmates, I was green beyond belief. I couldn't draw, couldn't play an instrument, didn't know who the hottest pop stars were, had never read a best selling novel, didn't know what an MP3 was, didn't even know what a Walkman was. To understand what our management professor was lecturing about during his class on “Warehouse style supermarkets” like Wal-Mart and Sam's Club, I spent a day at “McDonalds” watching with astonishment. I'd never seen so much stuff.
I'd never touched a computer, so I spent half a year sitting in a computer lab learning the skills you'd learned in high school. My English is the English spoken by a deaf or a mute person. Neither westerners nor Chinese people can understand what I'm saying. But that wasn't my fault. There were never any foreign teachers in my village. When teachers don't even know the language, how can they possibly teach students to speak? With a poor foundation, I spent an entire year correcting my pronunciation. I admired city students for how talented they were, how much they knew. I only knew how to study. I'd only known studying, test taking, graduating, because only by getting into college could I study amongst you and become a part of you. Everything had to be geared and pointed towards this goal.
I could bear the mockery of my classmates, could go weeks without eating any meat, could spend my entire weekend cooped up in a library, could come back from studying on the weekend to see boys and girls dancing, could go running at the deep of the night out of loneliness and boredom. I dreamt that one day I would graduate, and find a job in the city. I wanted to work with the city-dwellers of my generation, and like them, to become a city resident. I wanted my parents to be proud because they had a son working in Shanghai!
Finally, I graduated. Finding a job in Shanghai was hard, but going back to the village was not an option. The average salary for our class was 2000RMB per month. Perhaps you think that 2000RMB is an adequate salary, but I still needed to pay for rent, to pay for utilities, to pay back my student loans, and to send money home to put my brother and sister through school. What was left, I used for food. After all of this, I still couldn't join you for a coffee at Starbucks!
Since that time I've earned a master's degree, and currently live in Shanghai where my annual salary is 80,000 RMB. I fought for eighteen years, and can finally sit down with you for a cup of coffee. I'm now a resident in this big, international city, and I'm no different from the white collar workers here. However, I can never forget the struggles my family and I went through. I can never forget my classmates who will never see their dreams come true. For this reason, I've written this in the first person. What I've written is nothing special. It's the typical tale of those who come from rural China. Every time I see a student who's been dealt same hand I got, I feel a heavy sense of responsibility.
I didn't write this to complain. The terrifying thing isn't that justice is relative. The terrifying thing is to witness injustice and to act as if one sees nothing. While I was getting my masters, I once had a conversation with a girl who at the time had 3 years of work experience under her belt. She is now the HR director of a joint stock company. We were talking about a marketing strategy for Weida's paper industry. Her idea was to carve out a new market by advertising Weida's high quality dinner napkins to China's nine hundred million farmers. Surprised by her cocksureness, I asked her if she knew how farmers wipe their mouths after each meal. She returned my question with a misgiving look. I raised my hand and wiped my mouth on my sleeve. She looked at my graceless action with contempt.
During a macro-economics class, a classmate attacked blue collar workers who'd been laid off, and unemployed high school dropouts: “80% of them are where they are because they don't work hard. They chose not to specialize in something when they were young, so they can't get jobs now! Those kids are perfectly capable of studying and working. I've heard that a lot of students use their holidays to make thousands to pay their tuition.” You can't find a person who knows less about the struggles of rural China than this classmate of mine.
I was born during the 70s. People my age are starting to become leaders and our actions affect the social and economic development. I wrote this essay for the young people who grew up in well-heeled communities, and for those who grew up struggling but have since forgotten. Pay attention to the classes beneath you. For this world to be fairer, we need to do what we can for others, to be aware that social responsibility warrants a permanent place in our thoughts and actions.

Bucking Cultural Norms, Asia Tries Liberal Arts
On a recent fall morning, students filed into a classroom at Sun Yat-sen University, whose leafy main campus hugs the banks of the south-winding Pearl River.
Indeed, these students, some of the university's best, are studying not just Latin but ancient Greek and Chinese. Also, literature, art, and the classic texts of Eastern and Western philosophy, all part of a young liberal-arts program, now in its third year, known as the Boya College.
Sun Yat-sen's East-meets-West curriculum is distinctive, but its embrace of liberal education--education across disciplines, meant to provoke broad thinking--is far from unusual. At a time when China and its East Asian neighbors are trouncing U.S. students on international exams, educators in these countries are nonetheless adopting, and adapting, that quintessentially American approach to learning.
Some of the top institutions in the region, like Sun Yat-sen and Taiwan's Tunghai University, are setting up selective liberal-education programs. Advice from Steve Jobs to Graduating Seniors

In South Korea, a declaration by the late Apple chief Steve Jobs that equal parts liberal learning and technological know-how were critical to the computer giant's success has kindled interest in the humanities. This coming fall, all university students in Hong Kong will be required to take a new, fourth year of general-education courses.
These undergraduate-education reforms, promoted by government officials and business leaders as well as educators, stem from a basic economic calculus: The countries' current educational systems have produced stellar test takers but few innovators and inventors. Exams, says Edmond I. Ko, an American-educated professor of engineering at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and a former member of the territory's powerful University Grants Committee, "don't measure the kind of student we want to educate."
The global economy is placing new demands on international hubs like Hong Kong and Singapore and opening up China's once-closed markets to overseas investment. Not only do new hires in these places have to collaborate with counterparts around the globe, they're also competing for jobs. And they're not faring well, dinged for inflexible thinking, inability to work in teams, and lack of creativity. A survey of Hong Kong employers rated local graduates far inferior to those educated abroad. In mainland China, more than one in 10 graduates have yet to find a job a year later, even in a booming economy.
Casting their eyes West, reformers have latched onto American-style liberal, or general, education as a way to foster more nimble and adaptable thinkers. "These countries realize that, in order to become a global leader, you need a creative class," says Gerard A. Postiglione, an education professor at the University of Hong Kong.
Some take a canonical Great Books approach, others emphasize interdisciplinarity, while still others are a hodgepodge of courses in public speaking, foreign languages, and computer literacy--in short, anything outside major requirements.
Curriculum is just one of many challenges raised by the push toward liberal education. How do you develop new courses with faculty brought up within the very system they are trying to change? How do you deal with resistance from parents who fear that studying literature or anthropology will distract from job preparation?
More fundamentally, is the very notion of liberal education compatible with China's Communist government, or Japan's emphasis on hierarchy, or, more broadly, regional norms that prize group cohesion over the development of the individual? Is it possible, or even appropriate, to graft a Western approach to learning onto a markedly different culture?
The question of how to marry East and West is thrown into particular relief at Sun Yat-sen, where Boya students read Confucius and Plato, Xun Zi and Jacques Derrida. But Gan Yang, Boya's founding dean and head of the university's Institute for Advanced Studies in Humanities, argues that the notion of the broadly educated leader goes back millennia in Chinese culture. After all, ancient Mandarin civil servants didn't study public administration but were tutored in music, art, and philosophy.
As recently as the first half of the 20th century, in fact, Chinese educators like Mei Yiqi, a prominent president of Tsinghua University, emphasized the importance of the well-rounded graduate. That changed with the Communist takeover. Top comprehensive institutions like Tsinghua became polytechnics focused on producing engineers and scientists needed to industrialize and modernize the national economy. Then, beginning in the mid-1960s, universities across the country were closed for a decade, casualties of the Cultural Revolution. Mr. Gan recalls his father, a scientist shut out of his laboratory, spending much of his time reading, exposing his son to the richness of the humanities.
Elsewhere, the turn toward specialized education was less sharp but still profound. Onetime British colonies like Singapore and Hong Kong inherited that country's higher-education system, where university students "read" a single subject, rather than take courses across a range of disciplines. In China's reopened universities, college curricula slowly began to expand in the 1990s. In addition to compulsory courses in political ideology, physical education, and English language, several dozen top universities were designated by the government to offer wenhua suzhi jiaoyu, or cultural quality education. The term denotes electives and extracurricular activities meant to give students a more wide-ranging educational experience and to cultivate the whole person, says Cao Li, deputy director of liberal education at Tsinghua.
At Zhejiang University, on China's east coast, students study history, culture, and economics. Huazhong University of Science and Technology runs a popular lecture series in the humanities, bringing in international scholars and political figures. A 10-year plan, approved by the Chinese cabinet in 2010, calls for introducing more students to critical thinking and learning across disciplines.
Still, undergraduate education remains fairly rigid: Except at a few high-ranked universities, students choose their majors before they even set foot on campus, selecting from a list of more than 600 specialities.

In Hong Kong, where government scholarships cover the cost of higher education, the University Grants Committee sets the number of students who can study each subject based on job projections; those whose scores on the high-school exit exam aren't good enough to earn them a place in popular disciplines may find themselves studying their second choice-- or third or fourth.

Once on campus, students' courses are highly proscribed, and numerous. Brian P. Coppola, a professor of chemistry at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, recently returned from a year teaching at Peking University. He was shocked to learn, he says, that his organic-chemistry students were enrolled in as many as nine classes a semester and would take 45 courses and labs in chemistry alone by graduation. Michigan chemistry majors, by contrast, are required to take 15 courses in the field.

Students' schedules are so packed, Mr. Coppola says, few have time for nonrequired courses or even to attend office hours. "They barely have time to think," he says.
Tang Heyu, a cheerful, ponytailed 20-year-old who goes by Ivy, says she has far fewer classes in her studies at Boya College than do other Sun Yat-sen students, just five or six a semester. Instead, she spends eight hours a day or more in study groups or working in the library, where she struggles through original texts, essays, and criticism, much of it not in her native Chinese. Like many of her Boya College classmates, she hopes to go on to earn a graduate degree.
"Our professors don't mean to tell us knowledge. They mean to encourage us to find it out for ourselves," Ms. Tang says, on break from yet another marathon study session. She marvels at the number of papers and commentaries on major philosophers like Socrates. "I sometimes feel I will not be able to get to all of the books," she says.
The situation was much different at Ms. Tang's high school in Mianyang, in Sichuan Province, where she says she spent most of her time learning how to do well on China's national college-entrance test, known as the gao kao. "I think learning in high school isn't really learning," she says.
Indeed, the tendency toward narrow education begins long before university. High-school students in China and elsewhere are channeled into set academic tracks, in the sciences and the humanities, and much of the curriculum focuses on subjects and skills measured by the all-important college entry exam, which determines whether, and where, a student will earn university admission.
The winnowing, in fact, starts still earlier. In China, students seeking to go to top high schools must pass the zhong kao, an admissions test.

THE TIGER MOM
Some of those parents have gathered around a crowded lunchroom table another morning at Peking University High School. Their children are enrolled in the school's fledgling international division, which is set up as a liberal-arts high school with small classes, group discussion, and course offerings like drama and journalism. Guo Li-ping is a professor at Peking University, where she sees her undergraduates struggle to think critically. She wanted something different than the "burden of getting high marks" for her son, Yang Daocun, or Darren, a 16-year-old with a Justin Bieber mop-top. Since enrolling at the high school a year and a half ago, Darren has become "happier and motivated to learn" and, Ms. Guo says approvingly, has formed his own band. Mr. Jiang, the high school's deputy principal and director of the international division, Alma mater, is Yale University. Mr. Jiang says it's important to make learning relevant: "That's why when we read a book like 1984, we try to draw a connection to their lives, their society." That would be unthinkable, he admits, in most Chinese classrooms, but he thinks there are enough parents fed up with the current system to pay a tuition of about $12,700. Just 43 students are enrolled in his program now, but the high school is building a gleaming new building that can accommodate nearly 10 times as many.
All of Mr. Jiang's students, however, plan to go abroad for college. While he says he sees some reforms at regular Chinese high schools--including more arts and physical education, a greater emphasis on group work, and an explosion of student clubs--

he dismisses the idea that a liberal education could work for students who stay within the Chinese education system. "I believe that a liberal-arts approach to education and standardized testing are in contrast with each other, and so I don't think it would be feasible," he says. A mainstream school, he adds, "is nothing more than a test-prep center."

Incorporating liberal education into the existing system is exactly what Hong Kong is attempting. In the fall of 2009, every high school began teaching a mandatory subject known as liberal studies, part of a top-to-bottom effort to expose students to the humanities and general education. This fall, the final phase of reform will hit Hong Kong's universities.
Students in Bruno Li's class at St. Clare's Girls' School leap to attention when visitors enter, standing smartly beside their desks in tidy white dresses and red-buttoned pinafores. "Go-od morn-ing," they chant in unison.
Liberal studies, which comprises about 10 percent of total lesson time, has multiple goals, whispers James Yiu, a chief curriculum-development officer for the Hong Kong Education Bureau, who is sitting in on the class. It is meant to increase students' awareness of their society and the world, to broaden their knowledge base and expose them to differing perspectives, and to enhance their critical-thinking skills. Last year, the government handed out grants of more than $41,000, to help schools build their liberal-studies programs.
As part of the day's lesson, Mr. Li is showing the students snippets of a news documentary on the demolition of the historic Star Ferry terminal on Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour. The pier was pulled down five years earlier, before many of these 14- and 15-year-olds can remember, and between segments of the film, which features interviews with conservation activists, urban planners, and environmentalists, he asks the girls to go to the chalkboard and mark whether or not they support the destruction. They do, giggling.
At first, nearly all the students indicate they favor the tear-down, no surprise in a city in which new construction alters the skyline almost daily. But as they hear arguments about the environmental impact and the pier's historic significance, many change their vote. This pleases Mr. Yiu. "In almost every lesson," he says, "we're trying to get them to see issues from multiple perspectives."
Mr. Li leads the class smoothly through a discussion of conflict and compromise, but later, over tea and cake, he admits that adjusting to the new coursework hasn't been easy. There are no textbooks, and teachers, pulled from different disciplines, have struggled to master the subject matter. Mr. Li, whose background is in biology, regularly exchanges tips and lesson plans with other St. Clare's faculty and is also working with Mr. Yiu's agency on training materials and workshops for teachers throughout Hong Kong. "We have had to learn new skills," he says.
If teachers are uneasy, students and parents appear even more so. More than half the students surveyed by a Hong Kong education-policy group said they were not confident of doing well in liberal studies. Parents have thronged question-and-answer sessions hosted by the Education Bureau and by individual schools; one cornered Mr. Yiu the previous weekend at a wedding banquet. The source of much of the anxiety? How new questions about liberal studies will affect students' scores on the high-school exit exam.
Uncertainty about Hong Kong's liberal-education reform, and about the coming changes in the undergraduate curriculum, have helped drive up applications to British universities by more than 35 percent. It's understandable in a culture where a university degree is viewed as the final step in a path toward a career and where children are expected to provide for their parents in old age. Students and parents suspicious about liberal education cite fears about job prospects, yet it's business leaders who are among the loudest voices for reform.
Jim Leininger is with the Beijing office of the human-resources-consulting firm Towers Watson. He recalls one American oil executive frustrated by the lack of participation by Chinese employees in brainstorming sessions [groupthink]. These workers are uncomfortable shouting out possible solutions, Mr. Leininger told the man, because they were educated in a system where "there always is a context where something is right and something is wrong."
It's not just multinational companies that express concern about graduates' readiness for a global work environment. Executives at Japanese companies complain about graduates' poor critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. "People know their own field, but once they're outside it, they don't know where to start," says Keiko Momii, who conducted an employer survey for the country's National Institute for Educational Policy Research. That was fine, she says, when companies hired for life, but today's employees need to be able to shift jobs and careers.
Po Chung is a co-founder and former chairman of the global shipping company DHL International. From his office above the polished office towers of Hong Kong's Wan Chai district, Mr. Chung, who hums with barely contained energy, criticizes the current education system as out of step with the market demands. Why are Hong Kong universities turning out graduates for a manufacturing economy, he asks, when more than 90 percent of the jobs are in the service sector? He enumerates the qualities a well-rounded worker needs to have, such as the capacity to be a lifelong learner.
"Business people would say there's something missing" in current graduates, Mr. Chung says. "We can train skill, but we need to hire something more." If Hong Kong can revamp its educational system, he predicts, it can serve as a critical bridge between a booming China and the rest of the world.
To help make that happen, Mr. Chung, who attended Whittier College and Humboldt State University, both in California, has brought more than two dozen American academics with liberal-arts expertise to act as in-house advisers to Hong Kong universities, through his support of a special Fulbright Grant program.
In addition to the Fulbrighters, American and expat professors populate academic leadership positions: The provost at City University of Hong Kong and the vice president for academic development at Hong Kong Polytechnic University are both hires from the University of California system. Haydn H.D. Chen, who spent more than two decades at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has emphasized liberal education at Tunghai University, in Taiwan, since becoming president in 2004. The National University of Singapore has turned to Yale faculty to help start the nation-state's first residential liberal-arts college.
David Jaffee didn't know much about Hong Kong when he came to spend a Fulbright year at City University, but as a former assistant vice president for undergraduate studies at the University of North Florida, he does know a lot about the liberal arts. Like others in the program, Mr. Jaffee, a professor of sociology, organized faculty-development sessions at Hong Kong's eight universities and helped City University vet its general-education course proposals. In many ways, he walked away from the experience impressed. "We tinker with general education all the time here, but they were doing it from the ground up," he says, by phone from Florida. At the same time, he became concerned that a lack of familiarity with the tenets of liberal education was leading some institutions and faculty members to construe it very broadly. Mr. Jaffee recalls a proposal for a course in computer security. As a straightforward primer on the subject, he thought it should not qualify as general education because it didn't delve into wider social and philosophical issues like the effect of online piracy on concepts of privacy. But others on the curriculum panel did not have such objections: "They'd say, 'It's general knowledge that people should have. It's in a discipline not students' own.'" At Hong Kong Poly, meanwhile, general education will have a decidedly practical flavor, with requirements in public speaking, writing, and leadership and interpersonal skills.
As a largely engineering and science-oriented university, Poly has historically had few faculty members in the humanities, points out Walter W. Yuen, the vice president for academic development. Other offerings are more interdisciplinary. A philosopher, a biologist, and a mechanical engineer at City University, for example, have teamed up to offer a course on the science of kung fu. At the University of Hong Kong, students can choose among courses such as "Blood, Beliefs, and Biology," "Cultural Heritages in the Contemporary World," and "Love, Marriage, and Sex in Modern China."
At Hong Kong Baptist University, for instance, the new director of general education, A. Reza Höshmand, inherited an unmanageable 235 approved general-education courses. That hasn't always been the case. Efforts to create liberal-education programs or colleges at China's top institutions have not been universally supported by faculty, who worry that the liberal-education program could siphon resources or lead to changes, both in instruction and structure, in their own departments. "In principle, everyone says it's a beautiful thing, but when you put it into practice you meet many, many barriers," says Cao Li of Tsinghua. "It is something added to the curriculum, like an appendage."
Others are not convinced that undergraduate-education reform is the way to go. Xudong Gao, vice director for the Research Center for Technological Innovation at Tsinghua, argues for new curricular models at the graduate level. Earlier stages of study, he says, are more suited for teaching fundamentals and for knowledge transfer.
Mr. Wu, a young professor at Boya College, stands awkwardly in front a computer screen, projecting fragments of text onto the wall behind him. Once he gets started, however, he speaks fluidly, even energetically, about shifts in the philosophical traditions between the Han, Tang, and Song dynasties. But only occasionally does he pause during the 100-minute lecture to allow a student to murmur a question or comment. While most in the class of 20 sit alertly, in a corner, one puts her head down and naps.
Lecturing without discussion is an anathema to many American scholars of the liberal arts. "What are they going to do, have the professor tell the students how to think critically?" says Kathryn Mohrman, only half joking. But given the long history of teacher-centered learning in Asia, it may not be realistic to expect academics there to fully embrace the seminar-style give and take that is a hallmark of U.S. classrooms, says Ms. Mohrman, director of the University Design Consortium at Arizona State University and an author of a forthcoming essay on general education in China. "Maybe the pedagogical style doesn't move as far."
It's not just professors who have bought into this more passive approach. "Students think if a teacher is not lecturing, they're not doing their job," says Jing Lin, a University of Maryland professor who is working on a project to introduce more participatory styles of learning at Chinese universities. It can be slow going. During a new general-education course at Hong Kong Poly, a lecturer asks for volunteers to enact a scene in which they demonstrate empathy, part of a lesson on social competence. There are no takers. "I've talked quite a bit," the lecturer, Allen Dorcas, prods, "and even if you're not tired of listening, I'm tired of talking." Finally, a pair of students are persuaded to perform a brief skit in which one consoles the other after his mother's death. Lynn Ilon, a professor of education at Seoul National University, says many of her students are sharp, sophisticated thinkers; it's just that they have not been encouraged to speak out. "When they're given permission, they're incredibly creative," she says.

This raises the question: Can a Western-style educational approach work in a more-closed system like China's?

Can one educate liberally in a society that's anything but? Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, expresses a fair amount of skepticism that liberal education will sweep Asia. It's a way of thinking, not just a "patch" to be superimposed on an existing system, she says. "It's not just adding the humanities and stirring." For those who find Asia's infatuation with liberal arts misguided, this hodgepodge approach is indicative of the field's inherent weaknesses. Sin-Ming Shaw, a Hong Kong investor and economist, who has been a visiting scholar at a number of Western universities, including Harvard and Oxford, decries the reform efforts as "me-too liberal education, American style. Pretty mindless." "I have serious doubts about the value of a liberal education, especially when no one really knows how to define what it is," he says. But Delia Lin, a Chinese-born lecturer in Asian studies at the University of Adelaide, in Australia, says confusion about the reforms stems from a fundamental misconception. Asians might talk about "liberal education," but "they're just borrowing the brand."

To Westerners, it means creativity, critical inquiry, and self-examination. But in the East, Confucian tradition seeks to cultivate a good, knowledgeable, thoughtful individual, one who serves society and community.

The purpose of general education at Harvard, she says, is to "cultivate the whole person," while a Yuanpei education is "mainly about how to meet the demands of the society." "It's shaped by its context, by the needs of China," Ms. Wang says.

Harkening back to ancient Mandarin roots, many of the experiments are unapologetically aimed at elites:

The 400 students in Tunghai's Po-Ya School of Liberal Arts live in a separate dormitory, have faculty mentors, and are enrolled in special courses and cultural programs like calligraphy, music, and fine arts. At Tsinghua, small groups of engineering and management students, just a couple of dozen apiece, participate in gifted-education programs that combine the humanities with their major curriculum. The Boya College selects 30 top students a year, plucking them from the pool of roughly 8,000 incoming freshmen through an extensive interview process. Not only do the liberal-arts students have to master English, Greek, and Latin, but the archaic Chinese texts even tripped up a native-speaking translator.
To be sure, there are efforts to make sure all students get a taste of general education--beginning next year, all Sun Yat-sen undergraduates will have to take a selection of interdisciplinary electives--but such projects require funds and faculty expertise, something in short supply in provincial or poorer universities. The result could be a two-track system, says Kathryn Mohrman of Arizona State. At some institutions, the reforms may be "more form than substance," says Ms. Mohrman, who was director of the Johns Hopkins University's Nanjing center.

"A few liberal-arts classes in college are not going to make you blossom into a critical thinker." What will it take for reforms to truly take hold? Japan, after all, has been flirting with liberal education since just after World War II, when it was introduced by American universities; such efforts have amounted to little. Universities in the region have gained international prominence for research, not teaching.

In South Korea, educators and business leaders talk about the need for more innovative graduates, "but at this stage," says Lee Seongho, a professor of education at Chung-Ang University, "it's a gesture at best." The Western liberal-arts tradition can't, and shouldn't be easily adopted by Asian universities, many say. "We have to look to the student who comes to us," says Xu Ningsheng, Sun Yat-sen's president. "If we only copy from the U.S., I don't think it will fit." In the end, the efforts to reform undergraduate education, while importing what educators in the region see as the best of the West, are likely to look unmistakably Eastern. ~ Karin Fischer

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