Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Human Disk-Drives

The Chinese are great test takers. Well, at least when it comes to rote regurgitation of memorized facts on standardized tests. Indeed, Asian education systems emphasize the creation of human disk-drives – mass storage devices that can walk and talk. This distinctly Asian perspective is reinforced in complex, non-phonetic languages, and rigid school curricula. Western biases, in contrast, emphasize problem solving; if you will, the generation of human CPUs (central processing units).

The contrast in styles is reflected in my classes at the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology. These attract a mix of expatriate and local students. Chinese love checklists. Rote discipline in the local schools emphasizes memorization – the mind is used more as a disk drive than as a central processor. Chinese students work comparatively hard, and excel in fields where memorization if important, like languages and bookkeeping. They fail in tasks that are poorly structured. Unfortunately, this is creating huge problems for China as a country which has serious problems generating the management talent that it needs.

Here is a curious fact: the Chinese language did not contain a word for logic until quite recently; only after the exposure to Western influences. The characters for logic 逻辑 (luóji) are a phonetic derivation from the Western word. The lack of formal decision making traditions is tilted Chinese education towards form over function; towards memorization over problem-solving.

As with so many things Chinese, there is an ancient tradition at the root of this perspective. The traditional Chinese bureaucratic examination system first appeared 1500 years ago. The candidates were recruited by the criterion of knowledge and not by heredity. They arrived at the exam site in boats decorated with flags bearing the name of the examination and were greeted by the sound of gong and cannons. They were shown to wooden cubicles, two meters long and in poor condition. The contents of their dissertation were of little importance. However the candidate had to ensure that the eight=legged essay had a high standard of calligraphy and that a ‘dignified’, ‘informal,’ ‘serious,’ ‘grave’ or subtle’ tone was adopted as required – a clear triumph of form over function.

The Chinese did long ago employ ‘logic’ as a social problem solving tool. The art of social problem solving developed with a contemporary of Confucius, MoZi. "Master Mo" founded the Mohist school, whose canons dealt with issues relating to valid inference and the conditions of correct conclusions. Unfortunately the Mohist path of logic – which very well might have led the Chinese to a more Western world-view – was short-lived, quashed by the harsh philosophies of the Qin Dynasty. It was forcibly replaced by Legalism (法家; pinyin FǎJiā, one of the four main philosophic schools at the end of the Zhou Dynasty). Legalists believed that a ruler should govern his subjects according to the whims of the ruler; that individual problem-solving was dangerous and needed to be quashed.


Over the ensuing centuries, Legalism was adopted by one ruling warrior class after another – its most recent incarnation in the tenets of Maoism. Given this enduring history, it should not be surprising that students gravitated towards the safety of rote memorization. In a globalized and cosmopolitan China, flexible problem solving is increasingly a necessity for competitiveness. Hopefully the legacy of Legalism will be qashed once and for all.

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