Monday, November 12, 2012

Eastern vs. Western Education

Have you missed me?  I have missed you all, seriously.  I missed our talk times, although I seem to only talk to myself here.  

Today I heard a report on NPR that the reporter discussed the differences between Eastern and Western Cultures.  I agree with most of the content, especially the following:

"Obviously if struggle indicates weakness — a lack of intelligence — it makes you feel bad, and so you're less likely to put up with it (note: Western point of view).  But if struggle indicates strength — an ability to face down the challenges that inevitably occur when you are trying to learn something — you're more willing to accept it (Note: Eastern point of view)."

However, I sort of disagree about the "view" that the article raised in the end.  Dr. Jin Li quoted what Eastern educators say about Asian kids, "Our children are not creative.  Our children do not have individuality.  They're just robots."  I am not sure which Eastern countries those Asian educators were from, as a Chinese one, I have no such concern about our kids.  Contradicting this view, I even believed our kids tend to be too creative as they are raised in a culture in which people respect authority much more then they respect laws.  Unlike Westerners, we Chinese are not sensitive to or respect laws, because our leaders often show us that they are above the law.  To survive in a country where legal system is paralyzed, people invent rules to live by as life goes on.  As a result, we are more creative...  But serious though, I work with purely products of Chinese education system closely here in the U.S..  What I spend my time mostly on training them is to teach them how to analyze their data with a pair of objective eyes - they are not at all lacking of imaginations, if I do not check their data myself, the wishful thinking style of my trainees might unintentionally come up with biased or false results!

All I am trying to say is generalizing/stereotyping can be troublesome!  Not all the Asian kids are robots, not all the Western kids are creative.  Of course, Dr. Li only quoted a generalized view to make a point.  But this sort of stereotypic statement is often misleading.   

I even had some life experiences to prove the point.  

About 20 years ago, I came from China for my graduate study in a third-tier university for my Master's degree.  Just so you know, I barely could understand what professors said in the classrooms, especially in the first semester.  I had to drop one of the classes to avoid getting a B in my record.  More often than not, I had to borrow other people's notebooks after lectures to catch up.  Among the list of required courses, I had to take Physical Chemistry and Biomedical Statistics, two classes of which even the most intelligent native students were afraid.  I was totally scared.  But to my major surprise and delight, I got As in all the quizzes at relatively ease.  When the final came, I even felt under-challenged because the the questions were either shown by our instructors in the class or identical to those in previous quizzes.  In another words, our instructors intentionally made the exams easy for us to pass.  What's shocked me even more was the fact that there were about 50% of my classmates failed the classes.  "American students are very bad at math and science."  I concluded and shared this view with my cousin, who came to the U.S. 8 years earlier than I.  She had graduated from a better (second-tier) University and served as my go-to-person at that time.  "Don't generalize."  She disagreed, "Your classmates are not representatives of all American students.  Your school is not Harvard or Yale!"  I was disappointed that she did not hold the same view as I.  But I believed that my observation was well-supported by strong evidence.  

4 years later...  

I got myself into a bigger trouble.  I was pursuing my PhD in an institution that ranked among the top 20 Universities in the U.S..  This time, I had already gained quite a bit of experience in both course and lab work.  I maintained outstanding grades and made progress on my PhD project swimmingly.  In fact, the only people whose grades were comparable to mine were my Chinese fellows, which naturally made me believe that I was right all along about American students being bad at sciences.  One day, when the topic came up during one of the graduate student meetings, I said nervously in broken English, "Chinese students (are) doing better at graduate schools because they (we) work harder."  Many Americans nodded their heads agreeing with my view yet later I was called to the GPD's office (GPD stands for graduate program director).  He told me that my statement was found humiliating and racist.  Later my PhD mentor told me what I did was politically incorrect.

Did I learn this important life lesson?  No!  Why people ignore the obvious!

It took additional 4 years of experiences accumulated by living in the U.S. for me to realize why "generalization can be wrong" - important life lessons take a whole life to learn, don't they?      

After PhD study, I went on for my postdoctoral training, which is an essential process towards an independent principal investigator position.  To ensure landing professorship in biomedical research field, one needs to get in top labs so that he can publish in prestigious journals, namely CNS - stands for Cell, Nature, and Science.  BTW, for the nonscientists out there, CNS also stands for the Central Nervous System, which makes perfect sense to me that we use it to describe top journals in biomedical sciences.   

What helped me the most was the diversity of this lab with a total mixture of Easterners and Westerners.  During the 4 years of my postdoc era, I have worked closely with 3 Japanese, 2 Germans, 2 Chinese, 4 French, 3 Canadians, 1 Bangladesh, 1 Lebanese, 1 Bahamian, and finally 2 Americans.  Since we practically lived in the lab, the intense interaction among us provided me an unique opportunity to learn the inner logic behind the behaviors of each and everyone of them.  At the beginning, I kept making stereotypical comments, based where they were from.  After being constantly proven wrong, I started to pay attention.  Slowly, I learned that generalized views of cultural differences may be useful for us understand a culture, but they certainly do not apply to characters of each individual.  We definitely cannot predict anyone's creativity and productivity based on where he/she is educated.  We have Western robots and Eastern creators in the lab.

Granted that the aforementioned concerns of Asian educators were referring to young kids, which may not apply to adult graduates that I have come to know.  One should take this generalized view with a grain of salt.  Never assume every single Eastern teacher is demanding and similarly, do not count on Western teachers cultivate creative talents.  Regardless, educators cannot make chicken fly - I mean one's creativity is predetermined by his genetic registry.  Culture differences may regulate the expressivity of this trait - that is why so many Asian-educated geeks have become the CEOs in the Silicon Valley!