In the U.S., parents have often revolted as policy makers try to push through similar measures. In part, we are afraid that Johnny will feel bad about himself if he can’t make the grade. What if, instead, Johnny’s parents—and his teacher, too—believed that the boy could learn challenging math with enough dedicated effort?
Americans aren’t afraid to push their children when it comes to athletics. Here we believe that hard work and practice pay off, so we accept scores and rankings. Eyes glued to scoreboards at a meet, we embrace numbers as a way to measure progress. A ninth-place finish in the 100-meter dash suggests to us that a plodding Johnny needs to train harder. It doesn’t mean that he’s inferior, nor do we worry much about his self-esteem.
My son has been in the Chinese school system now for five years. During that time, he has morphed into a proper little pupil who faithfully greets his teacher each morning—“Laoshi Zao! Good morning, teacher!”—and has developed an unbending respect for education. In primary school, I watched, a bit dazed, as he prepared his own backpack for school at 6 years old, slotting his English, Chinese and math books into his bag each morning along with six pencils that he sharpened himself.
When his homework books come home—parents in China are required to sign them daily to prove involvement—he brings them to us immediately. He began teaching his younger brother Mandarin, two small heads huddled over a picture book, naming animals. A little older now, he expertly performs timed drills in arithmetic, his pencil traveling down the page, and he gains confidence from his success. He also eats eggs of his own free will.
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When I tell the story of my son’s Chinese educational experience to American friends, they gasp. When they spend time with him, they are surprised that he doesn’t cower in the corner or obey commands like a Labrador retriever. My son is imaginative when he draws, and has a great sense of humor and a mean forehand in tennis. None of these qualities has slipped away, and I now share the Chinese belief that even very young kids are capable of developing a range of demanding talents.
‘I have been paralyzed by anxiety at times over the Chinese way.’
Still, I must confess that I have been paralyzed by anxiety at times over the Chinese way, which demands fealty. Teacher Chen wasn’t just authoritarian; she sometimes delivered very harsh punishments. Once, she isolated my young son and several classmates in an empty classroom and threatened to demote them after they failed to follow in “one-two” step during a physical exercise.
Her power was even more worrisome when coupled with the Communist Party’s political agenda. At 4, my son learned the lyrics to “The East Is Red,” extolling Chairman Mao. The following year, his teachers began running mock elections for class monitor, part of the grooming process to identify star students for eventual Party membership.
At the same time, China’s education landscape is littered with dropouts in a system that perpetuates an underclass: Children who fail to test into regular high schools would populate a city the size of London each year. Because of the high stakes, families sometimes take extreme measures, including cheating and bribery.
And there is no denying that the traditional Chinese classroom discourages the expression of new and original thought. I observed an art class where 28 toddlers were instructed to sketch exactly the same way, with errant drawings tacked to the wall to shame the deviants. “Rain falls from the sky to the ground and comes in little dots,” bellowed the teacher, as the children dutifully populated their pages. In this classroom, rain did not blow sideways or hurtle to the ground in sheets. There was no figurative rain, such as purple rain, nor did it rain tears or frogs, much less cats and dogs.
There are clear downsides to China’s desire to cultivate a nation of obedient patriots, and Americans naturally resist. We harbor a healthy mistrust of authority, and our freedom to raise a fuss is a right we should celebrate. It’s foundational to our national character.
But the skepticism we freely apply to our political leaders can be destructive when transferred to the men and women who stand at the front of our classrooms. Educational progress in the U.S. is hobbled by parental entitlement and by attitudes that detract from learning: We demand privileges for our children that have little to do with education and ask for report-card mercy when they can’t make the grade. As a society, we’re expecting more from our teachers while shouldering less responsibility at home.
From my years living in a very different country, I’ve learned that wonderful things can happen when we give our educators the respect and autonomy they deserve.
Sometimes, it is best when parents—and children—are simply obliged to do as they’re told.
This essay is adapted from Ms. Chu’s “Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve,” to be published on Sept. 19 by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins (which, like The Wall Street Journal, is owned by News Corp).