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I've skimmed through this topic here and as usual there're a lot of unnecessary generalizations. Yes, I've met more Americans than Chinese who're poor at maths, but that's probably because Chinese civilization is very much oriented towards things mathematical, as could be seen in our ancient inventions, from the first waterclocks to cardgames and to the way numbers crop up in our language. When a Guangdong peasant says "I don't care whether it's three-sevens twenty-one" he means he couldn't careless over something. For centuries the Great Wall was known not as such but as the "wan-li chang-cheng." Few people know today how closely modern universities follow the ancient Chinese civil service system in which one could progress through the rough equivalencies of the baccalaureate, master, and PhD. Anyway, there's a story that, during the oral examination - the last step of the exam system as in modern post-graduate education - a candidate was asked by the Emperor about the structure of a distant bridge (the Emperor could be said to be an external but most important examiner). Apparently, that bridge had two rows of arches (looking like holes or tunnels from the side), one above the other. The question was: "how many were on the upper part of the bridge, and how many on the lower part?"|
Now most of us today would call that a trivial question, except perhaps to an engineer. And that was exactly how the candidate felt. Exasperated, he blurted to the Emperor: "You Majesty, why ask about such a seventy-three eighty-four thing?"
Now seventy-three eighty-four means something that's trivial, but that also happened to be the number of arches on the top and bottom parts of the bridge. Our lucky candidate passed his exam with flying colors.
Perhaps the above story also brings up two questions:
1. Despite the fact that few of us need all the knowledge we acquire at tertiary levels, almost every college, whether in China or in other countries, tend to insist that we learn them. I've never had any occasion to use the stuff I learned from earth science or anthropology, or from the basic sciences such as physics, chemistry, and biology. Are such courses dispensable then?
2. As a corollary to question one, should education be geared towards finding lucrative employment? Or should it also serve as a vehicle for transmitting the culture of a people to the next generation, and also a means of fostering national unity that's so vital in a young republic like China?
Finally, I think all nations and regions have both strong and weak points in their education systems. China's education isn't superb, but it's not all bad either. I agree that European primary and secondary schooling tend to be superior to the American system, but would say that American universities are generally superior to that found in the Old World. To the idea that Europe's educational superiority is indicated in the fact that Europeans could speak more languages than Americans, I think that has little to do with education itself. Because so many small nations co-exist side by side in Europe, it's not such a great deal: for the past few years I've lived in many Southeast Asian countries, and have found most people of Chinese descent there could speak at least three languages.