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The Humble Function of Education

Education is a very broad concept.  Here I narrow my comment on mass education only, such as schools.

Chinese place too much false hope on school education.  Parents and the society expect the schools to make children successful individuals, and don’t realize that even the best school education is only a tool for children to learn some skills and knowledge.

But this strangely high expectation is faced with the reality of a double failure: not only do Chinese schools fail to produce people of high moral standards, but also at the same time are ineffective to produce a strong workforce of good work ethics and useful skills.

Behind this unfortunate phenomenon is the schizophrenic Chinese education system which has always had an artificial (non-genuine) emphasis on the so-called “moral education” (德育)while in reality the entire system is completely fixated on producing “test takers”.

I’m not advocating more moral education in schools.  Quite the opposite.  The artificial moral education in Chinese schools is worse than just being ineffective, but in fact effectively destroys true morality by producing a sense of hypocrisy and outright cynicism.

Teaching of the moral values is primarily a job for parents, not for schools.  But in China, the parents are failing to cultivate such fundamental values in the children, because there is an increasingly serious lack of such values among parents in the first place, and further because of a misplaced trust on mass education.

The result is not surprising, because morality relates to the fundamental values of human life which mass education can’t offer, regardless of however good the education system is.  The proper focus of the school system should be on improving the efficiency of teaching and learning as a scientific and technological undertaking, not as a “temple” to preach state-prescribed morals, nor a factory to mold “test taking machines”.

Yes, I mean exactly that.  School education should be a primarily an objective learning undertaking (supported by a moral and healthy social environment of course), rather than a moral undertaking, because what cannot be genuinely moral (let alone spiritual) should not pretend to be so and offer a fake version.

I do not believe that any mass education system, regardless of how optimized it is, can teach fundamental values of human life.  The so-called “enlightenment” of modern public education in the West provides ample evidence to this assertion.

The fundamental value of human life belongs to the spiritual realm which cannot be touched and addressed by mass education itself.  What a good mass education system can do, and should do, is to effectively assist people in learning the knowledge and skills they need, and not much more than that.  That is a proper and modest position of mass education.

If it sounds less aspiring, because it is a humbler foundation for mass education.   It is on this humbler foundation that mass education may have a much better chance to actually succeed and to serve its proper purpose.

Given the above understanding, however, I’d say that achieving high efficiency of learning is a noble goal with great value, even though it is not the most fundamental value of human life.

Many of us see the desperately ill conditions of Chinese education system and want to do something about it.  But some of us also see very little hope in quick changes of the government policies and general social conditions to cure these ills.

The only glimpse of a partial hope is a technological revolution in the education industry to improve the efficiency of learning, which is seriously lacking in the current Chinese education system.

China, as well as the whole world, needs education that is individualized, interactive, intelligent at low costs (with digital reproducibility).  If this doesn’t change the Chinese education system as a whole, at least it should offer a potential to make the teaching and learning more effective and thus place more time and freedom in the hands of the students and parents (who are presently held hostage to the oppressive “test prep” system). Or so one should at least hope.

The greatest drive of every industrialization is its ability to increase the efficiency and productivity (生产力).  This may sound plain and unexciting, but efficiency and productivity (生产力) is the heart of every industrial revolution.  Education is no exception when viewed as an industry.  So those who desire to change education for the better should just set their hope at a lower and more practical level for a technological industrial revolution in education, rather than a political and social revolution.

It is a humbler function of school education.  Leave the more fundamental values such as faith and morality to the freedom of individuals.  Fear God (敬畏 神)and honor God, God will raise a moral generation.  On this fundamental ground, good education may help make the generation more productive and more useful, which is an added value, but nothing more.