Education and tradition in Asia and Europe

by Terence MacNamee

Westerners have long criticised education in Asia as being too traditional and not oriented towards developing the power of independent thought. The idea is that the pupils or students have an exaggerated respect for and deference towards the teacher, and that what they are expected to do is to learn off by heart what the teacher tells them and regurgitate this faithfully in exercises and exams.

Recently, Asian voices have been added to this critical chorus, especially at the university level. Professors have said that their students are not active and assertive enough when they go to study in the West. There seems to be something in this.

Looking back in history, one must admit, on the other hand, that traditional European teaching was a bit like that. There used to be a lot of rote learning. This went back to the Middle Ages, when printed books were in short supply. What’s more, the teacher got a lot more respect than he or she does now. This is actually something to be regretted. Respect for the teacher is very necessary for young learners, because he or she knows more than they do, and they need to take the teacher’s word for it as to what they are to learn. Why should they bother learning something difficult they have never heard of before – unless someone they accept as an authority tells them they should? It is helpful for learning that the teacher be an authority figure, a “lao shi” as the Chinese say.

In the West the main problem now seems to be lack of discipline. Pupils or students do not learn enough skill and technique before they start “doing research” and “expressing themselves”. No wonder young Asians, raised under more traditional assumptions, find themselves at sea in such a learning environment.

The best thing for education would be to combine the good points of East and West. Let the teacher be an authority figure for as long as the young people need, but then let him let them go, saying “I have brought you thus far, now it is time for you to go on alone.”