By Anthony Cody.

For progress to occur in China – or the US, the dragons of educational authoritarianism must be slain.

Chinese-American professor Yong Zhao has been a bit of a contrarian regarding education reform in the United States. He comes at the subject with a unique perspective. He experienced the Chinese educational system himself, and has a deep understanding of its fundamental limitations. This week he released his book, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon,” which takes on the current infatuation with the Chinese educational system.

In his introduction, he explains:

China, a perfect incarnation of authoritarian education, has produced the world’s best test scores at the cost of diverse, creative, and innovative talents. I also tried to illustrate how difficult it is to move away from authoritarian thinking, by showing how China has struggled to reform its education for over a century. The book is intended to warn the United States and other Western countries about the dangerous consequences of educational authoritarianism.

Zhao connects the belief in “high standards” and test scores as an engine of improvement with China’s long history of meritocracy based on exams. He shows how this system has been a double-edged sword for the world’s oldest civilization. While it has created stability and made top down control of society efficient, it has also stifled the innovation and creativity that is necessary for social progress. Zhao shares a detailed history of the forms this educational culture has taken over the centuries, and how it manifests itself still in modern China.

He explains the connections, citing Diane Ravitch’s warning of the threat posed by standardized testing to the US educational system:

That virus is the rising tide of authoritarianism in the United States. In exchange for the comfort of knowing how their children are doing academically and that their schools are being held accountable, Americans welcomed high-stakes testing into public education. Without the benefit of historical experience with these kinds of high-stakes tests, however, Americans failed to recognize those benign-looking tests as a Trojan horse—with a dangerous ghost inside. That ghost, authoritarianism, sees education as a way to instill in all students the same knowledge and skills deemed valuable by the authority.

Zhao draws lessons for both the Chinese and for us in the United States.

As traditional routine jobs are offshored and automated, we need more and more globally competent, creative, innovative, entrepreneurial citizens—job creators instead of employment-minded job seekers. To cultivate new talents, we need an education that enhances individual strengths, follows children’s passions, and fosters their social-emotional development. We do not need an authoritarian education that aims to fix children’s deficits according to externally prescribed standards.

Faith in standards and tests translate into the inability to question those who set the standards and write the tests. In 21st century America, as well as China, there is a strong need to question the economic, environmental and social imperatives that are held as unquestionable by those in power. In China, these authorities have transitioned from emperors to the ruling party. In the US, we have a class of technocrats and entrepreneurs who see themselves as the natural deciders of what must be learned and how.

Zhao does not go as far as I would in framing the challenge for us to innovate. I think the economic relationships that keep billions in poverty need to be questioned – and this is where innovation is most needed. This questioning is made possible in the framework that Zhao describes. It is beyond entirely the scope of the authoritarian test-driven system that the US is in the process of putting in place.

This book provides a detailed and in-depth understanding of the issues that confront China, given its history and the systems now in place. It is a powerful antidote for those who make facile suggestions that the US would be better off if it emulated the Chinese. Authoritarianism is an enticing dragon indeed. This dragon always seems to have piles of gold to protect, and those in pursuit of such treasure find it ever fascinating. But we will be burned in the end if we cannot escape.

What do you think? Does Zhao’s connection of standardization in education to authoritarianism ring true?

Image by epSos. de, used with Creative Commons license.



Anthony Cody
Anthony Cody

Anthony Cody worked in the high poverty schools of Oakland, California, for 24 years, 18 of them as a middle school science teacher. He was one of the organizers of the Save Our Schools March in Washington, DC in 2011 and he is a founding member of The Network for Public Education. A graduate of UC Berkeley and San Jose State University, he now lives in Mendocino County, California.

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