East Meets West

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East Meets West: The Great Convergence in Higher Education

In “The Ballad of East and West” (1889), Rudyard Kipling declares:

“East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;”

A British citizen born in India, Kipling witnessed firsthand what must have seemed like an unbridgeable chasm between the oriental and the occidental. A conservative defender of the British Empire and its ruling class at the close of the nineteenth century, Kipling’s assertion would have been hard to accept, had he not continued:

“But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face,
tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!”

More than a decade into the twenty-first century, we find something prescient in the last three lines of this five-line stanza. Kipling’s British Empire is no more, but its former colony, the United States, now boasts the largest economy in the world with a GDP estimated at 16.2 trillion in 2013. China claims the number two spot at 9 trillion in GDP.

Indeed, two “strong men” from the “ends of the earth” now stand face to face. The erosion of geographical borders, of ethnic distinctions, and of place of birth as a determining factor in one’s life all speak to the positive effects of globalization that Kipling foresaw.

However, the selfsame forces that have created these two “strong men” are leading to a convergence in their models of higher education. As China looks westward for reform, colleges and universities across the United States are transforming themselves in ways that eerily resemble the authoritarian top-down governance traditionally associated with their East Asian counterparts. We might call this phenomenon the “Confucianization” of American higher education.

Learning in late Imperial China was grounded in the teachings of the sage Confucius, who in the sixth century BCE espoused a complex moral philosophy that later formed the basis of the civil service examinations, which took root in the Tang dynasty (618–907) and continued until their abolition in 1905 at the end of the Qing dynasty.

Essentially a humanistic tradition, Confucianism emphasized self-cultivation and life-long learning that led one to practice the golden rule and adhere to the rules of propriety. It took for its central canon a set of texts known as the Four Books and Five Classics, which included works of poetry, prose, history, didactic moral treatises, and arcane philosophies.

Unfortunately, in imperial China a massive educational bureaucracy emerged to control the content of higher education by way of the civil service examinations. As Benjamin Elman demonstrates in Education and Society in Late Imperial China, the examination system that characterized Chinese higher learning, although humanistic in origin, had a sinister utilitarian focus—to provide the ruling class with officials who demonstrated ideological conformity (through their examination responses).

As a result of increasing globalization during our own time, we find ourselves at a curious historical moment when China is looking to the West for higher education reform, while colleges and universities across the United States are implementing policies that are standardizing curricula, growing administration and centralization of institutional governance, and enforcing ideological conformity through the scandalous use of contingent faculty to ensure compliance to administrative prerogatives. In other words, our system of higher education delivery is beginning to resemble the one that China is aiming to replace.

According to Leslie Stone, in China’s Higher Education Reform and Internationalization, traditional Chinese higher learning and Western liberal education shared many of the same attributes and goals, including a focus on the humanities. Today, China is attempting to recover that humanistic tradition. Having emphasized science and engineering for generations to provide knowledge workers for its booming economy, Chinese undergraduate education is becoming increasingly student-centered, interdisciplinary, and multidisciplinary, with more humanities content.

Yet, China’s own laudable attempt to reinstitute a lost focus on the arts and humanities is threatened by the same forces of globalization that are propelling it forward. As David Chan points out, Asian nations are transforming their own national higher education institutions into international ones able to compete with other global players. Chen argues that a focus on “marketization and managerialism in higher education” is turning East Asian universities into “business enterprises” that adopt market principles and mechanisms for management (such as strategic planning, auditing mechanisms, and evaluations of teaching performances) “under the competitive tide of globalization.”

Simultaneously, institutions of higher learning in the United States are abandoning the arts and humanities programs traditionally associated with liberal learning and replacing them with an emphasis on STEM fields and technical training. Moreover, the vogue of employing “best practices” by American administrators has meant increasing standardized testing and transferable curricula, a focus on vocational education and job placement, as well as the use of faux assessment tools as another means of control over the faculty by top-heavy administrations.

In this great convergence, the crucial distinctions between East and West higher education may soon be eroded. Rather than China learning education reform from the United States, as it has for the last thirty years, America may soon need to look eastward to recover its own lost tradition of humanistic learning, and ironically perhaps even the ideal of the university as a decentralized space of innovation, creativity, and pluralism.


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