Interview With Harvard's Most Popular Professor, Michael Puett: What's So Great, or Not, About Asian Education?

Michael Puett is a professor of Chinese History in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations who was s one of five professors awarded the Harvard College Professorship for outstanding teaching.

Emanuel Pastreich
There is great admiration for the remarkable emphasis on education we find in Asia. There are parents in the United States who want to imitate that approach to learning. But the people of Asia feel that their educational system is completely out of control. Students feel that they are drowning in the sea of examinations and certification. We have to ask ourselves why in Asia what school you went to is so very important. .

Michael Puett
I think there's a lot of truth to both those perspectives on education in Asia.

On the one hand, yes. It is very true. There has, traditionally, been an extraordinary emphasis on education in East Asia. We're seeing the fruits of that tradition now in East Asia, where economic development is directly related to the incredible emphasis on the importance of education in that culture.

At the same time, we must recognize that education in East Asia has assumed a rather dangerous vision how education is supposed to actually work. There has been a destructive drive in East Asia to assess education on testing and link all social success to those tests. By definition, therefore, all the education children receive in schools and with tutors is aimed primarily at having them do well on these tests so that they can advance to the next level. These tests are often geared to de facto natural aptitudes. So, for example, some tests are designed to find out if you're particularly good in mathematics, in which case you'll be tracked into a mathematics line. Or if you're particularly good at some other field, in which case you'd be tracked in that direction. This approach to education, it's true, is related to earlier East Asian notions about education and service, specifically the concept of meritocracy.

The initial impulse behind the tests in China was to create an educational system wherein people could be systematically educated, and, if they did well in their studies, they could serve at high levels in government. The concept is wonderful.

Emanuel Pastreich
The meritocracy system today in China, Japan or Korea is dominated by a few big tests, and these days the those tests are linked intimately to the test prep industry that makes money off of the process and has an incentive to continue the system. This situation has led to a huge backlash, and there are even those who send kids to the United States to escape.

Michael Puett
I understand why so many claim that education in Asia has gone too far, and that we need to pull back. But as someone who looks at how education actually functioned in the pre-modern states of East Asia, I want to just say, "Look! Actually, there were some values in traditional Asian that we could really learn from." The exam craziness should not be confused with the traditional Asian approach to education.

If you consider how education was understood, how training was understood, and what exactly meritocracy meant in ancient China, then you will see that although exams were important, and learning was related to the exams, there was another dimension to learning. There was a keen sense that we must train ourselves to be better. Education was part of a holistic approach to life and human relations that went far beyond the narrow test taking skills we so often see Asian students trying to master these days.

Emanuel Pastreich
I am reminded of Lin Yutang's classic book The Importance of Living which details the very human and humanistic vision of much of the Chinese tradition. It stands in contrast to the "examination hell" that we read about in the Ming and Qing Dynasties. From LinYutang's book we get the sense that life itself is the purpose of education.

Michael Puett
Well, one of the key points of traditional Chinese education, is that it wasn't at all based on natural aptitude. The whole idea behind education was that we, as human beings, are kind of messy things. What we'll become over the course of a lifetime depends upon, among other things, how we train ourselves to become better.

So the focus in traditional learning wasn't on whether you were skilled at mathematics versus some other skill. The notion was rather "No. You are not born good at something. You train yourself to be good at something and the focus should be on the practice, the training, not some innate genius." Confucian scholars were not looking at aptitude. If anything, they were looking for a positive disposition. Training was what would make the difference.

Second of all, and at least as important, learning was not primarily about skills for them. Skills are things that you gain to realize some higher purposes. But the higher purpose, the sense of what it means to be an educated person, was the primary concern in education. And that higher purpose was defined in moral terms. Being a cultivated and moral person was an aim in itself.

They wanted to create people who are ethically good human beings, people who, through the educational process, have been trained to sense situations well, to sense how to behave in the world in a manner that will help those around them. More than anything else, leaders must have a ethical base. Human beings should have a sense of how to operate so as to help those under them if they're in a position of authority.

The critical point for those who are going to be in positions of authority, with the potential for abus,e is to emphasize moral cultivation. Memorization or problem solving is not that critical. And ironically, the current form of testing used in East Asia undercuts all of these aspects of traditional education.

More often the stress is on natural aptitude, not on development of the self. If there is a sense of development, it is not for the character and attitude, or ethical sensibility. The focus falls on things you can test in a standardized way: "Are you good at math?"

Emanuel Pastreich
In Korea and Japan, standard testing is quite different than it was thirty years ago. On tests, there used to be questions that required some sophisticated, three-dimensional thinking. Unless you really had some insight into the problem, you couldn't answer the question just by applying formulas. Today's tests, however, assure that if you've gone to cram school and practiced the questions ten-thousand times, you'll do well on the test. There's no out-of-the-box thinking. It's just following the drills over and over again.

Michael Puett
Yes, we see an unfortunate tendency to make test taking a "rite of passage" rather than a learning process. Such a move undercuts what had been the definition of education. If you look at the testing in the civil service exam of China that determined placement in government, the content of the exams was by definition not something you would spend at lifetime cramming for. The tests were for the most part aimed at trying to find out if you were becoming a good human being.

Emanuel Pastreich
What was the actual content of the exam? Obviously it varied from dynasty to dynasty, but how did they measure one's moral cultivation on the civil service exam?

Michael Puett
Let me just give one example. The exams would include unanswerable problems. A problem would be given to you, and you would be asked: "If you were a government official, how would you try to deal with this?" The test was unanswerable in the sense that it'd be based upon tons of complicated issues. You see, the test wasn't about giving a right answer. In most case there was no right answer. What was being tested was whether you could actually formulate an essay that demonstrates how you're trying to deal with the complexity of the situation. Such an exam required broad-based learning, knowledge of precedents from the past that may or may not be relevant to this specific situation. So the actual test is about degree to which you're striving to honestly assess the situation and assess how to act in a good way if you were in a position of authority. Yes, passing a test like that is an intense educational experience. But the whole focus of the test is: "Through this educational experience, are you training yourself to be a better human being?" That is what you're being tested on. You must demonstrate a complex, multifaceted process of character development and cultivation. You cannot cram based on skills in X, Y, or Z.

Emanuel Pastreich
At some periods in Chinese history, the examination included poetry, belles lettres, essay-writing. What are we to make of the fact that literary composition was considered so important?

Michael Puett
Because exam was focused on that question, "How do we actually design a test that will determine if someone is actually becoming a better human being through education?" There was a need for new ways of testing for this aspect of human character. And one of the ways, for example, of testing was requiring that you write poetry. That may strike us as an odd thing to ask someone to do. But the assumption was that if you read someone's poetry, you can gain a sense of what they're like as a human being. And I think there is something to this idea. And so you're not being tested as to whether it's a good poem, you're being tested as to the moral qualities that you would demonstrate through the process of writing.

Emanuel Pastreich
How would you describe the nature of education itself, in terms of the relationship between the teacher and the student, the way in which texts were approached, and the use of oral or written exams? What was the experience of education in traditional China?

Michael Puett
The whole point of the educational experience was to train people to be better human beings. Of course students would, for example, be asked to reads tons of things, memorize tons of poetry, etc. But education did not stop there.

Emanuel Pastreich
Education started there.

Michael Puett
The goal of all learning was to be a better human being. Teachers would to emulate Confucius as he was portrayed in The Analects (the collection of his writings). Confucius was portrayed as working with his disciples to try to and first be a better human being himself and help them become better human beings.

The common approach taken by Confucius was like this. When Confucius was confronted with some situation, a disciple would have to quote lines of poetry that helped to explain, and also to alter the sense of the situation. There's not a right answer to Confucius' request. He's simply saying: "Okay. Quote some lines. Here's the situation, quote some lines that in this conversation right now can affect the flow of the discussion in a good way. So, for example, a discipline would will quote some lines that are too obviously fitting to the situation. And Confucius would shake his head and say: "No, no." And another one will quote some lines that were too weird. And Confucius would remark, "No, no, no." And then a disciple would quote some other lines, and Confucius would say: "Yes."

The "yes" means that the lines fit the situation and push the envelope for observers in a powerful manner. Simply quoting these lines can different response in the listeners to the situation.

Emanuel Pastreich
The test is by nature transformative.

Michael Puett
Precisely. And the idea here isn't that there's a correct set of lines to quote. The test was: are you able to sense the situation well and bring the learning you've done to the situation in a way that transforms those around you? That approach suggests an educational system wherein that's what you're looking for. The issue is not how much you have learned, but rather whether you using this learning in daily life to act in ways that are good to those around you.

Emanuel Pastreich
One of the biggest problems with education today - in Asia and around the world - is this assumption that you must make the students digest information. They're just vessels that you pour knowledge into. But the end, they're still the same vessel, just with more knowledge. The process is not transformative. You yourself should be transformed in the process of learning.

Michael Puett
The fundamental vision in all East Asian cultures was education as a means of transformation. In so much contemporary education, you can become incredibly strong in every topic you're being tested on. So you get A's in the classes and you get high marks on standardized tests. But none of this implies in any manner, shape, or form, that you've actually changed as a human being in any way. In traditional East Asia, such an approach to education would have been unacceptable. The whole point of education was to be transformative. It's to transform into a better human being.

Emanuel Pastreich
At the same time, in Chinese education over the last 2,000 years, there's has also been a cyclical quality. As the dynasty drags on, the examination tests become formalistic practices that have nothing to do with moral issues. There were those periods when we lost the emphasis on abstract ethics.

Michael Puett
We do find such shifts, but there is nothing absolute about the evolution of education. It is always possible to find room for reform. There was intense internal debate in China for centuries and centuries about how education should operate and how to design tests that would test character. And needless to say, they never came up with a perfect solution. Over time, the approach to designing education systems would coalesce and become overly formalistic. People would see that they were growing away from actual ethical issues and there would be again a big debate. We see real shifts occurring as a result. I think that what's exciting about the Chinese tradition is that the debate was about values, not about test scores.

Coming back to the present day, youth are confronted with an intense test-driven system based upon a restricted notion of what education means. But sadly, we've taken that restrictive notion to be a "necessary evil" and therefore so natural that there's no reason to debate it or rethink it. But we can learn from the past. The debates in China and Korea were healthy and offer clues as to what we can do today to reform this test culture in Asia. We need to ask, "What are the values that are being distilled through this education system?" And if we're not comfortable with them (and I think many people are not) then we need to ask ourselves how we can change them.

Emanuel Pastreich
What about the role of the teacher? Teachers had a very different position in traditional East Asian societies than they do today. Often Koreans and Chinese say, "we respect our teachers as we did in ancient times." But I do not believe this part at all. Increasingly teachers and students are seen as products for consumption.

Michael Puett
Teachers in China took Confucius himself as their model and saw his devotion to training disciples as an imperative. Similarly, striving to be a good person in all actions was an essential part of being a teacher, more than any technical aspect of one's research or teaching technique. The entire educational process was seen as one of growing as human beings - both teachers and students. Teachers were, hopefully, further along in the process, but they were still far from perfect. The expectation was that teacher was trying to be a good human and would inspire those around him to do the same.

The teacher wasn't there to instill a body of knowledge to help you ace a standardized test. Tests were meaningless if they did not have some ethical imperative in them. The teacher was there, ideally, to be an inspirational figure, someone striving to be good, and inspiring the next generation to do the same.

Emanuel Pastreich
But the conditions in modern China are so radically different. If you went to a professor in a Chinese university, or a bureaucrat in the Department of Education, and said that, they would probably respond, "That's a great idea, but we can't do anything because the whole system is built this way and we're trapped inside it." What do you think are effective methods of change? How do we get back on track?

Michael Puett
The starting point is to reignite a debate about why education exists. If we stop asking "How to get into a great school," and start asking, "How can education help make a better society?" then we start to address the real issues and perhaps enough people realize we have real problems and start to take concrete steps to affect actual change.

We need to take on the exam structure itself and its role in our society. As long as the entire system is based on the exams, then education will just focus on getting students through each loop of the exam.

Let's begin by sitting down to think about the purpose of these tests--oddly, we very rarely do so. Should we be having these tests at all ages for all kids? In many respects the answer may well be no. If we think carefully, we will agree on a space for some kind of test, but we also need to think about how we can reformulate that test so that our primary concern is the values and motivations for the test, and not the test itself. Once you change the assumptions, then it makes no sense to have an educational system based upon jumping through hoops. It will no longer make sense to put the hoops there.

Emanuel Pastreich
Who do you draw inspiration from as a teacher?

Michael Puett
I certainly tried to live up to the ideals that we've been discussing. And I am afraid I have fallen short. But I get up each day, brush off the dust, and start again.

I have been fortunate to have had some truly transformative teachers. They were people whom I really did look up to as great human beings. They were inspirational to me and they saw the classroom experience as transformational. For those teachers, education was about making students into better people, not learning facts.

Different teachers used different techniques, so there isn't one right way of doing this. But in their own way they helped me break out of my usual way of being and thinking and inspiried me to try to become a better human being. And certainly much later, when I actually started reading Chinese philosophy, I found a vocabulary to talk about what I had experienced with those teachers.

My goal in teaching is to try to do what I can to help the students become better human beings and hopefully help them to change the way they're living in a good way. The learning part they will do on their own.

Emanuel Pastreich
Can you give a concrete example of how you challenge your students through Chinese-inspired pedagogy?

Michael Puett
One of the courses I teach is on Chinese philosophy. I teach using only primary sources, in English translation. The readings are not in classical Chinese. But the students are only reading primary sources, not commentary. And I ask them specifically not to read the secondary literature.

I find that secondary literature will often try to put these primary sources in certain frameworks that, in many cases, we may want to question.

I tell them: "We're only going to read the primary sources." I ask the students to allow these texts to challenge some of their fundamental assumptions. And I tell them: "You won't like having your fundamental assumptions challenged! And you may not agree with what you're reading in the text. That's perfectly fine. But take these things and challenge your assumptions." Challenging the students is our overriding goal. We are not trying to translate the texts into easy to understand English that anyone can digest. I want the students to take these texts seriously, to struggle with them. You don't have to agree with the content of the essays, but you must take them seriously.

I am constantly posing questions in class, and encouraging the students to pose questions. If they give a reading that seems overly facile, I say: "Yes, but what about this word? What about that phrase?" I want to roam the classroom trying to lead them to the point that they see how the texts challenge their assumptions.

Emanuel Pastreich
There is a risk when teaching Chinese philosophy that you get bogged down in repeating the Confucian values: "A gentleman should be a good person, honor his elders, take care of his family.blah blah blah. Blah." But if you read those texts carefully, you discover they are not just listing virtues. There are all sorts of ambiguities and potentialities in between the words.

Michael Puett
Yes! That is a real danger that when you read through a text, you can end up just glossing over it thinking it just says: "Be a good person, try to help those around you." But the goal of the teacher should be to point out to the student, "Yes, but really read this stuff. Really see what they're saying, the gaps between the words, and look at the complexities of what they mean by "being a good person" and ask yourself why they selected the particular analogies they use." I want the students to get into the complexities of the material. I want them to understand the complexity of being a good human being.

Emanuel Pastreich
Let us talk about the general crisis in education around the world. We see universities being judged more for the quality of the dormitories than the content of courses and a focus on getting a job, as opposed to learning. There is a disturbing hollowing out of education overall. What does it take to get us moving in the right direction?

Michael Puett
We have a lot of work to do at very different levels. At the institutional level we should be concerned that money increasingly controlling the educational process. We must understand the degree to which the evolution of institutions is directed by money interests. We must push back against that trend and offer alternatives that are viable. At the local level we need to simply take teaching more seriously. That starts with just a few people serving as innovators and a community that will support them. We must push for big institutional changes, like redesigning exams and classrooms, and battling against drives to squeeze profit out of education.

At the same time, it is critical to have a handful of people who just start teaching in new ways. If we do not have concrete examples of good teaching we can identify and support, we cannot solve the huge institutional. Bureaucrats cannot design innovative teaching. It must be built from the ground up through experimentation.

Emanuel Pastreich
I find that my interactions with students outside of class are a critical part of the education process. I like to talk to them about how what they read relates to the world we live in.

Michael Puett
We just have to take a look at how Confucius is portrayed in the analects. He is not in the classroom and he is not administering written tests. He is working with his disciples in any number of ways and applying learning to very real concrete cases. Education is often more effective outside of the classroom. How we can achieve this approach within institutions that demand grades and classes is not obvious, but there is plenty of room for experimentation.

Emanuel Pastreich
If you brought Confucius to the podium of a lecture hall in front of 400 students, how would he respond? Would he prepare a Powerpoint? How would he answer when students asked him: "Is this going to be on the midterm?"

Michael Puett
I do suspect he'd start with some of the points we've made. I can imagining him starting out saying, "The goal of this class is not for you to learn X, Y, and Z, or to do well on your exam." I suspect he would immediately try to restructure the classroom so that it became an arena wherein people are actually being transformed by the process of learning. And the fact that it's a big lecture hall doesn't mean that it cannot serve that function.

Confucius would want to challenge the students. He does not want to make the course easy, but also not to make the "difficulty" a matter of just learning more facts. For Confucius, there is not learning if it is not linked at some level to the process of becoming better human beings. In a way, learning parallels the rituals that Confucius discusses at length.

Emanuel Pastreich
Your emphasis on ritual is very refreshing. We've distanced ourselves from rituals as a society. If you ask students, they will say that rituals are things practiced by previous generation, by people in primitive societies. But in fact students are engaged in any number of rituals, from the way they talk to each other to the way they buy designers clothes.
You may say you have no rituals, but that only means you are unaware of them. Confucian is strong because it offers a language to discuss rituals and links them to ethical concerns.

Michael Puett
It's very common in the United States, but you also can observe this in East Asia, for youth to think that rituals are these old things that people used to do in traditional societies when they believed in spirits and ancestor worship. And now, they think, we are modern. We don't do those silly rituals anymore. We're are just true to ourselves and we don't engage in rituals. But f Confucius could be dropped into any part of the contemporary world, most certainly including contemporary America, he would say: "Well, no. You people are engaged in rituals all the time."

The danger is that because we are unaware of the rituals that we engage in, we do not take them seriously and therefore they do not achieve their intended purpose. Rituals work when they are truly transformational, like the expression, "I now pronounce you man and wife." If we don't take the rituals of life seriously, we do not gain anything from them. Some dismiss rituals, saying, "I don't want to bow before my ancestors." And yet that same person insists on driving a BMW and sending their children to the most expensive private schools. We should be first accept that these are modern rituals and post the question: "Is this ritual making us into better people?" If the answer is no, we need to be aware that this is in fact a ritual and be aware of its symbolic and social function so that we can bring it under control. Denial or suppression is not really a solution. We must modify the ritual and make it more healthy.