True Lessons of East Asian Education

This post was co-authored with Dr. Young-oak Kim, a leading contemporary philosopher in Korea.

Imagine a young man who quits school at the age of 15 because he cannot bear the authoritarian teachers and rote-based learning. Were he born in South Korea today, he would not stand a chance of entering Seoul National University or joining Samsung Electronics upon graduation. Instead, he would likely be shut out of an education system which ruthlessly enforces one-size-fits-all compliance. And that is a problem for South Korea, because the young man in question is Albert Einstein.

It also matters to America, since South Korea is one of the countries to which education reformers in the U.S. often look for inspiration. For instance, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan once remarked on the international testing results, "Finland, Korea and Canada are consistent high-performers ... The United States has a lot to learn from South Korea, Singapore and Finland [about improving teacher quality]." In another example, South Korea was one of the three countries Amanda Ripley studied in her book Smartest Kids in the World alongside Finland and Poland.

Alas, having studied in both Korea and the U.S., we do not find much to admire about the Korean education system. The system is characterized by rote memorization, a top-down instructional style and a competitive college entrance exam which strains students and parents alike. Many teachers subject their students to incessant testing, onerous homework and humiliating physical punishments, crushing whatever autonomy or individuality they have. In fact, we had grown so discouraged by the system that we chose to leave it altogether. (Jung-kyu left Korea at the age of 15 for exactly the same reasons as Einstein, and Young-oak sent all three of his children abroad.)

Unfortunately, the situation is similar across East Asia. Millions of children in China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Singapore not only submit to the hard work and pressure at school, but they also attend cram schools and private tutoring sessions in the evenings. As Amy Chua observes in her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, "In China today, even little kids often study and drill from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., grades are publicly posted, and no one's ever heard of a sleepover." Is this the future America wants for its children? We cringe at the thought.

If anything, the lesson should be the other way around. East Asia has a lot to learn from the American school system which respects the freedom of its students, encourages them to ask questions and values the ability to think differently. For all its faults, the "liberal" American system cultivates initiative and ingenuity like no other, a fact which might explain why the U.S. still leads the world in technological and cultural innovation.

So is everything fine with American education? Of course not. Twenty-five percent of high-school students do not graduate at all. Forty-three percent of college students do not graduate within six years. The problem is especially acute for students from less privileged backgrounds. Shockingly, seventy-two percent of students entering two-year community colleges do not graduate within four years. Given the situation, it is worthwhile to ponder why East Asia has been so successful at raising the academic standard of its overall population, as demonstrated by their dominance in standardized international tests.

Part of the answer is an education system which puts enormous pressure on students to get high test scores. We recommend that the U.S. do not emulate it, for reasons cited above. But there is another part, the cultural part, which we wish to underline for our American readers. Simply put, East Asian societies place a high value on learning and discipline and hard work -- and underlying those values is their Confucian culture. By way of illustration, let us introduce three lessons of Confucianism which we believe are particularly relevant to education today.

First, Confucius taught us to enjoy learning. Note the opening sentence of the Analects: "To study and to train at the right timing -- is it not very pleasant?" Compare this with how the Bible begins ("In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth") and the cultural difference becomes evident. Continuous study and self-cultivation, not obeying God, was seen as the key to achieving lasting happiness and fulfillment in life.

Second, Confucius encouraged persistence. Specifically, he maintained that discipline and hard work trump talent. See his heartfelt advice to a young king: "If another person succeeds by one effort, try it a hundred times. If another person succeeds by ten practices, practice it a thousand times. If one proceeds this way, even the dull will surely become wise, and even the weak will surely become strong." Isn't this the kind of inspiring advice we should be giving our children, especially those who give up too easily and drop out of school?

Third, family education was considered crucial in forming one's character. Here is an example from Eastern folklore: When Mencius was young, he once gave up his studies. When he returned home, his mother took a knife and cut apart the valuable cloth she was weaving. Mencius was shocked. She explained, "For you to neglect studies... is it any different from my quitting weaving, when our livelihood depends upon it? How would I provide clothing and food to my family?... If a man stops cultivating himself, he will have no choice but to become a slave or a thief." Mencius deeply regretted his truancy and returned to school. This episode illustrates what parents can do to inculcate the right values in their children. It also holds a lesson for modern parents who abdicate their responsibility and blame school teachers when things go wrong.

Ultimately, what Confucius sought to create was an autonomous individual who enjoys learning on his own, constantly cultivates himself and does not give up easily. Parents have a central role to play in raising such children, but we also have a final word of caution for them: Confucius never advocated the "Tiger Mother" approach. Discipline from without is not the same as self-discipline. Our goal is not to build a robot which can only do what it has been told, but to nurture a free and independent human being who can govern himself. We hope educators on both sides of the Pacific take note.


Young-oak Kim is the leading contemporary philosopher in Korea. Jung-kyu Kim is his former student and co-author of his latest book, The Great Equal Society: Confucianism, China and the 21st Century.