China U

The Eagle, the Dragon, and the ‘Excellent Sheep’

Elite colleges in both the United States and China increasingly produce graduates with similar desires -- and similar flaws.

BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 16:  Chinese President Xi Jinping (Right) shakes hands with Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust (Left) at the Great Hall of the People on March 16, 2015 in Beijing, China.  (Photo by Feng Li - Pool/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 16: Chinese President Xi Jinping (Right) shakes hands with Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust (Left) at the Great Hall of the People on March 16, 2015 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Feng Li - Pool/Getty Images)

Former Yale University English professor William Deresiewicz’s book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, created a firestorm in the United States when it was released in August 2014. “The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them,” Deresiewicz wrote of Ivy League students in an article in the New Republic about his book. “The result is a violent aversion to risk.” A year later, Deresiewicz’s ideas caught fire again — in China. In late July, a Chinese-language article titled “The Self-Serving Elite and Ivy League Sheep,” published in Guangzhou-based Southern Weekend, went viral on WeChat, China’s huge mobile messaging platform. It appropriated Deresiewicz’s argument, but added a twist: Contrary to popular belief, American students are as terrified of failing as Chinese students, and the American universities that produce them are just as broken as their Chinese counterparts.

The Southern Weekend article compares two hypothetical students: Nerdy Chinese Xiaoming, who gets into elite Tsinghua University in Beijing by hitting the books, and an outgoing American named Joe who gains admission to Yale through his record of leadership and excellence in sports. According to the article, the two seem different but are not: a Chinese emphasis on grades, and an American emphasis on resume-enhancing extra-curricular activities, are both a form of “credentialism,” which the Chinese-language piece identified as a “core value” of both Chinese and American elite students.

The comparison is not a stretch. In May 2012, Qian Liqun, a former Chinese literature professor at prestigious Peking University, famously coined the term “self-serving elite” to describe otherwise “intelligent, worldly, and experienced” Chinese students at schools like Peking and Tsinghua who “exploit a system to achieve their own goals.” Once these people assume power, Qian believed, they are prone to becoming especially corrupt members of a bureaucracy already renowned for its corruption. For their part, elite American students, at least according to Deresiewicz, often enter the world with “no sense of purpose,” or worse, “no understanding of how to go about finding one.” That means they are easily co-opted. In her 2008 address at Harvard’s graduation, university President Drew Faust answered a question she said the school’s graduates frequently asked her: Why are so many of them ending up on Wall Street? “I think you are worried because you want your lives not just to be conventionally successful, but to be meaningful, and you are not sure how those two goals fit together,” the Harvard president answered.

Revealingly, Faust’s address to Harvard students in 2008 went viral online in China, albeit seven years later. In March 2015, when Faust visited Beijing and met with President Xi Jinping, whose own daughter graduated from Harvard in 2014, the two agreed to “promote educational exchanges and deepen cooperation, to better serve the development of Sino-U.S. relations.” Faust and Xi shook hands for the cameras, and Chinese students circulated the photo, shown above, with a translation of Faust’s 2008 Harvard Baccalaureate address pasted underneath.

As Xi’s decision to send his daughter to Cambridge, Massachusetts, suggests, Chinese have long admired American-style liberal arts education and its spirit of open-minded inquiry. Lately, they’ve taken to comparing their own system to it. “Nowadays, many people are disappointed with Chinese universities,” the Southern Weekend article lamented, adding that students “think there is little creativity or sense of social responsibility.” Many students have voted with their feet; in the past decade, hundreds of thousands of Chinese students have forsaken their country’s education system to pursue degrees in the United States. In 2014, 274,439 Chinese students were studying in the United States, comprising 31 percent of all international students in the country; ten years ago, that figure was just 11 percent.

Chinese educators have been aware of student desire for a more critical education for some time, and have periodically pushed for more flexibility in Chinese curricula. The Yuanpei Program, a selective liberal arts track at Peking University founded in 2007, is meant to provide students with “freedom to explore and choose a professional space” towards the “pursuit of higher goals.” Instead of immediately declaring a major, students spend two years replacing core courses with a range of literature and social science theory; rather than choosing courses according to requirements, they choose what interests them. Then there’s Boya College at Sun Yat-Sen University, launched in 2009, which admits 30 college freshmen each year to study the humanities and social sciences in small classes. The program aims to cultivate “scholars instead of millionaires,” individuals who place great value on cultural understanding, not just economic advancement. Similar programs at two of Shanghai’s most esteemed institutions, Fudan University and Shanghai Jiao Tong University, were established in 2005 and 2009.

The popularity of the remixed Excellent Sheep article says much about the convergence of values among younger Chinese and Americans. Talking to middle- and upper-class young Chinese about their aspirations, one hears many of the same notes that a student at Stanford or Swarthmore might hit. Wu Qinyu, a senior government major at Peking University who previously spent a month living with a host family outside of Los Angeles, told me, “I still don’t know what I want. I need to travel to new places and find my path.” She’s been to Japan, where she led a conference for students aspiring to political leadership, and spent a semester in Hong Kong as an exchange student. She has her own column on cultural and social issues in Asia Pacific Daily, a Hong Kong-based publication of China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency; she will soon publish a book of her articles in English.

“Americans have this picture of what Chinese students must be like,” said Alyssa Farrelly, who studied abroad at Peking University in 2009 while getting her bachelor’s degree in International Studies at American University. “But when they meet a fellow classmate in China, they realize ‘Oh, this person also likes running or theater or whatever outside of school too. They’re not robots.’” Farrelly now works at Project Pengyou, a non-profit building a network of young Americans with first-hand experience in China. Matt DeButts, who taught undergraduate English and international relations at China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing as a Princeton in Asia Fellow, had a similar impression, telling Foreign Policy that he felt his students ”were quite similar to American students, just operating in different parameters.” In his view, the school put a higher emphasis on test scores, memorization, and ideological courses like Leninism and Marxism. “But the students were often doing incredible things on their own, translating poetry, attending game theory courses at other universities, or looking into veterinary science.” He said that kind of ranginess is still viewed in China as a “cocked eyebrow kind of thing” whereas in the United States, “there’s almost a race to see who’s more quirky.”

Education that encourages far-flung curiosity, however, is still a limited phenomenon in China. Now, some Chinese students are trying to change that. Fang Jun, a first-year sociology Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern University in Illinois, who holds a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from China and has spent a year teaching at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, is part of a cohort of liberal arts ambassadors sharing their U.S. liberal arts experiences with an audience back home. Chinese education is “more a tool of controlling, than a tool to cultivate your mind,” he said. Fang believes cultivating students who can think outside the box is important for the country’s future. “Most policymakers don’t have this long-run outlook; they want to focus on the current moment. I can’t blame them because they are practical,” Fang acknowledged. “But I feel I have this responsibility to share with people what a true education is.”

In 2009, Chen Yongfang, a Chinese student at Bowdoin College, published a Chinese-language book, A True Liberal Arts Education, which he co-authored with fellow students Lin Nie of Franklin and Marshall College and Li Wan of Bucknell University. In it, he urges Chinese society to embrace the kind of education he received in the United States, one that will “foster your identity.” In 2013, Chen published another book, Traverse the Ivory Tower: My Academic Journey at Bowdoin, which is a collection of his undergraduate essays and interviews with college administrators. Lin Feng, who spent two years at Peking University before transferring to Swarthmore College in the United States where he now studies political science and economics, is already thinking about what he can do when he returns to China. “If I have a chance to return to Peking University, I will try to introduce this liberal arts experience,” he said, noting that despite the existence of Yuanpei, Chinese students still aren’t used to challenging conventional ideas and speaking up in class. “The first thing I can do is open a course that is taught to encourage student participation and devotion,” he said.

China’s educational problems, unlike America’s, at least have the convenience of a single nemesis: the gaokao, an extremely competitive national college entrance exam instituted in 1952, that determines who gets in where. As a result, “students are not going to take risks to do something different, to challenge the way gaokao essays work. They are not able to take risks because the gaokao is so important,” said Fang. Some think that this kind of training stunts critical thinking. “We are taught a right way to write. We aren’t trained to have our own thoughts,” said Xin An, a junior English major at Peking University who has studied in both the United States and the United Kingdom. She added that her high school teachers in China had advised her to copy the style of famous writers.

Even the gaokao’s victors can become its victims. As a Peking undergraduate, Huang Qiuyuan studied finance and international relations. The year she took the gaokao, she had the highest score in Shandong Province, the second-most populous province in China with nearly 96 million people. “Shandong is famous for competitive education,” Huang said. “I had this feeling. I know if I want a change in my life, I need to do very well.” Her score was so impressive that the Peking University admissions officer for Shandong Province flew from Beijing to her high school. But even for top students like Huang, their gaokao score determines their departments — high-scoring students receive priority to get into lucrative majors, such as finance and economics, while low-scoring students are relegated to unpopular departments, in most cases arts and language. Students often know little to nothing about their major when they enroll. When Huang and her parents ate lunch with the Peking admissions officer, he told her she would major in finance, even though the subject was not her first love.

While China takes baby steps towards a more American education model, the United States appears to be moving a bit in China’s direction. In his English-language book published in 2014, Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World, University of Oregon professor Yong Zhao, born and educated in China, argues that today’s U.S. education reforms towards more standardized testing actually resemble the Chinese keju system, a centrally administrated examination for government positions in ancient China. Zhao cites U.S. President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top initiative in 2009, and the Common Core State Standards Initiative as evidence that test-based accountability has become the “yardstick of American education.” In 2010, when Shanghai outscored numerous countries on the Program for International Student Assessment, an international assessment given to 15-year-olds, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan urged Americans to “face the brutal truth that we’re being out-educated.” In his book, Zhao cautions that China’s reliance on the keju system stems from factors unique to that country, part of a strategy “to cope with thousands of years of authoritarian rule,” which resulted in “social control” and “homogeneous thinking.”

Macroeconomic factors appear to underlie the convergence. Fang wrote in a September 1 Chinese-language column for Bloomberg Businessweek that U.S. education is “industrializing,” meaning that between rocketing tuition and a bleak job market, liberal arts colleges have gradually given way to ushering students through revenue-generating majors such as finance, engineering, law, and accounting. Fang thinks true liberal arts education has effectively vanished from all but a few dozen U.S. universities, “becoming a privilege for rich kids.” Xin described the struggle to find personal meaning in college as a “worldwide” one. “People are becoming profit-oriented,” she said. “You cannot cope without conforming somewhat to the system.”

Photo credit: Getty

Janet Eom, Harvard College Class of 2014, spent the 2014-2015 academic year studying Mandarin at Peking University in Beijing; she now works in China-Africa research in Washington, D.C.

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