China, in Search of Imagination
December 28, 2006 3:26pm CST
In “Postcards From Tomorrow Square” in the December issue of The Atlantic, James Fallows describes the inequities and shortcomings in China’s education system. Despite a memorization-and-exam system as onerous as any country’s, South Korea is enjoying a vogue right now as a source of creativity. Its cartoons, its televised soap operas, its clothing fashions, even its Samsung mobile phones are popular in both China and Japan. South Korea’s recent pizzazz, however it has been achieved, has only intensified longstanding and often voiced dismay in China and Japan over how to make their students not just technically competent but also “imaginative” and “creative.” The distress is particularly acute in China, because, contrary to what most Americans would assume, the Chinese government spends so little on education, and so much of what it spends is concentrated on a handful of elite schools. Overall, China spends just over 3 percent of its gross domestic product on education at all levels, about half as much as the average for developed countries. “Most of the money goes to the top ten schools, and what goes to the top ten mainly goes to the top few,” a professor at one of the favored schools told me. This makes getting into the “best” name-brand schools — like Tsinghua and Peking universities in Beijing, and Fudan and Jiao Tong in Shanghai — all the more important, which in turn increases the need for students to cram for tests and the advantage for those who go to high-fee private high schools.