Impediments from the uncritical tradition and the modern materialistic society

There is no doubt that Confucianism influenced China in multiple ways. The first was by its doctrines—the philosophical, social, and moral teachings: obey the rules of your social roles in the hierarchy, etc. Its second, in our view, was by its status as dogma—this was truth, and therefore was incontrovertible, beyond consideration of evidence or the opinions of others. We have argued that the doctrines are not dominant in contemporary China; but the implied dogmatism about truth and knowledge still is. This cognitive tradition fundamentally shapes intellectuals' ideas of knowledge, education, and their profession. Furthermore, we would argue, it is precisely these ideas that constitute the internal and persistent resistance to critical thinking education in China. Thus the resisting role that the cultural tradition plays is more cognitive than social.

As we know, the Chinese concept of truth—which is fundamentally different from the Western concept—was about the right way of doing things (Facione et al. 2009). As stated above, Confucianism itself was a normative theory of an ideal society and a code of behavior within it. Mencius (372-289 BCE), the second greatest soul of Confucianism, argued for this Confucian paradigm by his theory of human nature: a human being must have such feelings, so the paradigm was as universal and eternal as human nature (Dong 1992, 40-42). As a normative paradigm, it was not subject to falsification by the reality of society: the "knowledge" was not a reality-based truth statement. The Chinese were urged to learn and follow this Confucian paradigm to build this ideal society. If there were any setbacks, it must be the fault of reality, not of the normative theory. Any accusation of inconsistency with the facts, a capital crime in Western academia, was not considered a problem for it at all.

Consequently, this type of knowledge determined the rational way to learn it—reading the classical books without looking outside the windows. Any evidence-based critical questioning or appeal for further proof than that of Mencius was considered not only unnecessary, but even immoral or inhuman. It would be considered an insult to the teachers too, since the knowledge was considered infallible, and therefore the teachers were too. Any difficult question that teachers could not answer would be a proof of their ineptness—a "loss of face," an unforgettable shame for the Chinese. This is one of the contrasts between Confucian questioning and Socratic questioning: an answer that a Chinese teacher would give should be the final solution to their students' puzzles, not a clue or guide for the students to find their own answers.

The dogmatism was further reinforced by the historical examination system. Success at civil service examinations depended on memorizing the classics, which remained the same over two thousand years of study. "Even the slightest deviation in thinking from established orthodox thought was likely to result in failure" (Upton 1989, 21).

This cognitive orientation itself is a tradition of irrelevance between theory and practice. Discussing the difficulties of engineering education in China, Peigen Li, a prominent engineer and then president of HUST, pointed out that the primary cause is lack of practical teaching (Li, Xu, and Chen 2012, 7). And the root of this lack is the indifferent or condescending attitude toward practice in the traditional culture, which affects the content and methods of teaching. Li argued: "A main defect of our traditional culture is a tendency to disconnect theory from practice, to focus on book knowledge rather than on practical experience, and to separate thinking from doing. It seems that our engineering students are more willing to 'explain the world'"(Li, Xu, and Chen 2012, 10).

The preference to "explain the world" is a century-old habit of Chinese intellectuals, reflecting on how they view their own role in society: "pure talk." It really means idle talk: endlessly talking about vague and empty theories without considering facts, context, accuracy, logic, or practical application. It is fairly easy to see that the intellectual separation between theory and practice contributes to the lack of innovation, since the "learning" does not reach to a level of understanding that would come from practicing how a concept works.

Obviously this two-thousand-year-old cognitive tradition is in a head-on collision with dispositions of critical thinking like "reason-seeking" and "seeking-and-being-open-to-alternatives" (Ennis 1998). The effects of the conflict are deep and extensive in both ordinary people and those in academic circles. Articles in Chinese social science journals are often full of claims, general principles, emotional stories, or rhetorical skills, but they are short of specific and reliable reasons and valid arguments. The authors neither see a need for the reasons and arguments nor know how to meet it.

We can see that this cognitive tradition constitutes another aspect of the educational context for the students. What differs today is the books the students study, like science books from the West. However, the ways they are required to learn remain basically the same: strive to read and remember the infallible truth in the books (Upton 1989, 21). Instead of the social authority of the teacher, it is the cognitive authority of knowledge—carried by the teacher—that makes them passive.

That is why critical thinking education in such an uncritical culture is fighting against a current that comes primarily from inside the minds and habits of the intellectuals. Obviously, people love to talk about critical thinking education, and hundreds of articles have been produced. But to start instruction in critical thinking and to do it effectively would be a totally different thing. First of all, this would require instructors to be models of open-mindedness and self-criticism in interactive teaching—to face the risk of losing face. This means intellectual, moral, and spiritual changes to what the instructors have comfortably inherited from their cognitive tradition: a notion of knowledge, an ideal of education, a model of teaching and learning, norms of the profession, and so on. Simply speaking, this entails a cultural transformation.

Needless to say, cultural transformation is a difficult undertaking. And worse, it is made even harder by the current Chinese society. As noted above, China is a materialistic and egoistic society, where a change would likely take place only when people can see its direct material benefit.

Pursuing power and wealth by academic study is nothing new in this world, but what differs in China is that "looking for gold and beauty in books" has been the righteous and exclusive endeavor of the vast majority of students. In history, for most Chinese intellectuals, the real purpose of studying Confucian theory was to obtain a seat in the privileged bureaucratic class with power and wealth. This has fundamentally separated Chinese scholars from many Western scholars, whose interest was mainly to discover truth.

Over the last 30 years of reform, as China has been pursuing economic development at full steam, the materialistic goals and values have only become much more dominant and have created serious problems. A New York Times article reported, quite accurately, that "corruption is pervasive in every part of Chinese society, and education is no exception." The universities are full of a "culture where cash is king," a "culture of bribery," and so on (Levin 2012).

In addition, as shown by previous changes, market-oriented reform in education could bring new and deeper problems. As Peigen Li pointed out, the practicality of education is lower today, as universities and the business communities have less interest in developing cooperation without direct financial benefit. Conditions for teaching and practice have deteriorated in the last ten years along with reforms to expand hastily the size of higher education without the addition of resources (Li, Xu, and Chen 2012). The quality of education is also degraded because it is overlooked by the research-based system of incentives. Teachers feel that it is not worth spending time on improving teaching (Chen J. 2013; Zhang and Jin 2010).

All of these factors not only add new roadblocks to critical thinking education, but also reduce people's will to overcome them. Existing deficiencies and restrictions in the educational system, such as the lack of a system of teaching assistants, become even harder to change. Spending money for the quality of education is not an attractive idea today.

Thus, in this materialistic and egoistic society, starting critical thinking education is viewed as an overly challenging and complicated business without good returns, or worse, with the risk of getting bad returns. A serious instructor for critical thinking would need to act like an idealist, willing to fight popular values, push more reforming changes to the system, learn the expertise, model the critical spirit, strive to make the course practical and effective, and face possible grievances. Obviously, a pool of such instructors is small in this society where "nearly everything has a price" (Levin 2012).

In summary, the cultural tradition—mainly its cognitive orientation—has formed barriers to critical thinking education in Chinese educators' minds, as it means a cultural transformation to them. The materialistic values of current society make this transformation an unworthy business. With a combination of such cultural and social factors, we can understand the pace and the way in which critical thinking education in China has been developing. A critical thinking course either would not begin, or would be changed to an examination-oriented rote learning course of logic or of thinking rules, taught in a fashion the instructors feel familiar and comfortable with. The difficulties and struggles are thus reduced, and the instructors are not transformed into a role model for critical thinking. In turn, the course is transformed into a product with Chinese characteristics, which cannot serve the purpose of fostering critical thinkers.

 
Source
< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >