The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

QIU: Education should be about intellectual freedom

Although the Chinese method of education has its appeal, I believe that the American approach is more intuitive and reputable.
Emery Little
Studying at Vanderbilt (Hustler Multimedia/Emery Little)

Each year, hundreds of thousands of Chinese students flock abroad to receive a Western education and in particular, an American education. As the trend continues to grow, it’s hard not to cast doubts on the Chinese way of teaching. Yet, I think it would be unwise to arrive at a premature conclusion that dismisses the merits of a Chinese education altogether. Although I would argue that one has more to gain from an American system for the time being, due to its focus on intellectual freedom, critical thinking and independent learning, there are still many qualities that both systems can learn from each other. 

For those who might be unfamiliar with the Chinese method of education, I’ll provide a short history of its background, development and rationale. 



Many things have changed in the last half-century in China: rising standards of living, technological advancement and even political ideology. But one thing that has remained largely the same is the desire for knowledge and better education. 

Given China’s relatively unequal social structure (specifically its vast wealth gap), those at the very bottom of the social ladder have only one place to look: up. For many, education is the only path to a successful life, but it comes at the cost of a lifetime of competition. It’s now a norm for students to wake up before dawn and sleep after midnight, leaving almost no time for sports or leisure activities. Keen students are to be expected, and the lazy ones are to be chastised. 

However, one can hardly criticize the competitive environment when it is at the heart of China’s recent economic growth. The growing middle class has very little to complain about, since just two generations ago, it was considered a luxury to consume even a banana. Achievement in academics is still seen as the defining measure of a successful individual and the only topic that parents seem to speak of.  


Intellectual freedom

The history of systematized Chinese education dates back to 200 BC, when the imperial Han Dynasty examinations, or Keju, were first introduced to increase social mobility. The Keju system was based on merit and, funnily enough, modern Chinese education has the exact same goal—to select the most talented group of people. Ironically, access to information is suppressed and even the most talented of free thinkers are discouraged, as they have the ability to undermine the government’s legitimacy. 


Independent Learning 

Discipline, perseverance and a desire to always strive for perfection (Shokunin) are at the heart of Chinese education. They are important qualities that breed successful leaders and are reflections of  the wonderful idea that through hard work, anyone can achieve anything—not unlike the “American dream.” Although in practice, a lot of these deviate from their original intentions, the ideas of equality of opportunity, social mobility and purpose remain sound. 


Critical Thinking 

Historically, China was renowned for her ability to innovate with the Four Great Inventions (compass, gunpowder, papermaking and printing) being particularly eulogized. It’s hard to imagine ancient China’s grandeur given how technological growth has since plateaued. One plausible explanation behind this decline is the lack of critical thinking. In the West, the split in religion between Protestantism and Catholicism has caused societal upheavals, which pushed new ideas and ways of doing things to the front. The tendency to challenge the status quo was in turn translated into many other areas, including technological innovation. China, on the other hand, had little religious tension between Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism and therefore lacked this mentality to disrupt established traditions and ideals such as family, loyalty and fidelity. 


Education in the US

In contrast, my recent education in the U.S. has shown me an alternative approach. Instead of overloading students with endless assignments, American universities encourage self-study, with personal pursuits outside of the academic arena being particularly praised. Unlike heavily-censored China, politics is a less taboo topic, and American students are well-informed on worldwide events and encouraged to form opinions, political or otherwise. Unfortunately, China fails to achieve this intellectual freedom in spite of its rapid globalization. 

American students also seem to form valuable opinions on their own, perhaps because of its schools’ traditional focus on critical thinking. With an education system that prioritizes subjects which fit both students’ passions and skill sets, students are endowed with the ability to understand and explore topics in great depth. The U.S. education system showed me a different way to approach problems and challenged me to inquire what it means to be educated. This is a luxury that I never received during my years of studying back in China. 

Aspects where the American method of education shine are also where they fall short. While a free, unrestrained environment would lead to innovative thinkers, the potential cost is procrastination and the freedom to work less. In terms of work ethic, the Chinese system molds individuals into soldiers who never stop marching towards perfection. I believe that at a young age, it is important to learn about the values of discipline, which would turn into life-long dispositions to not only work smart but also work hard. This combined with a mentality to think outside the box is powerful ammunition to cultivating talented thinkers and doers. 

When we compare the two methods of education, the American way of teaching shines superior because of its focus on intellectual freedom, critical thinking and independent learning, which are the qualities that breed not only successful leaders, but inquisitive visionaries too. Although the Chinese way has its appeal, it seems safe to conclude that, for the time being, the American approach towards education is more intuitive and reputable. 

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About the Contributor
Emery Little
Emery Little, Former Social Media Director
Emery Little (‘22) is from Birmingham, AL. She majored in communication of science and technology and Spanish. In her free time, she loves to design graphics, follow tech news and run her photography business. She can be reached at [email protected].
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