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July 27, 2010


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There's a middle position saying that both rote and original thinking are good. Original thinkers who haven't mastered the material don't accomplish much, and rote thinkers who just repeat what they've learned don't either. People who pass from an early period of rote learning to the freedom of grad school (e.g. a lot of East Asian and South Asian students studying in the US) are a sort of ideal.

Medical schools often use organic chemistry grades as a selector for admissions, not mostly because organic chemistry is useful, but because it tests the ability to master large bodies of information.

Hi John,

Maybe you saw my comment over at Warp and Weft? But, not only did I feel that Nussbaum had the typical bias in favor of a person in favor of their own system, but I also was surprised at how she failed to realize how much a part “learning by heart” had always been a foundation of learning here in the West too… which US President could simulanteously write famous passages which presumably he had memorized in Greek with one hand and Latin with the other (hint: it wasn’t George Bush!) I completely agree with you that a more balanced system would be ideal...there is something nice in having highly literate societies where people can make various literary or historical allusions to each other in casual conversation and be understood since most people read and memorize the same texts....Sometimes it is hard to really hold a conversation in English since people are so varied in their background and things tend to be more specialized--which is why it was so wonderful to meet you! We have so much in common-- but even more than shared interests, we have read so many of the same books and it really does make all the difference (sorry I usually bore you with my other various complains!!)

Is the form of rote learning changing I wonder to one that is more distributed and more about how to link found facts than remembering the facts themselves. More and more of our knowledge is coded into our systems (a very human thing that and think of all the wonderful analog computers invented over the centuries). Given the power of blends, I think everyone should be invited to learn more than one field in depth. One of the reasons I enjoy TDT so much is that most of the posts are deep blends. Thank You Peony

Hi Steven, Not surprising--given it's You-- you illuminated the precise reason why Nussbaum's article seemed extremely short sighted to me. Our modern systematic approach to learning is really connected to the analytic or problem solving functions of cognition and it is true that this is one aspect of creativity/innovation. However, like you, I feel that conceptual blending plays a far larger role (you know me!) And information/knowledge which is stored bodily ("learned by heart") not only is one aspect of our shared comprehension, but these internalized concepts also form the "material" for creative or innovative thinking. Do you have The Way We Think? I'd really like to read it. And I am very curious what this idea has to do with linguistics (as this seems to be what Turner is focused on?). An over-emphasis on the analyitic side of learning, I think could actually decrease overall creativity/innovation in the culture as it would encourage a type of monolingualism as well as an over specialization and short-sightedness that I--indeed-- I do think characetrizes modern "American Philistinism"...?

A friend (thanks Sam!) sent this from Ames' introduction of the Art of War:
In contrast with its classical Greek counterpart where "knowing" assumes a mirroring correspondance between an idea and an objective world, this Chinese "knowing" is resolutely participatory and creative-- "tracing" in both the sense of etching a pattern and following it. To know is "to realize," "to make real." The path is not a "given," but is made in the treading of it. Thus, one's own actions are always a significant factor in the shaping of one's world.

wonderful post, wonderful blog

Do you know "A God's Own Tale" (http://www.amazon.com/Gods-Tale-Chinese-Philosophy-Culture/dp/0791420027/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1280414754&sr=8-1) which tells the story of Wenchang ---- the patron of civil examination and keeper of the glorious Cinnamon Record?

By the way, I also loved Kyoto Journal's new Silk Road edition

Hey, Peony.

I sympathise with your difficulty in talking to people with disparate backgrounds - but isn't that kind of Nussbaum's point? It is never ever going to be the case that everyone the whole world over learns the same core texts (nor should we want it to be). So we must learn openness, adaptability, creativity. Having a bunch of cronies is nice - I like to hang out with fellow Brits - but it's not the way of the modern world.

And I'm not much of a fan of this point by your calligraphy teacher. "My calligraphy teacher used to tell us that the breaking of calligraphic rules are only beautiful or interesting in those people who have mastered the rules. Never the other way around."

Firstly, it's absolutely untrue. It's very interesting for, for example, an artist from culture A to go to culture B and react to it. You might think of Gauguin as an East-West example; West-East examples abound with creative Asian reinterpretations of western traditions. You don't have to be fully trained within a tradition to do something interesting with it.
Secondly, to the extent that it is true, it seems a bit trivial. Obviously breaking the rules is only meaningful if you know the rules in the first place. If you don't know the rules, it would be a stretch to say that you've actually broken them. As a way of admonishing students of an art/craft, I can see the point of what your teacher says, but it's an educational maxim within a pre-existing, well-defined field, not a way of judging real quality.

Is the model of Japanese education you describe not so bad? It's coercive, exclusive, rather inflexible, discriminatory, potentially disastrous for creativity.
The results you describe are lovely, but only if they are voluntary. When the culture imposes itself - when the teacher tells the student, you must learn what I teach, and you must learn it in this way - there is too much lost.

Hi Phil,

All cultures impose themselves.... that is what they do. The problem is when one culture imposes itself onto another with limited understanding and very dubious aims.

That was my issue with Nussbaum. Her understanding of the Chinese and Singaporean system is limited and we see that in the article's arrogance and lack of a full picture. That the Japanese or Chinese system needs refining or even rehauling is without question. Same-same for the American system. We are seeing some very very serious problems with our own system here in the US, and to be fair, Nussbaum wrote a fabulous book about it!! The issues include things far worse than your British old cronies and include issues like an overwhelming inequality on the primary school level; a human resource outsourcing on the secondary level and an overall impoverishment in terms of money and priority on the national level. Total philistinism.

And, I just love it when people say the same-old line about the Japanese education system being dangerous to creativity.... you are basing your opinion on not only a lack of first hand experience but a lack of any examination of the results (you think it "should" be dangrerous because your cultural preconceived notions tell you so) But is it as dangerous to creativity as you suggest? Well, let's take a look at innovation. The education system has created a vibrant culture that is known throughout the world for its fabulously creative intellectual property: from cuisine (tokyo with more stars in MIchelin than Paris) to fashion to art, theater, poetry, literature--film!!! Manga and anime, sushi... these are all part of Japan's vibrant cultural exports... Japanese lead in all these places. And, US patents. After the US, Japan holds the 2nd number. They are cutting edge in creative and innovative technologies from robots to recycling to eco products.... and all this created under that education system.

There is no question that even as much as you think the Japanese education "should" be dangerous to creativity, the facts do not prove your argument-- so what is the point, really? You have to look at the facts. And the facts suggest a highly egalitarian system that generates a surprisingly literate and educated population (99% literacy) and cutting edge innovation and creative exports.

And you completely mis-read my calligraphy teacher's point about art. I cannot stress it enough, you mis-represented what I said. The point being that Gaugin COULD paint and knew very well the rudimentary techniques used in Western painting before he went to Tahiti and was influences... my teacher could not have been more correct--standards ensure that we do not succumb tio "fusion mediocrity"....

Finally, if my son enters the system here or there, I think there will be deep flaws that as a parent I will seek to address-- but it seems somehow arrogant and short-sighted to recommended the modern western approach, especially when thinkers like Nussbaum herself are advocating returning back to a canon of work (she is very against the current undermining of the humanities... for what its worth in my son's Japanese schools, music and art and sports are priorities where here in California it is very neglected in favor of something else). Rote memorization and a canon of work (great books etc) was a part of our own history for a long time....

As I see it, we can learn a little from each other but it is always annoying when ex-pats do their thing you know.... but I can, like I said, undersstnd a Japanese student's wish for reform. Or a Chinese one's?

状元 挥毫泼墨
只专注考分 不考查能力
历史的倒退 创造

Interesting series of comments/replies, Leanne! My intellectual/spiritual hero Albert Einstein had some interesting things to say about education, systems, and creativity:

"The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education." (this from a European genius!)

"Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school."

"It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education."

"One had to cram all this stuff into one's mind for the examinations, whether one liked it or not. This coercion had such a deterring effect on me that, after I had passed the final examination, I found the consideration of any scientific problems distasteful to me for an entire year."

"All that is valuable in human society depends upon the opportunity for development accorded the individual."

"Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death."




I think we would all agree that in order to achieve any of the lofty goals you and Einstein posit above, we need a system that provides basic literacy and basic standards to the largest proportion of the population in the early years. The East Asian systems all do a praise-worthy job of doing this compared to other countries of their economic levels. And their students out-perform.

End of story, really. Genius is a different category. So, I don't doubt Einstein was put off.

And as important as the act of remembering is, I agree so too is the act of forgetting. I would like to forget all the Japanese I memorized-- now that was some kick-ass memorizing, right? the point being, I wouldn't really have anything to forget if I hadn't had the brains to be able to memorize it in the first place, right?

Interestingly, China more than any country had a system in place that was based on individual achievemnet (not connected to birth) 800or so years before anywhere else. Europe and Japan lagged. And all had as their basis the memorization of certain texts, kanji, famous episodes of history etc. My son hates this so I don't press him but I think he would go further if he would be willing to memorize a little more kanji and compete a bit more but I indulge him.... pampered little pasha.

Further to your earlier remark about "That's what cultures do", I am reminded that all Chinese since the 13th century have begun their education by memorizing the "Three Character Classic" (三字經), whose first lines are: 人之初,性本善。性相近,習相遠。 (People at birth, kind by nature. Natures relatively close, made remote through cultivation). Isn't this a 13th century explanation of the source of cross-cultural miscommunication?

Jan, forgive me if I question your translation above. 習 is to learn, and is connected to habit or custom --more than to culture or to cultivation.

I believe this was so in the 13th century as now. The Japanese glosses it that way and that is certainly how the character is used today
三字経の教え 中国古典に学ぶ道徳と教養

So perhaps this 牡丹訳 below is closer in spirit?

People at birth, kind by nature. Natures relatively close, though growing apart through habit

And, what can overcome this but cultivation and education?
Because it is clear that this was no call away from cultivation or education but rather away from ignorant habits, right?

For, of course, this was what a young scholar would learn next, right?


In any case, one does not want to go the route of Nussbaum for as our friend Mr F just said, "Monoculture, the great enemy of sustainability and resilience" Amen :)

Canadians or British readers of Nussbaum might not have the same response because perhaps their system is being tended to as well, but for sure it grates to read her prescriptions for places like Japan or Singapore, which--at least-- are getting the job of educating the majority of their populations done. Been surprised at the number of furloughs in the schools here in California. During what is called the Lost Decade in Japan, schools, health and roads remained funded and unchanged. It is a question of priorities, I think. A society of vast gaps in education/wealth is a place that can only be chaotic. Indeed, Nussbaum's book is about just this, why education should not be connected to GNP and does quite a lot of talking about the importance of education to cultivate values... she just seems unclear about whose values maybe? Surely Singapore or India don't need to cultivate our values? Or maybe she thinks they do?
What Collapsing Empire Looks Like

Learn from Japan and Germany

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