How Driver’s Ed in China is Telling of Larger Philosophy

Though I think chatter about when China is going to knock off America as the world’s superpower is kind of silly — we’re moving toward a multi-polar world and when America recedes, as it undoubtedly will, the power will be spread around — it’s nonetheless interesting to compare how the two countries are trying to compete.

One big thing America does better than China, it seems to me, is celebrate creativity and experimentation in its school system. The Chinese school system –and yes, I will gladly generalize about a billion people! — seems incredibly focused on churning students through the standardized test system. Chinese students are under enormous pressure to get really, really good at following rules. The American system, while dancing alarmingly closer to this kind of attitude, still in theory promotes creativity. Students are taught it’s OK to invent and rebel.

How China teaches driving — more Chinese people are taking to the roads — is a good example of this difference in philosophy. Peter Hessler, in the Nov. 26th New Yorker, reports on Driver’s Ed China-style. It’s not available online but summarized by today’s WSJ:

The steps needed to get a license sound rigorous and standardized but emphasize arcane theory over practice. The mandated 58 hours of training involve drilling students to perfect hard tasks such as driving on planks barely wider than the car’s wheels. Students have little training on the roads themselves.

Mr. Hessler says the written test’s emphasis on bizarre driving conundrums shows China fitting its road rules to its neophyte drivers and traffic, rather than the other way around. The questions in the study book — which cover topics such as what to do if a car breaks down on a train track — "didn’t teach people how to drive, it taught you how people drove."

Drilling students to perfect hard tasks, arcane theory over practice. Sounds like many classrooms. I think Hessler’s line that the system "didn’t teach people how to drive, it taught you how people drove" could be changed for the education system: "it didn’t teach people how to think for themselves, it taught you how other people have thought."

The point here is the only way America will compete against China’s vastly larger numbers is to teach its students how to think creativity and be leaders and rule-creators, not rule-followers. China’s going to provide hundreds of thousands of excellent middle managers. The world still needs founders and CEOs.

Peter Hessler is as good of a "go-to" person on China as anyone. His book River Town is masterful, and Oracle Bones an impressive follow-up. James Fallows is also an excellent perspective on the country given his many years living in and thinking about Asia.

6 comments on “How Driver’s Ed in China is Telling of Larger Philosophy
  • The pre-eminent position of America in the global map is indeed because of its permissiveness. Not just in school system, business and free markets, the open culture that stimulates innovation through experimentation is indeed commendable. A mighty China may compete against America, but I doubt whether the Chinese creativity will ever challenge American enterprise. At best, it will complement it.

    China will also have to deal with the pent up fury of displaced millions that got evicted out of their homes by communist diktat. I rate them as China’s hurdle #1 in the way of its global aspirations. How long can a government control its people by whip? We’ve all heard about the civil wars that toppled repressive governments in USSR and Eastern Europe. China is yet to go through that tunnel and hopefully we’ll live to see in what shape it comes out of it.

    Meanwhile America could do with some introspection. For starters, it should ask “why don’t we fix America before trying to fix the world?”

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  • It’s also worth understanding that China has a long history of institutionalized education, going way back before the fall of the Roman Empire. It’s always been rigid as all hell and for quite some time it was rather effective. Old habits die hard, although if any country has shown itself to be adaptable, it has certainly been China.

  • FWIW American education was similarly rigid until the 60s, which obviously is after our rise to global prominence in the early 20th century. I’m generally a Chinaphile, but I think they’re at least 30 years away from anything close to parity with the USA on a per capita basis. They could do worse than to model their development on late 19th century USA — foreign capital financing industrialization.

  • Well, looking at their political and social structure, it seems to make sense. Not to mention, the planning it must take to get a few billion people to do something HAS to be rigid. As a good friend and business owner mentioned: “We’ll be safe from China until they start exporting creativity”.

  • Keep this info away from the Dept of Education and the Teacher’s Unions! They would love to only teach kids what other people thought, rather than creativity.

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