Not Singing from the Same Hymnbook

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Not Singing from the Same Hymnbook

We mustn’t attribute success in education “exclusively” to one particular culture or even race – people need to know the specific context of the popularity, and dismissal, of the Battle Hymn phenomenon. 

If Chua’s subsequent interviews were to be believed, she had NOT intended her book to be taken to polarise a East-v-West approach to parenting and education, and the Eastern way was the more successful of the two. Quite the contrary, she acknowledged that her belligerently pushy attitude to her daughters’ schooling was by no mean “exclusive” to Asian mothers like herself. Countless middle-class white American mothers, and indeed mothers of all races and backgrounds, were no less uncompromising as she was. 

It is convenient for people to borrow the Battle Hymn and to extract an abridged mantra to suit their agenda. I can see why nonetheless; it’s a simple logic. Chinese is synonymous with success in education; Battle Hymn is publicised in such as way as to consolidate and perpetuate that popular stereotype; success fits national agenda with, alas, perceived limited success (ironically) when championed by “home” educationalists; coupling a well-documented and “disreputable fact” with a runaway best seller from across the Atlantic therefore seems a shrewd strategy. 

The message is as loud as a tiger roar: if you want your child to succeed like the Chinese girl or boy next to her/him but you don’t trust British education (presumably the progressive approach), then Battle Hymn is your Bible. 

The unsavoury underbelly of this “Chinese success” is undeniable and has so far been overlooked by many. A cultural identity constructed around domination in education partly quenches the racial and national psyche of deeply felt humiliation of military defeats since the colonial operations in the Far East in recent history. If you can’t beat your enemies at sea or on land, then an alternative arena needs to be sought to bolster a nationalism under siege.

Founded in 1958, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) came to present an alternative battleground for the beleaguered Chinese nation following the split between Mao’s China in Beijing and Chang’s China in Taiwan. Wherever the bullets couldn’t reach, abacus was deployed to conquer. Since 2000, PISA has opened another testing ground without heavy weaponry. For many Chinese, it’s not so much about a more effective education system or pedagogy; it’s everything about construction of an ethnic identity as a more intelligent race. How many times was I given the message at school that “the Chinese are the most intelligent people” following success in mathematics and literacy in international testing? This construction is anything but benign. 

It’s a bit like claiming victory by quoting 100% in math whilst being knocked to the ground with a nose bleed by a bully in the school playground. The roar becomes a whimper. Just like the pathetic anti-hero, Ah-Q. 

Either IEA or PISA ranking is as effective as a plaster for a fleshing-eating wound. It covers an unsightly blemish whilst allowing the rot to continue.

The Chinese story of success in education is a far more complex issue than the simplistic headline news splashed around newspapers and flashed on the signages at school receptions. 

Success in education for the Chinese confirms also one other uncomfortable reality in British society – discrimination in other areas is still prevalent. If we use being in leadership positions in workplace as a measure, the Chinese success certainly grinds to a dramatic halt beyond (or even within) school gate.


About W. S. Lien

Tweed Wearer - Country Lover - Teacher Researching Professionalism and Identity@Clare College, Cambridge - Keen Amateur Photographer - Devotee to Poppy my Labrador
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