A U.S.-China Dialogue on Education

On January 13, 2017, students from Stanford and Peking University gathered in their schools’ Highly Immersive Classrooms (HICs) for the annual FACES Telesummit.

This year’s Telesummit centered on issues in higher education in China and the United States, with Professors David Labaree and Francisco Ramirez from Stanford’s Graduate School of Education in dialogue with Peking University Professor Qin Chunhua, and MJ (Meijie) Tang, the Director of the Rhodes Scholarship’s China Program. The Telesummit was moderated by Steven Wang, FACES ’15.

What ensued was a lively, engaging discussion that touched on major issues facing higher education institutions and policymakers in both countries. Professors Labaree and Ramirez began by tracing the history of American higher education institutions. They outlined a persistent tension between the democratic ideal of autonomy within higher education institutions and the resulting trend towards corporatization as schools become more concerned with their bottom line than preserving the public good. This tension, Labaree noted, has turned America’s higher education system into a mechanism to preserve social advantage, instead of a driver of upward social mobility.

On the Beijing side, Professor Qin Chunhua questioned the legitimacy of the Chinese college admissions process. Speaking as a former college admissions officer, Chun was skeptical of the negative effects of the Gaokao standardized test system on individuals’ academic growth. MJ Tang described her own experience within the Chinese higher education system, humorously and passionately mapping her own youth onto the broader education reforms enacted by the Chinese government in the late 1990s. The panelists each brought diverse perspectives, adding depth to the Telesummit discussion, but not without exposing intriguing tensions among the different viewpoints.

 

Each of the panelists concluded by attempting to answer a deceptively simple question: What is the purpose of higher education? On the Beijing side, the panelists said that one should be able to find oneself and achieve a state of inner peace – MJ Tang related a successful higher education experience with the discovery of what "happiness" can be. On the other hand, Professor Ramirez hesitated to answer this overarching question, citing the different goals of the plethora of American higher education institutions. Professor Labaree also inspired amused curiosity from the attendees upon refusing to even answer the question. In the end, while the Telesummit discussion did lead to any definitive conclusions, it shed important light on many of the key challenges facing both countries’ higher education systems.

In many ways, both countries often face similar challenges from opposite perspectives, e.g. Chinese schools seek to incorporate diversity in a standardized admissions system, while schools in the US seek ways of making admissions more equitable in a system that is highly subjective.

By driving engagement on these issues, the Telesummit raised the possibility that there may be more that academics, policy makers, and administrators in both China and the United States can learn from each other as they work to tackle these problems at home.