When Americans think about the best way to educate and raise their children, the Chinese school system—with its control not only over the basics of learning and discipline in the classroom but also over family life and behavior outside of school—may not leap immediately to mind. That is why Heather Kaye caused such a stir with her recent New York Times article in which she makes the case for China’s education system and even suggests it might be superior to America’s.
Most thinking people would be astonished at this suggestion, “Schools are superior in China?! But that’s where totalitarianism reigns supreme! It’s where children are indoctrinated and forever changed.” They wouldn’t be wrong. But it would be far too easy to dismiss Kaye as just another American leftist who favors communism over freedom. Kaye’s argument on behalf of the virtues of Chinese education is not persuasive, but her experience in China raises significant questions about America’s educational and pedagogical system. Unintentionally perhaps, Kaye highlights the challenges that many schools in America face today.
Journey to Shanghai
Kaye and her husband lived for 16 years in Shanghai, where she worked in the fashion industry. They started a family and raised two daughters. Once the children reached school age, Kaye and her husband faced a choice “between pricey international schools and enrollment in local schools, overseen by the government and with an immersion in Chinese culture and values.” They chose the Chinese school. (It should be noted that Kaye and her family were still treated as foreign nationals and were not subject to the same level of control as the Chinese people.)
Immediately, Kaye and her husband realized the kind of hold the Chinese government has on children. The kindergarten system took control over all the aspects of their daughters’ lives, including when to sleep, what to eat, and what their “optimal weight” should be. They were taught “calisthenics,” to respect their elders, and to do their homework diligently and without complaint. Naturally, their daughters were also indoctrinated into the state ideology of communism. All of these aspects began to show at home.
Kaye found some benefits in totalitarian schooling. She didn’t have to force her children to do homework, and “the girls came home discussing self-discipline, integrity, and respect for elders.” Naturally, there is absolutely nothing wrong with children learning these things and becoming good, productive, and respectful people. It’s hardly disputed that Chinese students tend to perform extremely well in American colleges and universities and that they take their academic work very seriously (though to American tastes, it is sometimes to a fault).
But then, Kaye reveals aspects of the Chinese school system that are not exactly as rosy as they may appear. Their daughters were “constantly served up moral, history and culture lessons . . . for the sake of the Chinese nation . . . ” The girls started questioning some of their parents’ decisions about their education. They parroted communist propaganda at home. And their motivation to do homework was the shame they might feel in front of their teachers and fellow pupils if they failed to keep up.
In short, success is possible in China as long as you obey your teachers and learn to be ashamed of yourself for questioning them.
The children were also protected from immoral content on the internet, thanks to government censorship. The government also imposes strict limits on how much time children may play video games and view TikTok videos. And Kaye’s children experience cultural and art events the government offers as “an alternative to Western influences,” though she doesn’t elaborate on what those malign influences might be.
Less exposure to mind-numbing internet content and video games is certainly something American parents should strive to achieve for their children. Censorship of vulgar internet content for children doesn’t seem like a bad idea, either. Whether Kaye knows it or not, however, this is what many religious and social conservatives not only argue for but enforce in their own homes.
Much of what Kaye lauds about Chinese doesn’t sound so bad. The problem is the government should never be considered a “co-parent.” Kaye’s daughters may have respect for authority but will they be able to tell which authority means well and which means harm? The Chinese government may be interested in making sure her kids get a good night’s sleep, but the concern is rooted solely in advancing the interest of the state. The children are “raised” (read: sacrificed) by the totalitarian government so that they can continue to be good subjects as they grow into adults, and continue to live in the service of the state.
Kaye is not anticipating what will happen when her daughters become adults. Will they think critically, or will they choose another substitute authority to follow in order to maintain their good standing as servants of the state?
During my time in graduate school, I recall having such conversations with many fellow students who came from China. These colleagues rarely wanted to leave the United States. They all were overwhelmingly attracted to Plato and Aristotle, and often wrote their dissertations on these thinkers. As one colleague said to me: “How can I go back to a country that does not even have a concept of justice, the good, and happiness in its culture?” It’s no wonder Plato and Aristotle became their true companions.
By forcing itself into the private lives of children and parents, the Chinese government is effectively negating the singularity of the family unit. Morality and creation is built upon the bedrock of family. It is only here that children can come to understand their belonging as they navigate through life, which certainly can and does include civic pride and responsibility if undertaken with a proper sense of these things.
Perhaps because of that, the Chinese government is deeply intertwined in every aspect of people’s lives. The idea of public and private spheres does not exist. The government is trying to replace the very idea of the relationships within family structure. It has no face, but human beings do, and this is especially true of the parents. They relate to their children through love, and the children feel affirmed in their own uniqueness and dignity. The love of a father and a mother can never be replaced or supplanted.
But what about the American school system? Kaye clearly has some cognitive dissonance because she and her family have returned willingly to the United States, mainly because of China’s inhuman COVID restrictions. Returning to America has been a “culture shock” for Kaye and her family. This is hardly surprising: a lot has happened since she moved to Shanghai. America’s culture has devolved into wokeness, constant harping about racism, crime is on the rise, and generalized negativity permeates the political atmosphere, thanks mainly to the prevalence of ideology and anti-American sentiment.
Which raises the question: Is the Chinese school system really better than the American? Kaye admits she misses the “co-parenting” and assistance she received with discipline from the Chinese schools. Being shamed is unimaginable in an American school (unless that child is a Christian or a conservative), and in some ways, a student is always right as long as he or she (or pick a pronoun) aligns with the mushy ideology of flaccid leftism.
Without a doubt, the Chinese system is more rigid academically. One could argue that it leaves no room for creativity and imagination or freedom of the mind. But the American school system has created a far more stressful situation for parents and students alike. It operates under the pretense of freedom and instead offers nothing but control that caters to the lowest common denominator.
The American school system is an exercise in shapeshifting. Because it’s constantly mutating and is entirely based on some form of Marxism but thriving on ambiguity (in other words, always evading truth and creating metaphysical confusion through the use and abuse of language), it is psychologically more harmful than any concrete rigidity that we might find in communist systems.
Because Marxism, as originally designed, cannot thrive in America, it has no choice but to constantly shapeshift in order to perpetuate itself. The result is the same as in China: mold students who will be at the service of ideology (not necessarily the state). If they are made into submissive subjects who think that they are free to think and speak, then the “education” has been a success.
In a way, the American school system and the ideology that envelopes it is far more insidious than the rigidity of the Chinese system. The manipulation there is easier to see, and easier to reject once given the opportunity to encounter something different (like my fellow graduate students reading Plato and Aristotle). The similarities, however, are quite clear: The system serves to make the mind entirely captive of a system so that it has no choice but to think that their slavery is freedom (to invoke George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four).
The subjects of both systems are in the cave, as Plato so wonderfully explained. They are living in their own simulations, seeing nothing but shadows on the wall, and not realizing that there exists beyond that wall a reality. Be it in the school system or the culture in general, our fight right now may be manifesting politically, socially, economically, and culturally, but ultimately, it is a fight against illusions and a fight for the illumination and affirmation of reality.