Reflections on rote learning and creative education

There’s a common cliché going around. That Chinese education does not encourage creativity: Instead, it proposes antiquated models based on rote learning. ‘Western’ Universities, on the contrary, train critical thinking, creativity and collaborative problem solving – all the treasures of a balanced life.

I had direct experience of learning in a Chinese university, during a term at Nanjing Daxue, and was deeply dissatisfied  with it. Yet I would like to consider Chinese models of education under a different light.

In preparatory class, in the debrief of an oral presentation where I did averagely, my philosophy teacher pointed out I should find ways of better structuring my thoughts. ‘How can I do that?’ I asked. He winked: ‘There is a secret, but don’t tell anyone I’ve told you’ – I guess enough time has pass that I can get away with sharing this now – ‘You must copy. Take a book, a well-written book, like Montesquieu’s L’Esprit des Lois, take a notebook, and simply copy. And I can guarantee that you will improve.’ With all this talk of originality, we tend to forget the value of copying. Not just to memorise and interiorise knowledge, but develop the capacity to reproduce a movement of thought. And then, if after proper understanding, we continue to disagree, then we might consider rejecting. And how much stronger, how much sharper, how much more valuable, this informed originality.

On originality

One sign of ignorance is the preference of originality over custom and radical solutions over traditional authority, says historian Robert Conquest as quoted by Roger Scrutton in “The Uses of Pessimism”.

I  have always been suspicious of people who claim originality without first demonstrating their knowledge of tradition. By the same token, I don’t have much respect for those who push aside the thoughts of an authority figure. “Aristotle was wrong, I will show you why,’ is an argument I sometimes encountered in academic papers: rarely the sign of high intelligence.

Does this mean we should simply reject original thought as a sign of self-important ignorance? Not so. I like to quip about Catholicism that it teaches you to think deeper. Always assume the Pope is right. If you feel that the Pope is wrong, then think harder, until you find a way of interpreting the Pope that feels right. In other words, disagreement with a figure of authority is not an invitation to push them aside, but strengthen your mind by closely testing the surface of their argument, embrace its fractal complexity, until – at some level – you find a way of agreeing with them. And if it never happens, maybe you can let them stand where they are, and go find somebody else to test your thinking with.

My philosophy teacher once gave me this precious lesson. How can I learn to write better, I asked him. He paused and looked at me: ‘I’m going to tell you something, but don’t tell anybody right now. If you want to write better, you must copy. Take a well-written book, take a notebook, and copy, by hand, sentence by sentence. It takes time, but I guarantee you’ll write better.’ I’ve been grateful ever since that, when I was nineteen, I was not encouraged to follow my own thoughts and ideas, but patiently copy. Twenty years on, I feel the work is paying off.