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Education, Creativity, and Prosperity: East versus West

Christopher Lingle

Christopher Lingle is a visiting professor of economics at ESEADE, Universidad Francisco Marroquín.

It is widely believed that a commitment to education is a key element in the “miracle” economic growth experienced in much of East Asia over the past several decades. For example, the introduction of universal primary schooling in Japan is presumed to have led to a relatively high level of education and literacy among the general population in the 1960s. By implication, skill levels and thus productivity of the labor force were generally higher than in other developing countries. These higher education levels also facilitated the transfer and adoption of foreign-sourced technology and made it easier to find competent staff for the civil service. Relatively high education levels may have also helped lower fertility and mortality rates below what they were in other developing countries with similar levels of income.

Unfortunately, a variety of flaws have begun to appear in the highly regimented education systems of East Asia with their demand for conformity. In particular, the stresses of competition in Japan have led to some troubling acts of student violence and suicide. A more widespread problem is the inhibition of creativity. That may be the weak link in the region’s ability to sustain its economic progress.

The problems do not end with primary and secondary education. A lockstep tendency among many East Asian academics leads to questions about the integrity of some of the region’s universities. Asian universities function too often as factories for the production of state bureaucrats.

Traditional institutional arrangements in Asia inhibit original research. Intellectual debate is neither necessary nor appreciated among herds of students who are being trained to follow rules and to adhere unquestioningly to authority. Even though many Asians hold education in high regard, most schooling is based on rote learning. Former Japanese Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa suggested that this system would ruin his country’s future.

The accompanying hierarchical structures inhibit freethinking and challenges to conventional wisdom that generate new ideas. As a result, technological innovations that have emerged from East Asia are in narrowly focused areas with limited applications. There’s been little basic research in, say, genetic engineering or biotechnology.

Students from the region continue to flock to the West, which continues to have the greatest centers of higher learning, thanks to its tradition of intellectual freedom. Unsurprisingly, they attract and produce the bulk of the world’s great scholars and innovators.

The Singapore Example

It is difficult to generalize about the East Asian educational systems. However, a case study of Singapore might reveal some interesting points of similarity.

Despite its reputation as one of the premier institutions of higher education in that region, there is little room for academic freedom at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Reflecting the mood of the country’s political leadership, the NUS is a humorless place run by rule-bound administrators who treat lecturers more like bureaucrats than scholars. This bureaucratization of the academy became amply clear to me during my time there.

Having served as a senior fellow at NUS, I am often asked about the quality of the staff and students. My general response is that none of my high and positive expectations were realized. In my academic career I have measured the quality of my students and colleagues by their ability to provide penetrating insights, to offer challenges to existing intellectual frameworks, to think laterally, and so on. In turn, I always expected them to demand the same from me. Most students at the NUS suffered from an emphasis on rote learning almost to the complete exclusion of the creative use of what had been learned. There was a great gap between scholastic achievement and personal maturity. This was evident in the giggling, wide-eyed naïveté and parochialism that led to the most frequent question, “Please, sir, what is the right answer?”

Alas, many of my Singaporean colleagues in the Faculty of the Arts and Social Sciences were also intimidated into lockstep mediocrity by the power structure both in the university and in the government. These observations are less a criticism of the individuals involved than they are of the incentive system under which they operated. Most of my students and colleagues were certainly comparable in their intellectual capacities with those encountered in any other university in the world. Doubtless, many were exceptional. It was well understood, however, that those who did not cooperate would be passed over for promotions or might lose their jobs. The university administration chose a technique that I refer to as “management by fear.”

Similarly, the students tended to toe the line in anticipation of being offered a plum job in what is one of the highest-paying civil service systems in the world. It was a common understanding, I was surprised to discover, that there were informers in each class who reported to the administration on the behavior of students and lecturers. Thus students who were too outspoken might find themselves deprived of the largess associated with working in the well-paid technocracy, and faculty members might find their chances for promotion greatly reduced. As one of my expatriate colleagues remarked, the NUS was “an incubator for another batch of baby mandarins.”

The quest for knowledge is generally subverted by political considerations. Many full professors in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences had direct links with the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) either as members of Parliament or in some other capacity. My own department head had a plaque placed prominently on his desk with the motto: “An ounce of loyalty is worth more than a pound of ability.”

Little wonder that during the recent pause in the pace of economic activity, the government began to ponder the dearth of creative thinking in confronting the challenges of the global economy. It has now embarked on the classic statist technique of throwing money at a problem’s symptoms rather than its causes. An expensive project is under way to “create creativity” without initiating fundamental changes in the rigid educational system. Obviously, they just don’t get it!

Entrepreneurs and Progress

In April 1997 a survey conducted by the China University of Political Science and Law indicated that the content as well as the teaching methods of China’s secondary and higher education were out of date and in “conflict with the cultivation of creativity.” The study surveyed 2,000 students from ten institutes of higher education and ten high schools. More than half of the student participants complained of outdated textbooks, test-oriented teaching methods, and irrational knowledge structure.

Educational systems that encourage a submersion of the individual in a collective (such as the Confucionist-inspired notions of “society above self” and unquestioning acceptance of authority) will unavoidably inhibit the emergence of indigenous entrepreneurs. These individuals are a key ingredient for sustained economic progress through creative and independent thinking. By definition, their search for profit opportunities requires that they constantly take risks and undertake challenges to the economic order and, if need be, to the political status quo. In contrast, people who choose to be political cronies are unlikely to be risk takers. Attempts by authoritarian regimes to institutionalize the free-enterprise process by appointing party faithful cannot succeed, because the attributes of entrepreneurship involve more than programmed trading. Being truly freethinkers, entrepreneurs will always constitute a potential threat to the political establishment.

However, attempts to suppress or co-opt entrepreneurs may lead to a ruinous brain drain. In attempting to control entrepreneurs, authoritarian regimes are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Perhaps the most damaging result of government policies that restrain freethinking is the glaring absence of innovative design and technological research in much of Asia. While it is true that some of the Tigers have begun to export technology to neighboring countries and have registered an increased number of patents, much of this activity reflects the efforts of multinational corporations that operate in the region.

In East Asia, foreigners have been patenting inventions at a faster pace than have Asian residents. For example, in 1990 foreign inventors in Singapore and Hong Kong were awarded 99 and 98 percent, respectively, of all patents issued. Accounting for 95 percent of Asia’s U.S. patents, Japan is the only East Asian country that has kept pace with Western industrialized countries, although a large proportion were for home electronics.

The tendency of most East Asian educational systems to reinforce the aversion to conflict and to work toward “consensus building” has the unintended consequence of strengthening staid hierarchical structures by limiting open debate. In the absence of any counterweight to the strict adherence to hierarchical decisions of politicians or managers, short-run gains from building consensus may be offset by related long-run costs arising from corruption, social injustice, or economic inefficiency.

It is ironic that as Western educators look with envy at the results of Asian schooling, Asian educators seek to emulate the Western approach to learn how to make their students more creative. The solution to this educational puzzle is likely to have enormous economic impact on the future. However, one thing can be said with some certainty: Widely shared prosperity will arise under arrangements that encourage creativity and thus entrepreneurship.

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