The power of models and examples
In the previous section, I discussed different European models of the university, showing the role of teaching and research in the German university, which would become the inspiration for the North American research university, and the French university, which would inspire the Soviet Union, and in time China. I also showed how the role of the professor at traditional research universities and newer distance universities could be seen as an artist or an artisan. However, there are also important differences between the history of educational thought in China, and the West, which might have had an influence on the development of the Top Level Courses Project.
One of the important differences between education in China, and the West, was the much larger emphasis on the written word in China. While Clark (2006) spends much time discussing the oral traditions in the European medieval universities, China had already instituted the first anonymous written exams (Thomas H. C. Lee 2000). Students had access to a wealth of earlier writings, and were expected to imitate these as a form of learning. Reed (1992) talks about modelling as a pedagogical technique in China, whether art students carefully copying the master’s strokes, or scholars copying the Confucian classics. She believes that “modelling is more than mere imitation, as we so often tend to view it in the West; rather, it is a process that should lead to inner transformation” (ibid, 78).
The Communist Party frequently chose outstanding people to act as exemplars for the nation, the most famous being the soldier Lei Feng, whose post-humously published diaries were widely read and discussed. Lei Feng could be seen as a “proletarianized version of earlier Confucian prototypes”, cultivating the same virtues, loyalty, filial piety, self-cultivation, modesty, frugality, diligence and benevolence, as those of his Confucian forebearers (Reed 1998, 360).
It might be a stretch to see the current-day Top Level Courses professors as moral examples, and there is no mention in the official government policies about patriotism, selflessness, or sacrifice. Rather, it is a much more utilitarian focus on promoting excellent courses. However, the use of models might still be relevant, when discussing different approaches to teaching and the role of teachers. Stevenson and Stigler (1992) have surveyed teacher attitudes in the US and China, and found significant differences related to building on a common core, versus having to invent everything from scratch.
“In Asia, the ideal teacher is a skilled performer. As with the actor or musician, the substance of the curriculum becomes the script or the score; the goal is to perform the role or piece as effectively and creatively as possible. Rather than executing the curriculum as a mere routine, the skilled teacher strives to perfect the presentation of each lesson. She uses the teaching techniques she has learned and imposes her own interpretation on these techniques in a manner that she thinks will interest and motivate her pupils.”
In America, teachers are judged to be successful when they are innovative, inventive and original. Skill presentation of a standard lesson is not sufficient and may even be disparaged as indicating a lack of innovative talent. It is as if American teachers were expected to write their own play or create their own concerto day after day and then perform it with expertise and finesse. These two models, the skilled performer and the innovator, have very different value in the East and West.” (Ibid. 167-168)
Stevenson and Stigler are discussing the attitudes of K-12 teachers, but it is possible that there are similar differences in attitude among university professors, where the requirement to be unique and independent are much stronger. In the two sections above, I have shown how the Top Level Courses Project exists in a higher education system that owes more to the French centralized teaching-focused system than the German research-university model that influenced North American universities so profoundly. It also exists in a culture where models and examples, and building on the work of others – also in teaching – have a long history. These are factors that might make it impossible to implement a similar program in North America, but also factors that make us understand and appreciate the Chinese system much better, and could inspire us in rethinking university teaching in North America.