In defense of bad education

Chen Danqing. Photo by news.asiaone.com
Tsinghua University, Beijing

Tsinghua University, Beijing

Creativity education in China is a controversial topic. Chinese creative education surely has its pros and cons, like anywhere in the world. A pro is the cheap cost of raw materials and relatively cheap cost of labor that allow Chinese designers and students to take risks and experiment. In Beijing, markets for DIY construction materials are everywhere in the city, and with some bargaining you can get anything you can think about for an unthinkably cheap price. A con is for sure the highly bureaucratic National Higher Education Entrance Examination, commonly known as 高考 Gaokao, the only criterion for tertiary education admissions. The Gaokao lacks of focus on teaching critical thinking and individuality, and it requires students to be prepared in a wide range of subjects, with a strong emphasis on English. Because of this, best Chinese universities might be getting not the sharpest individuals but the most assiduous. The flaws of the Gaokao, especially for the admission in fields like art or design, have been a hot topic in China, at least since 2005 when painter 陈丹青 Chen Danqing decided to quit Tsinghua University, where he was teaching, after the five students he handpicked were not able to graduate because they all failed the final exam in English. Anyway, a thorough reform of the Gaokao is an hardcore task for Chinese policymakers, due to the extreme high number of students applying for University every year [around 10 millions]. The number of Chinese design students is so high even for those applying to finishing schools abroad that writer and broadcaster Andrew Marr advised the risk for Royal College of Art of becoming a Chinese finishing school. I have seen with my eyes how students’ portfolios and credentials are easily forged by agencies whose work is to help Chinese students to get admitted. This makes it difficult for foreign institutions to correctly valuate applicants’ skills, and cause the admission criteria to largely rely on the reputation of the university the student graduated from. This means the Gaokao, arguably incapable to test the real creative skills, once again decides everything. As a result some of the more creative minds might not get into the best university, and I am not here to say that second to third tier university are so much worse than Tsinghua or CAFA or Tongji, but surely they might not get the best resources and facilities.

Chen Danqing. Photo by news.asiaone.com

Chen Danqing. Photo by news.asiaone.com

Because of this the cliché in the West is that Chinese students from a very young age are taught by rote, turning them into robot-minded mathematicians without the ability to think outside of the box. Creativity is what most people say Chinese students are lacking today. It’s common sense that Chinese schools are both a stressful and stale place, forcing students to remember facts in order to excel in tests. Most would easily agree that what Chinese schools do by rewarding students solely for test performance leads to disinterest in learning, imperiling creativity by making learning an unemotional experience. To some extent this is certainly true, and I surely cannot totally deny this from my own College experience in China. On the other side I feel there’s the need to jump to Chinese creativity education’s defense. While from a didactical point of view Chinese design education is surely still lagging behind, creativity is not something that can be easily grasped and putted into scholastic curricula.

Olivetti Valentine, Ettore Sottsass 1968

Olivetti Valentine, Ettore Sottsass 1968

Let’s think about the history of Italian design. It’s in the 60s and 70s that Italian interior design reaches its pinnacle of stylishness, and starts to be recognized as a worldwide trendsetter. Those who built the vast influence that “Made in Italy” still exerts today are a group of designers and architects that were born at the end of the beginning of the 20th century or even at the end of the 19th. Lets name some of the designers behind Italy’s iconic design that has emerged in those years: Ettore Sottsass born in 1917, Bruno Munari in 1907, Carlo Scarpa in 1906, Achille Castiglioni in 1918, Gae Aulenti in 1927, Giorgio de Chirico in 1888, Gio Ponti in 1891… the list could be longer. Most of them graduated between the two wars or during the Second World War, but even those who graduated in the early 50s, like Gae Aulenti, didn’t grow up in an educational environment that fostered creativity. Back then Italian schools generally offered a rather unemotional learning experience, probably even more oppressing than is the Chinese educational system of today. In fact, I believe that a unregulated environment is not always the most fertile soil to grow creative people, since creativity is an act of breaking the rules, of going against the existing environment, of believing that an other better world is possible.

I’m not saying that the educational environment in Italy back then was similar to what Chinese students experience these days. China has of course it’s own peculiarity. What I want to say is that talent requires re-thinking all the tools we have, the environment we live in, not accepting it, and believing there is the possibility to better it. When we say that Chinese schools are producing a nation of students with photographic memory and instant recall, but who can never be creative, we are not telling a lie nor we are totally right. Creativity is never for the masses; it’s for a small number of offbeat individuals. Creativity requires a revolution, and like Mao once famously said, a revolution is not a dinner party. So why shouldn’t China sprouts great designs and great designers? Because of Despite the relatively oppressive society Chinese live in, to assume otherwise is naive.

What do you think?