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Education Should Improve the Quality and Value of Life A Dialogue with Mr. Gu Mingyuan and Professor Qian Yingyi

Source: People’s Daily Date: 2017-04-26

After several decades of reform and opening-up, China has trained a great number of professionals with rich knowledge and skills, who have made important contribution to fast economic growth. What is the essence of education? What should universities do? On April 16, Mr. Gu Mingyuan, a famous educator, and Professor Qian Yingyi, Dean of the School of Economics and Management of Tsinghua University, had a dialogue and answer questions at a book event “Economic and Educational Transformation in China”.

The ability to think is more important than knowledge.

Question:
What roles do knowledge, the way of thinking and the ability to think play in education?

Qian Yingyi: Chinese parents pay too much attention to knowledge learning, asking the children to learn early and more and go deeper. When the children come back from school, parents would always ask “What have you learned today?” Many prestigious Chinese universities also place too much emphasis on knowledge acquisition and teaching, seeing education as equal to knowledge. Students may have learnt a lot of knowledge, but are weak in thinking and innovation abilities. This is because we don’t do enough to train their abilities in the two areas. In the 1920s, Einstein said shortly after winning the Nobel Prize that university education is not about memorizing facts and knowledge, but training brains.

Good test scores do not mean one can think well and innovate. Thinking ability is crucial for students to excel. As such, the School of Economics and Management of Tsinghua University has focused on general education and individualistic development. We have expanded from knowledge acquisition to three dimensions: fostering values, cultivating skills and acquiring knowledge. For instance, we have a popular course called “critical thinking and ethical inference” at our school to train students’ ability in thinking.

Gu Mingyuan: Some parents have over-expectations for children’s education. They start to think about which school the child should go to even when the baby was just born. A person needs more than knowledge. He also needs a sound character. This way, the child will have the ability to live a happy life.

The two experts both stressed the importance to improve students’ thinking ability, which is vital for fostering innovative talents.

Education should not rush for quick results.

Question:
Economic competitiveness depends on innovation. And innovation depends on talents. Talents can only be cultivated. This is a general consensus. How can we foster outstanding talents through education?

Gu Mingyuan:
Several years ago at a workshop on alleviating the burdens on primary and middle school students, I was asked by a primary school student, “You said there should be no Olympics maths class. But if there is no such class, I will not be admitted into a good middle school and a good university. In that case, I won’t have a good job. How will I be able to feed myself and support my family? Many students want to see quick results. In fact, we need people who have knowledge and good ethics. We need a good material life. But we also need a good cultural life.”

Qian Yingyi: Educating people is more important than cultivating talents. The primary purpose of university education is to shape young people to be “people with high cultural and ethical standards”, not “useful machines”. Outstanding talents are not cultivated. They emerge from a favorable environment. We need to find, appreciate and protect innovative people and give those we don’t approve of space for growth. We should tell our students there are diverse needs in the world and there are different paths they can take and all kinds of possibilities lying before them. University education should be responsible for the life of students. This is also driven by benefits, long-term benefits though.

Both Gu and Qian said that talents in China are highly capable on average. But they share similar skills. There is a lack of high-end talents.

Cultivating people is the essence of education.

Question: How do you see the function of education?

Gu Mingyuan: In the past, people explained education through instrumental reason. Indeed, education cannot be separated from politics and economics. Education serves politics and economics. But more importantly, education is a right of human beings. Only when individuals achieve development can they serve politics and economics. The essence of education is the cultivation of people. The quality and value of people’s life should be improved. That includes a strong body, better scientific and cultural competence, and improved ethics. This, in turn, makes contribution to society. As a result, we need to change the way we cultivate talents. Education should focus on knowledge and skills and, more importantly, values and attitudes. Education should cultivate talents that could create a sustainable future.

Qian Yingyi: Serving economic development is only one function of education, never the only function. Education should be people-oriented.

Turning “bad students” into “good students”.

Question: The Hengshui Middle School of Hebei Province recently decided to open a school in Zhejiang, which has aroused a great deal of attention. What is your view on that?

Qian Yingyi: I am not an expert on middle school education. But some famous middle schools, as I know, have done better than many universities in cultivating the students.

Gu Mingyuan: On a macro level, by opening a school in Zhejiang, the Hengshui Middle School will have a negative impact on other middle schools in Zhejiang in terms of admission. He who can cure difficult diseases is a good doctor. Schools should focus on turning “bad students” into “good students”, instead of trying to get all good students into their fold.