We live in an era of illusions. This is the normalcy that has been abruptly ripped out from under us as we face lock down. Each society is founded off a prevalent illusion that it must maintain to give itself the veneer of legitimacy. This is because our brains like things to make sense, we want to believe there is some order in the world even if that order is built off twisted logic. Stereotypes operate off this principle. They are based off a fixed image you create in your mind. While some of them may be grounded in a grain of truth the damaging aspect comes from the fact that you have imposed a fixed image on someone else – no matter what they do because of this fixed image they are either automatically labelled as conforming to the stereotype or threatening it. One of the common stereotypes I have found is that Asian students are somehow magically more capable than their western counterparts. Proponents of this view point to high PISA scores (forgetting that in China’s case they only self-select their best and brightest – only the best students from Jiangsu, Beijing, and Shanghai three of the richest parts of China participate), the importance of education in Asian cultures, and the prevalence of Asians in the white collar professions.
This is grounded in a historical grain of truth – Confucian countries divided social classes based off their ability to be scholars. The Mandarins, or the scholar-gentry class of Imperial China served as a landed aristocracy who were distinguished not by the nobility of birth but by the nobility of virtue. In passing their imperial examinations open to all, which tested your memory of Confucian classics, theoretically anyone could rise from the station of their birth and join the scholar-gentry. An outwardly meritocratic system which spread to the countries of East and South-East Asia. In Korea the Confucian scholar-gentry class – the Yangban had to pass their examination in order to maintain their position. What defined the scholar gentry was to be their heavenly virtue – benevolence, wisdom, righteousness, propriety, and fidelity.
Of course like many illusions – the closer you look the more fragile it seems, until at last it shatters under the harsh glare of scrutiny. Despite the trappings of being outwardly meritocratic and in theory enabling an ‘equality of opportunity’ (anyone from the poorest of the poor to the highest of the high could sit the imperial examinations, and in order to join the scholar-gentry you had to pass) it was rife with abuse. No Yangban family in Korea’s history ever lost their status – making it a de facto hereditary class. The reason for this is simple – in order to pass examinations which rely entirely on testing rote memorization and being literate, you need to dedicate time to study the classics. If you are born to a peasant family your parents cannot afford for you to spend time not working out in the fields. On top of this there is little chance for you to receive an education to begin with. Those who come from families of scholars can be taught by their parents in order to read and write, even the poorer members of the Yangban were literate. While the ideal is to present a meritocratic system which allows anyone social mobility the reality is that it allowed families to entrench their descendant’s position.
Any illusion relies on a sleight of hand. By focusing on the extended hand your eye misses the quick movements of the other. In this case what we are not seeing is the extreme emphasis on family – Confucian filial piety that has no real cultural equivalent in our more individualist western cultures. While most people can accept the notion that family is important, the Confucian emphasis on descendants and ancestor worship is what elevates this to new heights. At its core the belief that you are obliged to look after your parents as they looked after you. You are charged to do everything in your power to look after those whom you share blood with and this is a noble concept. However the hidden side is that these bonds of intense loyalty to your family make all other families your opposition when competing for resources. In Vietnam the saying goes that for government positions, “First it goes to the descendant, then to the one with money, then to the one with wisdom.” In China there is the term ‘guan-er-dai’ (literally government second generation) for the children of officials who, by some curious alchemy, inherit their parents high ranking position. What this hidden side reveals is that families have a perverse incentive to do whatever is necessary to guarantee their children inherit positions.
All societies have a degree of stratification – this is a common feature of any group of people. Whether this is a formal stratification based on class, caste, or some other form of social hierarchy or an informal stratification that is based on abilities (one can always imagine the kid chosen last for a sports team) this is in escapable part of groups. However the part that is not examined is that this stratification is subjective – different societies and cultures place different weights on things. In the Achaeminid Empire of Persia lying was seen as a mortal sin, and those who spoke only the truth were elevated, a quality one only wishes our political class had. The Confucian societies of Asia because nobility was based off virtue what divided people into different levels was their level of education. The scholar-gentry as those who were most educated in the classics of Confucius and Mencius were therefore supposed to possess noble virtue. The lower classes were to till the earth and dig the soil because their peasant minds lacked the ability to be the ‘bigger person’. However because the only mark of education was to pass the imperial examinations, there might be a correlation between education and virtue but no causal link. In other words education is not an ends in of itself, a noble path toward the pursuit of knowledge and truth, instead it is simply a shiny stamp you receive that guarantees you a cushy job. So the only thing that matters is that you get this credential.
As someone who has taught primarily Asian students for the past few years this is apparent when I ask my students what they think the role of school is. The stock standard respond uttered verbatim by dozens of different students, one can almost imagine heels clicking together and spines ramrod straight as they do this, is that school is for studying. As a thought experiment I asked my students to define what the difference is between learning and studying – after all while English is three other languages in a trench coat with a top hat, there are usually reasons for having shades of meaning between different words. For many of my younger students they had no idea that there was a difference – to them both words had been conflated with the same meaning. School was therefore seen as a prison which restricted their freedom and like duck being fattened up for foie-gras I was the cook who would ram them full of facts until their rich livers would burst into a nutrient rich slurry of information necessary to pass their tests. Tests and examinations after all had been magically imbued with the power to determine one’s future in life. If the illusion operates on the premise that if you have this shiny stamp of state sanctioned approval you are automatically qualified for a middle class existence then education has been reduced to glorified job training. No carrot worked better than the promise of a slightly higher grade, and no stick as severe as the threat to one’s grades. This insane fixation continually reinforced by the idea that your entire existence could be evaluated off a single metric.
While western universities have democraticised universities to the point where anyone with a pulse who can semi-coherently wrangle some words together into a sentence can be permitted in (however with no guarantees that you will actually graduate), in Asia while it is extremely difficult to get into university it is almost impossible to fail once you are in. This creates and reinforces a perverse incentive structure where the goal of education at the primary and secondary school level is simply to cram yourself with enough information to regurgitate out on a test so you can get into one of the few sparkling universities on the palatine hill. In this glorious republic of illusions understanding is no longer required, only a verbatim memorization of information drilled into your head every day in academies and cram schools. One only needs to be able to get a number high enough to enter through the gates, and upon reaching that number everything else goes out the window. Comrades in this brave new republic only knowledge is measured and you leave wisdom at the door.
There is a very ugly specter to this perverse incentive that casts its looming shadow over education in Asia and this is the extreme prevalence of cheating. Asian students, particularly Chinese international students at western universities have become almost comically typecast for their rampant cheating and plagiarism – UCLA in 2018 showed that while Chinese international students made up only 6% of the student body, they represented more than a third of all plagiarism cases. Universities permit this because they view these students as bulging cash piñatas, waiting to be whacked open, and in exchange for this they turn a blind eye to the erosion of the ideals that a university is founded upon. Instead of service to the pursuit of knowledge they now serve a new master, one who promises prosperity but delivers misery. I once recall a simple Galilean carpenter who chased the moneylenders out of the temple for they had turned a place of worship into a den of thieves. Who now will cast out the followers of Mammon from the temple of wisdom?
At the start of every single semester, one of the first classes I teach is on academic integrity. To sum it up in a nutshell it is the idea that your work is your work and nobody else’s. That if you use ideas from someone else you must credit them for their work. That you will give it your best effort and failure is something you learn from rather than something you dread. For in life no matter how hard you try sometimes things will just fall apart, and it is up to you to pick up those broken pieces and try again.
To date, every single semester, in every single class, I have at least one case of plagiarism. In a class of 30-34 students this could be seen as a statistical outlier, but my class sizes are 4-10. At this point it is no longer a bug that emerges occasionally, it is a feature of the system and the illusion on which it operates under. An illusion which states that one’s social standing in society is entirely determined by the credentials of your education rather than your actual ability. Understanding and mastery are no longer important so long as you can tick the right box, or grease the right hand. Ironically the only Confucian virtue being observed now is propriety – an unyielding blind obedience to your elders and to authority, for the state is modeled after the family. And as a father governs his children the firm hand of the state is what governs the nation. You wind up with a vast generation of unthinking and uncritical drones – trained to pull levers and push buttons, compelled to follow orders and never to question them so long as the dangled carrot of social mobility and convenience hangs in front of them. And it will be this teeming mass of compliant drones who will be left to the tender mercies of the new digital revolution.
This illusion is ultimately harmful to all who perpetuate it. At the base level those who are conditioned to believe that education is nothing more than a series of hoops to jump through, who view the pursuit of knowledge as nothing more than a means to an end, of learning as rote memorization of things other people have come up with, are reduced to hollow caricatures ready to be filled from the vessel of neoliberalism. Those who wind up in positions lacking actual merit but carrying credentials, who come to believe in their hearts that they are entitled to lead by virtue of birth, will make disastrous decisions that get the rest of us killed. And those pushed to the margins who have been taught that they are waifs of dust, and scions of wind, because they are ground up in the machinery of an educational system that does not value thought but repetition, are left as objects of scorn. Parents who blindly plough a clear path for their children, never wondering the harm their actions inflict upon their grit and ability to weather adversity, who in their single minded pursuit of their child’s future will gleefully cannibalize anyone else who stands in their way, enraptured by the false promise of these illusions, will sow salt into the common ground upon which we all depend. We have before us now a republic, as fragile as glass, built on a flimsy foundation that sways with the wind.
In seeing past illusions we have to ask ourselves what is the goal of education? Is it the pursuit of knowledge to enrich your life and your understanding of the world? Is it a series of bureaucratic forms that must be filled out in triplicate as you wait in long lines to file them in on the promise of a ‘good’ job that can fulfil our desire for convenience? Do we learn for our own sake or for the validation of others, the insincere praise and flattery of sycophants? What room do we have for truth in a republic of illusions – for truth is hard to grasp and painful to hold. It does not slip neatly in between the carefully drawn lines or can be resized to fit whatever container is convenient. Where a lie opens doors but truth bars them what then is left in this republic of illusions that seems so mighty yet collapses with a sharp shock. Of a world where many sleep but few dream.
And where do we go, when the illusion shatters and we are left with nothing but the howling wind and the bitter soil.
Born somewhere between the old world of Korea and the new world of New Zealand Isaac is an award winning writer, teacher of literature and nomad currently residing in Nanjing.