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Why so many Asians love education

Amidst a rather morbidly morose topic, albeit candidly true, the author of this article dug deeper and excavated our East Asian roots and its Confucian influence — this is a selected excerpt:

But why is education so deeply ingrained in the Confucian culture?

Long before America existed, something of the American dream already had taken root in East Asia through the scholarship and examination system of the Mandarins. Villages and towns pooled their resources and sent their best and brightest to compete in the imperial court, hoping that one of their own would make it to the center of power.

Mandarins of various ranks were selected by how well they fared on extremely rigorous examinations. The brilliant few who passed ran the day-to-day operations of imperial China and Vietnam. A Mandarin could become a governor, a judge, or even marry into the royal family. A peasant thus could rise high above his station, elevating the status of his entire clan and honor his ancestors in the process. It all hinged on his ability to pass the difficult exams. 

Of all the temples in Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, the most beautiful is arguably the Temple of Literature, dedicated to all the laureates who passed the extremely rigorous imperial exams… Dedicated to Confucius and founded in 1070, it was Vietnam’s first university. It eventually became a temple, as if only befitting a trajectory in a world where education is literally worshiped. 

So worshiped that not getting good grades often means failing to achieve your destiny and thereby failing your own and your family’s expectations. Many of us consequently learned to measure the world and ourselves solely through a pedagogic lens. You are how well you do in school. Indeed, many are being caught in the Asian educational pressure cooker and, with little time for anything else, also robbed of much-needed social skills and independent thinking that could give them a different way of looking at themselves. 

An old mythology follows many of us across the sea: Only perfection matters and, by logic, its opposite, failure is rooted in shame. In his analects, Confucius recommended this philosophy when it comes to ruling people: “Lead the people with excellence and put them in their place through roles and ritual practices, and in addition to developing a sense of shame, they will order themselves harmoniously.” Even if much of the Confucian ethos have eroded, many old rites and ritual practices long forgotten since communism takeover and modernization began, the one thing that remains in operation is that sense of shame, and how it still profoundly grips the East Asian psyche. To lose face may still cause many an Asian to commit suicide. 

Asian Americans have excelled higher education in the last few decades. Less than 5 percent of the country’s population, Asian Americans typically make up 10 to 30 percent of the best colleges. What’s barely explored, sadly, is the darker narrative, that subterraneous stream that runs parallel to this shining path to academic success: stress, disappointment, depression, and, when failing to make the grade, a profound if not deadly identity crisis.

It’s been said that if you build your identity on anything other than God, that’s idolatry. If the ethnic Asian church doesn’t call it idolatry, who will?

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3 responses to “Why so many Asians love education

  1. Josh Deng ⋅

    Amen to that last line…

  2. elderj

    Amen to Josh….

    The ethnic Asian church cannot call it idolatry until it repents of its own participation in the idolatry by glorifying academic and intellectual credentials as the price of leadership within congregations. The ethnic Asian church is too often held captive to a view that senior pastors must hail from the best possible academic institutions in order to have any respect and in order to compensate for their decision to go into the less than honored profession of full time ministry.

  3. Dan ⋅

    I just wanted some clarification regarding what constitutes idolatry. I take it that it isn’t education per se, but our attitude towards education; education itself is valued even in the Jewish culture as well as the Greco-Roman culture (which all include the age-old honor/shame paradigm). I am not an expert in education, but from what I know, much of education (in the institutional sense) these days ignore character development. This is highly problematic.

    Perhaps the problem is not placing high value on education itself, but on valuing the wrong kind of education. Surely, church leaders should get the “best” education possible (which would ideally include character training), and we shouldn’t fault the lay for wishing their leaders to be of the highest caliber (although in the end God is the last judge on who is most qualified). God does raise prophets from the “wilderness,” but I would see this as an exception to the rule, not the norm.

    However, I do believe that, more often than not, Asians (of Confucian influence) do tend to place too much emphasis on mere labels (e.g., Harvard, Yale, Stanford, etc.) much in the same was as they do for clothes, cars, and even churches. Perhaps the educational system itself has bred such superficiality (a vicious circle). Nevertheless, I do not think Confucianism itself is necessarily the culprit, unless we would likewise blame the Levitical system, Greco-Roman system (Plato, Aristotle), et. al. If anything, the globalized ethos (which includes commercialism, materialism, hedonism, etc.) is more to blame. Consequently, in the wake of the global economic crises, the ideal of meritocracy is losing its attraction. Only thing that seems to matter these days is “who you know” and “how much money do you have,” and only those who have sufficient resources in these areas obtain brand names. Thus, further perpetuating this vicious cycle.

    Maybe, just maybe, God is calling more than a few prophets “from the wilderness” to deconstruct old wine-skins to “make way for the Lord”; a 21st century Year of Jubilee. In which case…. (but I am going way ahead of myself). 🙂

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