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A birthday wish for Tsinghua

Updated: 2011-04-26 13:23

By Patrick Mattimore (chinadaily.com.cn)

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In the US, when a child has a birthday, it is traditional that she is given a cake with birthday candles. Before the child blows out the candles, she is told to make a wish. On the centennial anniversary of Tsinghua University, I have a birthday wish for that august school: I hope that Tsinghua will become one of the best teaching institutions in the world.

This past Sunday, Chinese President Hu Jintao headlined ceremonies honoring Tsinghua. President Hu praised the institution where he was both a student and instructor. He urged Tsinghua to enhance "innovation and research capabilities" and encouraged students to develop "innovative minds."

To develop students' innovative minds, a college or university needs to have great teachers, not just eminent researchers. In reporting upon the ceremonies, China Daily sounded a somber note in that regard, quoting Shi Yigong, Dean of Tsinghua's School of Life Sciences. He said that the "current education mode has seriously hindered students’ creative abilities."

Regrettably, research and teaching do not always go hand-in-hand and sometimes faculty and universities sacrifice the latter at the altar of the former.

The reason universities sometimes sacrifice quality teaching is because a university's ranking and prestige are generally a product of the research and professional publications of its faculty. But as China Daily reported, "a growing volume of research publications does not mean an increase in quality." That is especially true with regard to an institution’s teaching quality.

When I have spoken with Chinese students who have spent time studying in the US, they stress that what they most appreciated about their American education experience was that they were challenged by professors to think deeply about problems, not just memorize what the professor was telling them. In that way, students learn to think independently, as President Hu exhorted them to do.

Outsiders looking at America's preeminent university system often focus on famous schools like Harvard or Berkeley, which are best known as research institutions. But just as critical to the overall excellence of American post-secondary education, is the quality of that country's liberal arts colleges. Those schools emphasize undergraduate study and give students a broad general knowledge, while developing students' intellectual capacities. The primary task of faculty at those schools is teaching, not research.

In 2009, three Chinese students studying at different liberal arts colleges in the US published a book, "A True Liberal Arts Education." The book is aimed at Chinese students who are thinking about attending college in the United States and the first printing quickly sold out.

Earlier this year, The New York Times reported that nearly one out of every ten students who were accepted this year at prestigious Grinnell College in Iowa came from China. Grinnell is a small liberal arts school at which, like other liberal arts colleges throughout the US, such as Kenyon College in Ohio or Williams College in Massachusetts, students have lots of opportunities to interact personally with faculty.

It is obvious that there is an underlying thirst among Chinese students for the enriched liberal arts type learning experiences which are not yet widely available in China. When those opportunities do become widespread, Chinese students will be the beneficiaries.

Patrick Mattimore is a fellow at the American-based Institute for Analytic Journalism and an adjunct law instructor at Tsinghua/Temple Law School LLM Program in Beijing.


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