When it comes to the concept of higher education, it’s essential to address a fundamental question: what is the purpose of receiving an education, particularly a higher one? In simpler terms, why do we go to college?
Most students, parents, and even teachers may not delve deeply into this question because going to college is seen as a given. Without college, it’s believed that opportunities for a good job and success are low, which would leave one at the bottom of society. This is a very realistic and easily understandable notion.
When my brother and I were very young, our parents instilled in us the importance of education. As time went on, we naturally accepted the viewpoint that “education is important” and “college is a must.”
I think my parents’ thoughts and actions back then represent the thoughts and actions of most Chinese parents today. However, young people are prone to rebellious thoughts, and even if they find something reasonable, they can become irritated if they hear it too often. If parents continue to exert pressure on their children in this situation, children will perceive learning as something they do for their parents, which can eventually turn into passive learning.
When I was a teaching assistant at Johns Hopkins University, the courses I tutored often had nearly a hundred students (which is considered a large class in private universities in the US), and about a third of the students were Asian (children of first-generation immigrants). These students should have had higher grades upon entering college than other ethnic groups, but not many of them performed exceptionally well. Instead, many of them learned passively.
In contrast, although some white students have poor grades, there are quite a few outstanding students among them who learn very actively. This not only manifests in their great interest in the subjects they study and their willingness to spend more time on them, but also in their excellent academic performance. This is something that is hard to find in Asian American or Tsinghua undergraduate students.
My brother also noticed a similar phenomenon while studying at Stanford University. This actually reflects the different educational philosophies between Americans (whites) and Asians, one of which is learning out of interest, while the other is learning for very practical benefits. The different goals often lead to different results.
1Running the marathon of life is a long journey, and the vast majority of people drop out before running halfway.
Under the pressure of Chinese students, embarking on the road to university has become an extension of their parents to realize their dreams, many young people will feel that they have finally completed the mission of their parents when they get the college admission letter.
With this in mind, the path they take to university is also very clear – to go for the diploma. When they get their diploma, they feel that they have finally ended their reluctant examination career and that they will never want to study again for the rest of their lives.
Unfortunately, life is a marathon, to get a gilded diploma from a famous university is just a good standing in the marathon race, life – the real university – the journey has just begun.
Many Chinese parents are saying that they can’t let their children lose at the starting line, so they will let their children grab a seat at the starting line as much as possible.
But in fact, the road to success is not as crowded as expected, because on the long marathon of life, the vast majority of people take the initiative to step down less than half of the way. Later, the remaining few people did not think that there were too many competitors, but worried about how to find a companion to run with themselves. Therefore, education is a lifelong thing, and the last person who laughs is the one who receives education all his life.
When people ask me about my parents’ experience in raising my brother and me, The answers they gave were disappointing, because these are things that all Chinese parents know and have already done, such as “the importance of teaching children to read,” and so on, not some secret that others do not know.
My parents were supposed to be successful in educating their children, but they themselves never realized the real secret of their parenting.
When my brother and I looked back many years later, we realized that the secret was in our parents themselves. My father didn’t have the opportunity to attend a full time university, but he studied all his life.
He took advantage of his job at the university to attend one university course after another, and worked very hard in scientific research, Won many national invention awards and scientific and technological progress awards, and finally was able to be promoted to a professor-level researcher in a university that highly values diplomas, can not be said to be a miracle.
In my impression, my parents never attend social gatherings in the evening, or even watch TV plays, and always study very regularly. My mother is now 80 years old and still learning every day. What our parents do not know is that their greatest success in the education of our brothers is that by their actions they have imperceptibly influenced us to formLifelong learning habits.
My own college journey has been very long. I have been studying for 24 years (11 for primary and secondary schools, 5 for undergraduate and 2 for graduate studies in China and 6 for doctoral studies in America). If you count from the first day of college to the time I left school through the defense of my doctoral thesis, it was as long as 18 years (1984 to 2002), during which I went to work twice and went back to school twice.
My brother seems to be luckier than me, from Tsinghua University to get a doctorate from Stanford University, it took only 10 years. But after that, although he worked in industry, he still had to learn new things, write papers, attend academic conferences and apply for patents. In his more than ten years of career, he obtained more than 140 patents in the United States, and eventually became the chief technology officer (CTO) of a large semiconductor company in the world. If he went to college, he has been studying for decades.
For people like my brother, who had no family background and lacked the spirit of adventure, a college education gave us a high starting point, butThe ultimate success benefits more from constant learning.
When we were in high school and college, there were many classmates who competed with each other, but later on, the fewer people we were educated with. After graduation, there are not many people who can insist on learning new knowledge like us.
In retrospect, some people who used to be better than us in reading and got a better place in the starting line have already given up the marathon of life, and we can run farther, just because we are still running, that’s all.
2The Significance of University Education Goes Beyond Coursework
Some people may ask, what have you learned over the years, what is there to learn, and what is really useful for life and work? This brings us to the other fundamental question of how young people should navigate their way through college.
In fact, if you look at it from a functional point of view, my higher education was so inefficient that most of the courses I took as an undergraduate were not only useless for work, but also useless for later professional studies. According to my experience with many college students, it seems that this problem has not been solved yet.
This means that higher education itself has a lot of room for improvement, maybe we can receive a better and more effective education, so that I do not have to spend 24 years in school as a student.
On the other hand, it also shows that the meaning of higher education may not lie in the curriculum itself. The experience of college life and higher education is an important thing in itself, and the content of the curriculum comes second. No matter what course you take in college, if you learn enough and long enough, you will be educated.
From this point of view, it seems that we should be able to draw the conclusion that the road we have to take in universities is far more than studying and getting a degree. The general quality education we have to introduce later is in fact to broaden the university road of every young person.
When my children Meng Hua and Meng Xin began their education, I, like many parents, of course hoped that their college journey would be more exciting and easier than mine. I also know that the most important thing is to let them know that education is a lifelong process, so that they can go a long way.
To do this, they must not be afraid of education in the first place. Both Menghua and Menxin have very bad eyesight (due to their genes), and their eyes allow them to spend only about half of the average child’s time reading each night.
When Menghua finally applied to college, most of her classmates stayed up all night to improve their application materials, but she had to rest at 10 o’clock – not that she didn’t want to stay up all night to write better on her application materials, but her eyes wouldn’t allow it. Although Mengxin is still very young, she already needs to spend a lot of time outdoors every week to protect her eyes.
Perhaps because of this, they have not been tired of studying so far. I have always instilled in them the idea that when you graduate from college, most of your peers will not continue to study, and as long as you continue to improve yourself, you will catch up and surpass others.
The second way I can think of developing children’s interest in learning is to learn and do what they like to do with their interests.
My generation had to think about their future livelihood when it came to education and choosing a profession. However, I hope that our next generation will think more about how to become a better person, a more useful person, and see education as the process of realizing their dreams, not just learning for their future livelihood.
“The most important thing is to be a good person. Even if you go to De Anza College, your mother and I will love you.” Fortunately, in a less stressful environment, they seem to be more self-conscious in their reading so far than I was when I was a child, and they all have enough time to do what they love.
As Menghua unwittingly entered the age of going to college, I must communicate with her about what kind of college education she should receive, because the future education is completely up to the university and herself.
So helping her find a college that is right for her became very important. For high school students, finding the best college for them is not simply about looking at the U.S. News & World Leader rankings, but about matching their strengths, interests, and aspirations to the university’s characteristics.
In the experience of my brother and I, our PhDs were the best match for our strengths and interests, and if we went to each other’s schools (both top universities), the results would have been much worse.
Therefore, in order to help Menghua understand the essential characteristics of many excellent universities in the United States, I began to systematically study the undergraduate education in American universities several years ago, especially the characteristics of famous private universities in the United States.
Of course, there is a second reason I study university education, which is out of interest in the training of young people itself.
When I was in Tsinghua University as an undergraduate class teacher, I trained the class (Tsinghua Radio 931) to be the best class in the whole school. It was the happiest thing for me to see many students succeed in their careers.
Although I did not hold a formal teaching position in America, Johns Hopkins gave me the chance to play a role in the administration of the institution.
In order to be able to do my job, I have been studying the educational experience of the world’s leading universities (mainly British and American universities), including the path they have traveled over the centuries, so that I can make useful suggestions that may lead to the next level of this leading university.
At the same time, the Johns Hopkins University platform has given me the opportunity to discuss ideas with the president, dean, department chairs, and professors on a regular or occasional basis. This gives me a deeper understanding of all aspects of American universities.
In addition, another way I learned about American universities is by working with their graduates, getting to know their alma mater through them, and by communicating with them, getting to know their alma mater first-hand. Of course, whenever I am invited to give academic presentations at universities, I cherish the opportunity to communicate with their professors and students, so that I can learn about the information that many universities do not disclose to the public, especially their hidden rules in recruiting and promoting professors.
Although I am so concerned about Menghua’s choice of university, it is not an easy thing to pass on my knowledge and opinions about the famous private universities in the United States to my children.
It is an undeniable fact that there is a generation gap between children and their parents when they reach puberty. The best way to get them to agree to consult their parents is to let them experience the value of their advice.
The best way to help Menghua find a school she likes (not one I think is good) is to take her on a field trip. To this end, from the beginning of her high school, we took her to see many famous universities in Britain and the United States, so that she could have a sense of those schools, so that we could have a foundation for communication.
For those colleges that she would most likely choose, she has spent more time on her own experiences. For example, she went to MIT three times and spent a summer at Stanford and Johns Hopkins each, which gave her a better understanding of the colleges she is interested in.
As I expected, her views on universities were quite different from mine, and she quickly dropped many of the universities I thought were worth considering, such as Cambridge, Oxford, and Chicago, but we were able to agree on something after talking. When I introduce the universities in the book, I will write my views and hers in order to provide references for people of different ages.
3General Education vs. Professional Education
Next, I want to talk about my views on college (including high school) education. This synthesizes my experiences with my younger brother’s education and the results of my research on college education.
First of all, the education of the university should be divided into two stages, the undergraduate stage, which is based on the general education, and the postgraduate stage, which is based on the professional.
At the undergraduate level, students should receive “Universal Knowledge,” not just “Skills.” This view is based on the educational experience of Oxford University by John Newman. It can be said that without good generalist education, one’s career development will not have stamina.
In the United States, the annual salary of graduates from various universities is calculated. Among the top 10 universities, in addition to Stanford University, which is strong in engineering, and the University of Pennsylvania, which specializes in business, are comprehensive universities. The rest are almost exclusively science and engineering universities (such as MIT, Caltech, Carnegie-Mellon and Georgia Tech).
The much-talked about “Big Ivy,” the three most famous Ivy League universities – Harvard, Yale and Princeton – are not among them.
But when you look at the 15 years after graduation, universities with generalist education, such as Harvard and Princeton, are in the top 10, outpacing even engineering and business-focused universities.
Although income is not the only indicator to measure the contribution of graduates, nor can it fully reflect the quality of a university, at least the change in income can show the help of a general education to a person’s lifelong development.
Today, when Chinese students enter high school, they begin to specialize in the courses required for the gaokao, but when they enter university, they are restricted to the majors that are not allowed to be modified, which not only deprives them of the opportunity to get a general education, but also deprives them of the possibility to cultivate their own interest in learning. I really feel sad for them.
Fortunately, I received a very good general education in my own high school, so that today I have enough literacy in the humanities and social sciences to make me a respectable person.
When I got to college, the biggest gain was not how much book knowledge I had learned, butI learned a lot from my teachers and classmates. As Newman put it, “When many intelligent, inquisitive, compassionate, discerning young people get together, they can learn from each other even if no one is teaching them.”
I would like to thank Tsinghua University, where I studied, for bringing together many outstanding young people, so that we can influence and learn from each other. This is what will benefit me throughout my life.
The world today is very different from the time Newman lived in. In those days, the accumulation of human knowledge was not much, and a person could do many jobs after completing a general education, but now many jobs (such as biopharmaceuticals) require professional skills.
Therefore, after completing a generalist education, it is necessary to complete professional training on this basis for a period of 1-5 years depending on your interests. This training can be done in school, on the job, or (like me) back to school after working.
The first educator who advocated professional training was the Prussian diplomat and educator Humboldt, who was the founder of the Prussian education system. The professional education of modern universities, especially the graduate school system, was modeled on the German university system. Humboldt emphasized that the purpose of education is to give students really useful knowledge so that they can immediately apply it to the service of society.
With a good foundation of generalist education and professional skills, how far a person can go depends on two things, namely, his willingness to serve the community and his love for the cause he is engaged in.
Service to society is the essence of American elite education. Both Franklin and Jefferson, the founding fathers of the United States in the early days of the founding of the United States, and George Gilman and George Eliot, the educators of the American Industrial Revolution in the mid-19th century, all emphasized that the purpose of teaching is to serve the society.
Today, Harvard and Yale do not emphasize the importance of test scores, because they give most students A’s, which means that it is not difficult to get straight A’s on the transcript. The reason why these two universities take grades so lightly is not that they don’t understand the importance of grades, but to send a message to students that you are doing well enough academically and that you should focus on things beyond the curriculum.
In fact, at Yale, students spend half their time in extracurricular activities, Because of these seemingly unrelated activities, students develop a variety of excellent qualities, such as fighting spirit, team spirit, leadership, social skills, presentation skills, global vision and social responsibility. In fact, if you don’t learn these things at Harvard and Yale, you lose the point of studying there.
I have also visited many of China’s top engineering universities and found that their students spend 90% of their time studying and preparing for exams. Although this can get good professional training, but it makes young people lose the opportunity to cultivate excellent quality and comprehensive ability in the most precious time of life.
Back to the second question I mentioned at the beginning, that is, why it is so difficult for Chinese students to apply to the top universities in the United States, there are many reasons, which I will analyze one by one later. But there is an important reason is that the purpose of Chinese students to study and the concept of those universities are so different from the United States that the application materials will show this difference intentionally or unintentionally, making them not recognized by those private elite universities.