There’s a lot of talk in Western countries about the success of Asian students in schools and universities. This debate extends beyond mere culture to incorporate the idea of human intelligence. The question then becomes, are Asians simply smarter? Asians do tend to score slightly higher than Caucasians in IQ tests, and significantly higher than blacks.
This is a complex question, and here I’m just going to raise a couple of main points. I will focus upon Asian culture and schooling here. There are of course a host of related issues in Western education.
It is indisputable that environment has a significant effect on the expression of human intelligence. (The debate is over just how much).
The way that most intelligence tests are constructed favours pencil and paper type intelligence, and of course people who spend more time doing pencil and paper tests will do better. Most intelligence tests test favour verbal/linguistic, mathematical/logical intelligence and spatial awareness. Given the culture of most Asian societies – endless study and playing computer games – it’s only natural these facets of human intelligence will expand. It’s important to note that intelligence is very plastic, as The Flynn Effect clearly shows – at least in terms of measured IQ. (The Flynn Effect refers to the massive increase in measured Intelligence in developed countries since World War Two). Russian psychologist S Luria showed that Russian peasants early last century had almost no capacity for abstract conceptualisation. Now almost everybody is proficient, given the demands of modern society. This is just one facet of such intelligence expansion.
Consider how IQ scores might change if intelligence tests incorporated other variables not well-developed in Asian cultures.
- Idea generation.
- Question generation.
- Lateral thinking.
- Hypothesis formulation.
- Self-reflective awareness.
- Social intelligence.
- Emotional and spiritual intelligence (includining what I call Integrated Intelligence).
- Embodied intelligence…*
I suspect that if these factors were taken into consideration when assessing human intelligence, then Asians would then fall back considerably in the tests scores. Not because of innate lack of intelligence, but because of cultural delimitation.
Most notably, many of the attributes in the list above are present in the worlds great thought leaders. So why do they they not constitute a part of most intelligence testing?
If you look at the development of human civilisation it is hard to argue that Asians are smarter. In fact, given that there are far more Asians than any other race, they are under-represented in human design and creativity, especially in the past several centuries. Few Asians, for example, have been represented in the awarding of Nobel Prizes. Some suggest that this is due to the cultural bias of the awarding body. However, I don’t think this is the entire reason.
There’s no doubt that there were impressive cultures and societies built in centuries past. And there was a great deal of introspective wisdom in Buddhist, Taoist, Indic thought and so on.
I think we can assume that the same genetic pool was available in China during its years as “The Sick Man of Asia” as there is today – when we see China flourishing economically and technologically. Clearly then the same DNA can produce the gleaming skyscrapers and fast trains of twenty-first century China – but also the mind boggling stupidity of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, which led to China’s economic collapse and the deaths of perhaps fifty million people.
Intelligence is the capacity to solve problems. Where culture and society and behaviour promote any given cognitive capacity, then it will flourish – and whatever mental abilities are not valued will diminish. This is what is happening with the East Asian cultures at present – but only in certain cognitive domains. The reason why high IQ scores and scholastic aptitudes don’t necessarily translate into genius is because intelligence tests and schooling focus on a delimited range of human mental abilities. These abilities will get you good grades and into good universities and decent jobs, but the entire process is self-limiting.It often comes at the cost of the cognitive abilities which Asian parents do not value because they have little academic or social/financial value.
The entire East Asian social structure also creates a high degree of co-dependence, which means most people are unwilling to step outside the boundaries of what is socially approved of. I predict that this will eventually lead to social stagnation (as is happening in Japan), because ultimately there will be too many managers and not enough leaders (especially thought leaders).
There is an increasing awareness of this issue in Asia. Singapore in particular has incorporated creativity into its classrooms. In Hong Kong, the Education Department is attempting to do the same.
Ironically, the greatest hindrance to change is the social structure. Parents, administrators and teachers all want high test scores. But most are not willing to sacrifice upward social mobility for the sake of some abstract concepts like creativity or emotional intelligence. So parents keep drilling their kids and sending them to tutoring classes after school and on weekends. And students get good scores. But at what cost?
* No doubt you will be thinking this list is highly subjective. And you would be correct. These variables simply reflect my personal perception based on experience in East Asian cultures. I’m sure some might take offence at suggesting that, say, social intelligence is not well developed. This needs to be contextualised. There is a growing issue in many Asian countries with young people – especially males – becoming disengaged from society. For example, in China there is a derogatory term – “diaosi” – used to describe young men who have limited social skills, no girlfriend, and who spend most of their spare time playing computer games. This problem is not unique to China, but is exacerbated in China because young men with no connections to power or influence often have limited social and professional options.