February 23, 2013
The Chinese imperial bureaucracy was immensely powerful. Entrance was theoretically open to anyone, from any walk of society—as long as they could pass a very tough examination. The number of passes was tightly restricted to keep the bureaucracy at optimal size.
Passing the tests and becoming a “scholar official” was a ticket to a very good, very secure life. And there is something to like about a system like this … especially if you happen to be good at exams. Of course, once you gave the imperial bureaucracy a lot of power, and made entrance into said bureaucracy conditional on passing a tough exam, what you have is … a country run by people who think that being good at exams is the most important thing on earth. Sound familiar?
The people who pass these sorts of admissions tests are very clever. But they’re also, as time goes on, increasingly narrow. The way to pass a series of highly competitive exams is to focus every fiber of your being on learning what the authorities want, and giving it to them. To the extent that the “Tiger Mom” phenomenon is actually real, it’s arguably the cultural legacy of the Mandarin system.
That system produced many benefits, but some of those benefits were also costs. A single elite taking a single exam means a single way of thinking:
The examination system also served to maintain cultural unity and consensus on basic values. The uniformity of the content of the examinations meant that the local elite and ambitious would-be elite all across China were being indoctrinated with the same values.
All elites are good at rationalizing their eliteness, whether it’s meritocracy or “the divine right of kings.” The problem is the mandarin elite has some good arguments. They really are very bright and hardworking. It’s just that they’re also prone to be conformist, risk averse, obedient, and good at echoing the opinions of authority, because that is what this sort of examination system selects for.
The even greater danger is that they become more and more removed from the people they are supposed to serve. Since I moved to Washington, I have had series of extraordinary conversations with Washington journalists and policy analysts, in which I remark upon some perfectly ordinary facet of working-class, or even business-class life, only to have this revelation met with amazement. I once had it suggested to me by a wonk of my acquaintance that I should write an article about how working-class places I’ve worked usually had one or two verbally lightning-fast guys who I envied for their ability to generate an endless series of novel and hilarious one-liners to pass the time. I said I’d take it under advisement, but what on earth would one title such an article?
You should read the whole thing.
One of the things we learn in the history of Physics is that the Greeks, who used “pure reason” to figure out how things worked, got most things wrong. It wasn’t until people like Galileo started doing experiments that they started getting things right. Reason and creativity untempered by experience often lead to disasters, and that’s the way the country seems to be headed.