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Front. Educ China 2010, 5(1): 104–129 DOI 10.1007/s11516-010-0008-z

RESEARCH ARTICLE Limin Bai

Human Capital or Humane Talent? Rethinking the Nature of Education in China from a Comparative Historical Perspective
© Higher Education Press and Springer-Verlag 2010

Abstract In order to analyze the impact of human capital theory on contemporary Chinese education, this paper first draws aconceptual outline of how this theory was introduced and interpreted to suit the Chinese quest for modernization. The study then adopts a comparative historical approach to the points of similarity between Neo-Confucian educational ideas and those of British humanism in an earlier transitional period that has some parallels. The aim of this comparison is to connect the ideas of Neo-Confucians andhumanist educators to Ronald Dore’s concept of the role of education and his insights on the diploma disease. Within this core framework, this paper exposes the problems that have come from a melding of the examination tradition and the notion of human capital. It suggests that a revival of another aspect of Chinese tradition—education for fostering one’s humanity—may help balance contemporaryChinese education and restore it to health. Keywords human capital theory, human talent, examination system, Neo-Confucianism, diploma disease, nature of education, British humanism Since 1978 human capital theory and the instrumentalist view of education for economic development have permeated China. The revival of the formal education system and the university entrance examinations after the end ofthe Cultural Revolution helped shape the Chinese perception and interpretation of human capital theory. However, seeking a connection between education and China’s development is not entirely new, and it can be traced back to the nineteenth century when China faced intrusion by Western powers. Modern
Received October 3, 2009 Limin Bai ( ) School of Languages and Cultures, Victoria University ofWellington, Wellington, New Zealand E-mail: limin.bai@vuw.ac.nz

Human Capital or Humane Talent?

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scholars have pondered such questions as whether there was a causal link between education and industrialization, or the scientific revolution, and their research findings may shed some light on our discussion of human capital theory with its emphasis on the role of education for economicproductivity. In order to analyze the impact of human capital theory on contemporary Chinese education, this paper first draws a conceptual outline of how this theory was introduced and interpreted to suit the Chinese quest for modernization. The study then adopts a comparative historical approach to the points of similarity between Neo-Confucian educational ideas and those of British humanism in anearlier transitional period that has some parallels. The aim of this comparison is to connect the ideas of Neo-Confucians and humanist educators to Ronald Dore’s concept of the role of education and his insights on the diploma disease. Within this core framework, the final part of this paper exposes the problems that have come from a melding of the examination tradition that was so powerful inChina, and the notion of human capital which is so central to neo-liberal ideology. It argues that the present dilemma of unemployed graduates is a reflection of an obsession with a kind of education that is upheld because of its supposed support of “human capital” but actually is dysfunctional. It is from this perspective that the study calls for the rethinking of the nature of education in thecontemporary Chinese context.

China’s Perception of Human Capital Theory
The origin of the concept of human capital can be traced back to Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature And Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), but it was developed into an influential educational idea by American economists Gary Becker (1930– ) and Theodore Schultz (1902–1998). The basic idea is that education and...
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