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  • John Dewey, Liang Shuming, and China’s Education Reform: Cultivating Individuality by Huajun Zhang
  • Sula You (bio)
John Dewey, Liang Shuming, and China’s Education Reform: Cultivating Individuality. By Huajun Zhang. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013. Pp. ix + 181. Hardcover $60.00, isbn 978-0-739-14792-4.

John Dewey, Liang Shuming, and China’s Education Reform: Cultivating Individuality, by Huajun Zhang, aims to present a desirable direction for education in China. The author emphasizes the importance and urgency of cultivating individuality as a way of countering problems in China that are typified by materialism and nihilism and that have resulted in a crisis of the individual. Zhang exhorts education reformers to prioritize the cultivation, on a continuing basis, of a true sense of individuality and at the same time the sense of self connected to others. The book is based on an observation of China’s educational trends over the past thirty years, but Zhang’s analysis and perceptions are not limited to a specific time or place. In presenting her argument she ranges from Eastern to Western thought and from American pragmatism to Chinese Confucianism, with an eye to bridging the chasm between traditional and present societies. [End Page 1305]

Central to this book is a comparative philosophical analysis, in chapters 3 to 5, of the ideas on individuality in an educational context offered by John Dewey (1859– 1952) and Liang Shuming (1893–1988). Before taking up her main theme, however, Zhang discusses the background to the failure of modern Chinese educational reform. In the opening chapter, she vividly describes the problems brought on by the drastic changes that have taken place in Chinese society. From her own life experience, Zhang reveals that educational reform has failed to consider what education really means and why the development of individuality is so critical to it. She believes that this failure has been reinforced by the marketization of education.

Chapter 2 presents the historical context to the change in the way the individual has come to see his or her relation to society. This change began to occur during the period of transition to the modern era and is reflected in China’s current educational framework. The liberalism of the May Fourth period and the Maoist campaign that followed both called for a new society in different ways, but both regarded traditional, mainly Confucian, values as antiquated. The mission of the May Fourth movement was to launch a new wave of Chinese individualism, and this led to the demolishing of traditional authority. The Communists, on the other hand, headed by Mao Zedong and under the banner of independence from outside pressure, called for a patriotism that willingly accepted the sacrifice of individual autonomy. During this period individual expression became secondary in importance to a commonality of purpose and social progress. In other words, both movements downplayed the inherent worth of the individual person and discouraged the cultivation of independent thinking. Ultimately, this negative emphasis on the individual led to the lack of success of educational reform.

The concept of an integral relationship between self and society — “the critical emphasis on self-cultivation as the core of social transformation” — already existed in traditional Confucianism. Zhang claims that if the present situation is to be corrected, an effort must be made to revive this aspect of Confucian thought (p. 54). Her strategy for educational development is to endeavor to establish a new connection with what has now become a lost tradition, and this effort is relevant to the major question of how individuals can maintain total agency over their own lives in a rapidly changing society.

In chapter 3, with the aim of discovering a more comprehensive and dynamic solution, the author invites two leading figures of the early twentieth century — John Dewey and Liang Shuming — into a three-way conversation that includes Zhang herself. The ensuing dialogue evolved from the author’s realization that the educational needs of contemporary China are closely related to Dewey’s and Liang’s concerns over the social issues of their times. These issues included extreme individualism, a disconnect between the modern and the traditional, and the marketization of education. Zhang thoroughly investigates Dewey...


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