Skip Navigation

Visit Teachers College Online! Visit Columbia University Online! Visit Columbia University Online!

Mission of Center

We seek to contribute to a better understanding of education development in China and to strengthen education relationship between the United States and China.

Department Name

Subhead here

About Us

Feature Article: Teachers College and Chinese Education

A College and a Country -Teachers College, Columbia University and Modern Chinese Education
Zhou Hongyu ( Translated by Wang Haixiao)

May 31, 2001

The exchange between Teachers College (TC) and the educational circles of modern China started in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A preliminary research shows that in as early as 1905 a Chinese student, Mr. Samuel Sung Young obtained a masterís degree at TC. Upon his return to China, he was first awarded the academic degree of ìJinshiî by the Qing government in the fall of 1907, and then given senior official positions in the Ministries of Education, and Post and Communications. He also served as president of Tangshan Engineering and Mining Institute (which evolved into todayís Shanghai Jiaotong University), Zhili Province. Later, along with the changes in the political situations in China resulting from the influence of the West, Chinaís passive practice of opening to the outside world, the strengthening of the Sino-U.S. relations, and in particular the decision of the American government to refund part of the Genzi Indemnity to support Chinese students seeking further studies in the United States, more and more Chinese students crossed the ocean and came to the U.S. for further education. Cherishing the lofty aspirations of ìsaving the country with education,î many of these students regarded TC as an ideal place for their further education and for the realization of their ambitions.

On the other hand, this was also a period when TC was at the peak of development in its early history, with its faculty including such world famed scholars as the philosopher and educator John Dewey, educator James E. Russell, history of education and comparative education specialist Paul Monroe, education psychologist Edward Lee Thorndike, and education philosopher William Heard Kilpatrick. Their exploration and innovation in the field of education, and furthermore, their guidance and promotion of the progressive education movement in the U.S. enabled TC to take the lead in the education of the world in 1920s and 1930s.

The fame of TC attracted many Chinese students to its campus. According to incomplete statistics, there were nearly 1000 Chinese students who studied at TC, occupying almost one fifth of the total number of Chinese students studying education in the U.S. A large number of people, such as Jiang Menglin, Guo Binwen and Tao Xingzhi, who later became important figures in the field of education in China, came to study at TC in the first decade of the 20th century. Under the guidance of the famed professors of TC, they worked hard, devoted themselves to current events, and showed great concern for society. All this helped to broaden their vision, enrich their knowledge, enhance their ability, and form their own view of life and of the world as well as their early educational thoughts and political stance, which laid a solid foundation for their educational reform practice after their return to China.

During their study at TC, the Chinese students established Chinaís first educational research association-the Chinese Education Research Association (also translated ìChinese Studentsí Clubî). Founded in late 1915 and early 1916, the association was first headed by Lin Bing (1915-1916), then by Tao Xingzhi (1916-1917), and then by Zhang Boling (1917-1918). At its beginning, it had 24 members, 17 of whom were Chinese together with 7 American teachers and students who were concerned with Chinaís education. The Chinese students of the association mainly came from TC with a few more from other schools and colleges of Columbia University. Among the latter were Hu Shi and Sun Ke (the eldest son of Dr. Sun Yat-sen) who were studying in the Department of Philosophy, Columbia University. In 1916, the members had a meeting and took a group photo. (In the middle of the photo is Prof. Paul Monroe who was the director of Education Research Department of TC. Among the others are Jiang Menglin, second from left, back row; Hu Shi, first from left, front row; Sun Ke, second from right, front row; Tao Xingzhi, fourth from right, third row; and Lin Bing, third from right, third row.) Upon their return to China, these members became the initiators of the May 4th New Culture and New Education Movements that changed the outlook of China. It could be well said that the association gave birth to a number of leaders of China ís new culture and new education.

Most of the students who had returned to China after the completion of their studies at TC devoted themselves to the work of politics, culture and education, and were the pioneers or founders in many fields. Some of them even held important positions in government offices, universities or research institutions. A rough survey reveals that at least 5 TC graduates served as head of such national departments or ministries as the Executive Yuan, Legislative Yuan, and Control Yuan of the central government. (For example, Zhang Bolin served as chairman of the National Advisory Council, president of Nankai University, etc.) More than 10 graduates served as head of the Ministry of Education or its subdivisions (For example, Jiang Menglin served as secretary-general of the Executive Yuan and Minister of Education). Over 20 graduates served as presidents of well-known universities across China (For example, Jiang Menglin was president of Peking University; Hu Shi, president of Peking University; Guo Bingwen, president of Nanjing Higher Normal Institute and Southeast University; Zhang Bolin, president of Nankai University; Chen Baoquan, Li Zheng and Li Jianxun, presidents of Beijing Normal University). From their respective positions, these people contributed greatly to Chinaís social reform and educational development.

From the beginning of the 20th century to the 1940s, a number of famous professors from TC also visited or gave lectures in China. Among them were John Dewey, Paul Monroe, William Heard Kilpatric, H. O. Rugg and W. H. McCall. Some of them had been to China more than once. (For example, Paul Monroe had been to China for at least 8 times during the period.) John Dewey was on a lecture tour to China for two years, three months and eleven days from April 30, 1919 to July 11, 1921. Invited and hosted by Chinese students, these scholars left their footprints in more than half of China, spreading the notions of pragmatic education, and introducing the educational system of the United States. Their lectures promoted the reform and development of education in China and helped to form the ì6-3-3î schooling systemî (or the ìnew schooling systemî) that had a lasting influence on China. Until today, this system has remained the main type of schooling system in Mainland China and Taiwan. Furthermore, their lectures promoted the innovation in curriculum, teaching material and teaching methodologies, enhanced the development of educational experimentation and educational measurement, and accelerated the progress in democracy and science in Chinese education. Under their influence, TC graduates such as Tao Xingzhi and Cheng Ho Chin began to build upon the ideas of their teachers new education theories suited to the Chinese circumstances. For example, based on John Deweyís educational thoughts, Tao put forward the famous ìlife education theoryî while Cheng advanced the well-known ìlive education theory.î

The visits and lectures by professors of TC contributed not only to Chinaís educational reform but also to the countryís social reform. The notions of democracy and science they spread in China shook the traditional Chinese values and conventions and contributed to the progress of democracy and science in China. Therefore, Hu Shi said that in the 100 years before him, nobody in the West surpassed John Dewey in his influence on China. Maybe there was some exaggeration in what Hu said, but the saying was not without any basis and it in a way reflected the influence of Western culture on Chinese culture. Of course the theories of John Dewey and others were the products of the American society and it was impossible for these theories to suit Chinese society perfectly. The forced application of these theories by some people had also left negative influences on Chinese education and lessons have to be learned from these practices.

After the 1950s, because of the changes in Chinaís political situations, China and the United States remained in a state of confrontation for quite a period of time. As a result, the ties were also broken between TC and Chinaís education. But since Chinaís practice of reform and opening to the outside world in the 1980s, a large number of Chinese students began to seek further education in the United States and many of them again chose TC. Some of these people have returned to China and become the backbone of Chinaís education.

In July 2000, Professor Mun C. Tsang founded the Center on Chinese Education at TC, which signaled a new period of revival and strengthening in the relations between the College and Chinese education. Under the care of the leadership of the College, headed by Professor Tsang, and supported by various foundations (e.g., the Henry Luce Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Lingnan Foundation), the Center is undertaking a number of research, training, and outreach activities. These activities are solidly based on the expertise of the TC faculty and faculty in collaborating Chinese universities. The Center has also given emphasis on the research on the historical relations between TC and modern Chinese education. They have invited Chinese scholars to conduct research in the area and certain progress has been made in this respect.

As the human society has entered a new millenium, the ties between TC and Chinese education are also getting stronger and stronger. It can be argued that with the progressively mature and stable relations between China and the United States, the relationship between TC and Chinese education will also be brought to a new era of development. TCís influence on the development of Chinese education will become greater and greater. This is a mission entrusted by the times as well as by history. We are looking forward to a greater glory of Teachers College, Columbia University.

Note: Zhou Hongyu is Professor of Education and History at Central China Normal University. He prepared this article while he was a Visiting Scholar in the Center during AY 2000-01. Wang Haixiao is Professor of English at Nanjing University. He received his doctorate from Teachers College.