Celebrating China's "First Global Educator" and First TC Ph.D. Recipient | Teachers College Columbia University

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Celebrating China's "First Global Educator" – and First TC Ph.D. Recipient

A century ago, Kuo Ping Wen, a young man from Nanjing, in China’s JiangsuProvince, became his country’s first recipient of a Ph.D. from Teachers College. That event and the new era of education it augured for China were the focus of “In Service to Education: The Life and Times of Kuo Ping Wen, China’s First Global Educator,” a full-day conference held in TC’s Milbank Chapel in late fall.

Kuo, who wrote his dissertation on the history and structural development of education in China from ancient to modern times, became the first President of China’s Southeast University, introducing educational approaches learned from TC’s John Dewey and Paul Monroe and later inviting both men to speak at his institution. Equally important, he was the first among a group of brilliant TC students from China who would remake schooling in their country.

“From China’s perspective, TC trained a generation of educators and changed an era,” said Gang Ding, a professor at East China Normal University, during a morning panel on the development of teaching methodology in Chinese education from 1903 to the present day.  “Objectively speaking, perhaps no college other than TC has [had] so important [an] influence on modern China.”

Panelists at the conference discussed Kuo’s influence, his background and the evolution of Southeast University, among many other topics. Speakers included Yu Wei, a former Chinese Vice Minister of Education who also served as president of Southeast University; the university’s current vice president, Bo Liu; TC President Susan Fuhrman; and Henry Levin, TC’s William H. Kilpatrick Professor of Economics and Education. Thomas Moore, Vice President of the China Institute, which Kuo co-founded in 1926, delivered closing remarks.

Kuo’s great grandniece, Carolyn Hsu-Balcer, founder of the children’s wear company Snopea, was a driving force behind the conference. Her family foundation has also endowed a scholarship at TC in Kuo’s name. Fuhrman acknowledged the first two recipients of the scholarship, Meng Meng Cao, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in Mathematics Education and Yang Jiang, a Ph.D. candidate in Human Development, Cognitive Studies, both of whom attended the conference.

Kuo was “a proselyte for the liberal arts,” Levin said, who championed what he called “the four balances”:  the balance between a well-rounded education and specialization; the balance between humanistic and scientific education; the balance between investment in teaching personnel and investment in school facilities; and the balance between national and international learning.

Levin said that, in particular, scholars who work in China have embraced the notion of the latter balance, because it suggests that “we can learn in both directions and we need to look in all directions for our learning endeavors.”  Chinese students from Hong Kong and Taiwan began showing up in his own classes in the 1970s, Levin recalled, followed by students from the mainland in the 1980s. He himself began regularly visiting China after 1988 and has since conducted research with Chinese colleagues and taught at Peking University.

“I always say I’m very lucky, because I had students who were absolutely remarkable who returned to China and became important leaders,” Levin said. Among them was Min Weifang, who became China’s leading higher education scholar and Chair of the University Council of Peking University, the institution’s top executive.

“My relationship with him was very much like George Strayer’s was with Kuo,” Levin said, alluding to the faculty member who advised Kuo on his influential TC dissertation. Strayer, an authority on school administration, was also famous for the “Strayer pay formula,” an essential aspect of Levin’s own field of modern education economics. These parallels, Levin said, “helped me realize that China was a place for me.”

Several speakers praised Kuo’s ability to strike a balance between Chinese traditional wisdom and modern values. Kuo championed classical Chinese literature, said Yaqun Zhang, a faculty member at Xiamen University, because – in Kuo’s own words – it “produced in the Chinese people some of the fine and stable qualities which have been the strength of the nation for many ages.’”   Yet at Southeast, Bo Liu said, Kuo set up an American-style board of directors and instituted principles of faculty governance and student autonomy. He invited not only Dewey and Monroe but also the philosopher Bertrand Russell and the biologist Hans Driesch to deliver guest lectures. He was also a three-time vice president of the World Educational Association and served as president of the Association’s Asian Branch.

As a result of these achievements, Bo said, Southeast University today is a comprehensive research institution with 2,600 faculty members and 32,000 full time students, including a sizeable international contingent. It is allied with more than 100 universities and research institutes worldwide.

Other speakers described Kuo as an early advocate of women’s education who took pains to enroll female students; and as an internationalist who served as editor of the first Chinese edition of Webster’s Collegiate dictionary.

For all of his substantial achievements, it turned out Kuo was an imperfect student, at one point garnering a B+, two Bs and a first half C that turned into a B. Indeed, Kuo’s transcript – a copy of which was displayed by Huimei Zhou, an education faculty member at Beijing Normal University – was a major focus of a conference panel titled “Who Will Be the Next Kuo Ping Wen?”

“If you want a Kuo Ping Wen, you don’t have to have high grades but you do have to produce a huge dissertation that has a social impact,” said moderator Xiaodong Lin, TC Associate Professor of Technology and Education. “He has huge drive, motivation and grits. He had a big goal, but he’s very specific.”

Thomas Moore, Vice President of the China Institute, suggested a different take on the panel’s question.

“I want to ask, who will be the American Kuo Ping Wen? Who will be the American who goes to China and brings that back? I hope that in the future there will be an American Kuo Ping Wen, a Chinese one, and Kuo Ping Wens from many other countries as well.” – Jonathan Sapers

Published Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015