Cover Image
close this bookPopularization of Science and Technology - What Informal and Non-formal Education Can Do? (Faculty of Education,University of Hong Kong - UNESCO, 1989, 210 p.)
close this folderPapers presented at the Conference:
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentScience for all people: Some educational settings and strategies for the popularisation of science and technology - Harbans Bhola
View the documentNonformal education: A hinge between science and culture - Camillo Bonanni
View the documentThe popularisation of science and technology from an educational designer’s standpoint - Fred Goffree
View the documentPatterns of nonformal and informal education effective for the polarization of science and technology - Ana Krajnc
View the documentScience and technology in public adult education - Klaus Pehl
View the documentCompetition and complementarity between formal and nonformal education - Jean-Emile Charlier
View the documentIndigenous cultural tradition and the popularisation of science and technology - Bernard H.K. Luk
View the documentPopularization of science and technology: The cultural dimension - Cheng Kai Ming
View the documentThe role of Science Teacher Associations in promoting the popularisation of science through nonformal means - Jack B. Holbrook
View the documentPopularizing educational technology: The INNOTECH model - Jose B. Socrates
View the documentOut-of-school activities: The road to success - Cheng Donghong
View the documentEducation and technology transfer in Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, China - Gerard Postiglione
View the documentPopularization of science and technology - Kurt Prokop

Popularization of science and technology: The cultural dimension - Cheng Kai Ming

The theme of this short paper is to identify the cultural elements which may contribute to the popularisation of science and technology in the East Asian region. The theme has been made elsewhere in international conferences (Cheng, 1988a, 1988b, 1988c) but in another context.

Does Culture Matter?

What may be identified as characteristic of the East Asian Confucian societies - Japan, Mainland China, Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong and to a large extent Singapore - is the low visibility of technological unemployment and computer phobia, which, elsewhere, can easily become the major setbacks for the dissemination of modern science and new technologies.

There could be all kinds of economic, social or political reasons, internal to these societies, to explain the lack of such phenomena in these societies, However, it remains to be explained why these societies, with extremely different economic statuses and systems and of rival political ideologies, should share such common characteristics when they come to the acquisition of science and technology.

One possible answer to this question is that these societies share the same culture - the “Confucian culture” as is known - which favours competition and adaptation. It is not the job of this paper to probe the substance of “Confucian culture” in general, but it is sufficient for the purpose of this paper to identify that the societies mentioned were all once influenced by Confucius.

A Culture of Adaptation

A famous China sociologist, Fei Hsiao-tung (1974) made a distinction between the Chinese society and the “Western” society by identifying the Chinese society as a configuration of hierarchy contrasting the Western societies which are “configurations of groups”.

In the former, every member of the community is very conscious of his or her position in the hierarchy and tend to act according to the role expectations of the society with respect to his or her position. This is identified by Fei, quite justifiably, as the basic interpersonal relations in typical Chinese societies. Whereas in the West, people exist as individuals and they link to each other in groups according to expedient necessities.

Fei’s assertion may be used to explain a number of phenomena which are common to Chinese societies. It helps explain the way resources are allocated in Chinese societies. It helps explain the strong family tie and the strong sense of seniority in such societies. It may hence support the findings that Chinese work ethics disfavours individualism (Hofstede, 1984) and the absence of the notion of self in traditional Chinese thinking (Hsu, 1985). It may even help explain political and ideological struggles in modern Chinese history.

Among others, the configuration of hierarchy provides a sociological explanation to a “culture of adaptation”. In such a configuration, individuals are expected to act according to what the system expects.

In Chinese societies, however, it is also well recognized that there is a built-in mechanism for social mobility (e.g. Solomon, 1971). It is not a static hierarchy; it is a strict but dynamic hierarchy. It respects efforts to change one’s position in the hierarchy, and the major incentive system which facilitates such upward mobility is education.

Education for Trainability

Education is ever the major ladder, and almost the only ladder, for social mobility. But such a mobility can be achieved only if one works according to a uniform set of social expectations.

Hence, there is early socialisation of pre-school children to adult values. There is what is seen as “rote-learning” by the Westerners, but is viewed just normal in East Asia. There is a largely uniform curriculum which seldom cater for individual needs. There is the mere attention to job-market information at the expense of personal suitability in career orientations. And so on. (See details in Cheng, 1988b).

The education system is so much respected by the society that it has become an instrument independent of the societal context in which it works. In other words, relevance is not an important issue in education. In ancient China, where the imperial civil examination prevails as the only education programme, scholars spent decades to study “the Four Books and Five Classics” and are appraised not on the merits of ideas, but on the styles of writing. Even in recent years, comparative studies have exhibited that in Japan, for example, contrary to all modern theories, students achieve well in science despite a rather traditional curriculum (Lynn, 1988). In other words, the relevance of education is reflected not in the content of education - the curriculum and the applicability of the knowledge in actual life - but in the training for conforming oneself to the system. It is under this motive of conformation that students compete and work hard. Psychologists may also find that in such a society, the line between extrinsic and intrinsic motivations begin to blur (Ibid.)

The concept here is that individuals should try hard to adapt themselves to the system. Whereas in the West, the system should try hard to cater for individual needs.

Such an intensive training for adaptability, incidentally, creates the general climate in the society which favours rapid acquisition of modern science and technology, which in turn creates favourable conditions for international competition.

In essence, it is the formal education system in the Confucian societies which does the job of informal education - creating a culture of adaptation and “flexibility”.

The Social Costs

Such a concept infiltrates through all walks of life and is reciprocally reinforced by the social system: lack of social security, great disparity in rewards for education, high pressure for upward mobility, and so forth, quite apart from the hard- grinding examinations in schools and the monotonous styles of teaching and learning.

These are hardly tolerable in a Western society. Seen in this light, the ideologies of equality and democracy, which are taken as axioms in the West, were, until recently, not felt as a necessity in Chinese communities.

There is therefore a dilemma, perhaps not so much in Japan, but certainly in other Confucian societies, between maintaining the original culture which favours international competition but neglects equality and democracy (which are Western, but has become international) and an enhancement of individualism which will eventually reform the social structure, but may meanwhile eliminate the privileges in international competition.


Cheng, K.M. (1986) “Traditional values and Western ideas: Hong Kong’s dilemma in education”. Asian Journal of Public Administration, December, 1986.

Cheng, K.M. (1987) “Where are the trainees? - Trainers’ plans versus students’ aspirations”. In E.D. Fortuinjn, W. Hoppers, M. Morgan (eds) Paving pathways to week. The Hague: CESO, 1987a, 59-64.

Cheng, K.M. (1988a) “Preparation for work: the two cultures” Paper presented at the 13th Conference of the Comparative Society of Comparative Education, June 29-July 1, 1988, Budapest. In proceedings.

Cheng, K.M. (1988b) “From education to work: the cultural dimension”. Paper prepared for the Conference on “Culture, Education and Productive Life” celebrating the 25th Anniversary of CESO, November 9-21,1988, The Hague.

Cheng, K.M. (1988c) “Graduate unemployment: absent or late-coming?” Paper presented at the Asian Productivity Organization conference on “Educated Unemployment”, November 14-18,1988, Seoul.

Fan, H.C.P. (1985) “Job Satisfaction versus Job Satisfactoriness”. Paper presented at the CESO Conference on “Youth Programmes and the Transition from School to Work”, December 16-21, 1985 in Wageningen, The Netherlands.

Fei, H.T. (1947) Earth-bound China, Hong Kong: Joint Publishers, (Reprint, 1985, in Chinese)

Hofstede, G. (1984) Culture’s consequences: international differences in work related values. Beverly Hills: Sage.

Hsu, F.L.K. (1985) “The self in cross-cultural perspective”. In A.J. Marsella, et al. Cultuer and self. New York: Tavistock.

Solomon, R.H. (1971) Mao’s revolution and the Chinese political culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.