Learning from Other Countries


‘”This- is now my way,- where is yours?” Thus did I answer those who asked me “the way.” For the way- it doth not exist! Thus spake Zarathustra.’

If we are going to learn useful lessons from other countries’ education systems, we must understand the difference between drawing lessons and applying them ourselves, and simply aping others. And if we don’t want to be apes, we must recover our human dignity.

It’s called ‘aping’ because it doesn’t require the use of reason. Superficial copying is something that animals can do. Parrots can imitate the sound of human speech, but they do not perceive its meaning. Monkeys can imitate human gestures, but they miss the purpose of the gestures. Hence another famous primate-related saying, ‘monkey see, monkey do’.

In the farcical (but also rather tragic) depiction of importing Chinese methods into a British school, there was a strong emphasis on the nasty tracksuits, but little expectation that the teenagers wearing them would learn any moral lessons from those who wear them in China: lessons about the value of hard work and respect for those in authority. The result was somewhat like a monkey’s tea party. The participants wore the clothes but were not thereby raised to the level of those who usually wear them.

The ludicrous notion that other cultures can be imitated by donning funny clothes betrays the supermarket mentality of cultural relativism, where different cultures sit on the shelf like different types of spicy food down the ‘foods of the world’ aisle. It also shows a basic arrogance and indifference that arises from the philosophical crisis that has been gripping the West for centuries. This crisis has been particularly acute since Nietzsche proclaimed the primacy of passion and action over reason and contemplation.

If we are going to learn lessons from other countries, we must first recover some traditional teachings about human nature. The founders of Western philosophy made huge advances in understanding because they grasped that nature, including human nature, is the same everywhere. They realised that reason is a capacity that can be used to analyse and critique any culture on the basis of objective truth about that universal human nature.

This insight has been forgotten in our modern relativism, which is really Nietzschean nihilism in a friendly disguise. We now talk about respecting people’s cultures and values, as though mutually contradictory approaches could be equally valid. Of course lines are still drawn in some cases, such as FGM or Islamic fundamentalism, and the fact that we draw these lines proves that some part of us still believes, as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle did, in an objective standard of truth which can be discovered by reason.

But while we continue to use the language of values and cultures rather than reason and truth, the lessons we can learn from other countries are limited. Our so-called respect immunises us against any such lessons, because it places other cultures, especially more traditional ones, into the category of interesting museum exhibits, not real lives lived by humans that share a common human nature, and from which we can therefore potentially learn lessons that can be applied to our own situation.

Once we have removed the glass wall that is cultural relativism, we can take a real interest in the methods of other countries, and by the use of reason, we can ask what it is good, true and beautiful in their practices. Then we might be able to start to do something about it.


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