Caroline Tisdale

Though some have often dubbed Tsinghua University the MIT of China, it may now be time to call MIT the Tsinghua of America.

According to the latest US News 2015 college rankings, Tsinghua University topped MIT and became the best university for engineering in the world. Ironically, Tsinghua, which was founded 50 years after MIT in 1911, was established for the purpose of preparing Chinese youngsters for further studies in the United States. Now it seems that after a century, the student has finally surpassed the teacher.

But the rankings, based on statistics such as the number of papers published, citations gathered and Ph.Ds awarded, are only part of the picture.

What really distinguishes a university from its peers is the type of mind it cultivates — something that is very difficult to measure with rankings. For a long time, the West, the birthplace of the modern university system, clearly led the world in nurturing top scholars. But now, with both eastern and western teaching institutions producing competitive students at the highest levels, the question remains: which system is better?

This is a difficult question to answer, since very few have ever had to try to compete under both education systems. Even after attending primary and secondary schools in China and later studying in elite American universities, Chinese students like me still wonder which element of the Chinese education system makes us successful.

As a Chinese tour guide at Yale, I sometimes get asked what I like most about going to college in the U.S., and I always answer without hesitation: “Freedom.” Although most of us Yalies take this aspect of our education for granted and even consider the word clichéd, the concept is still foreign to most Chinese students.

When I entered an American public school for sixth grade, my father was worried about my English grammar. My teacher, on the other hand, expressed a different concern. “Everyone will eventually learn to talk,” he said. “But not everyone will learn to think.”

Indeed, the primary difference between the American and the Chinese education systems is the degree of freedom afforded to students within each. The common belief is that American students succeed because they have more initiative, while Chinese students excel because they work harder. But success is usually the product of both freedom and rigor.

For students who stand out in the Chinese education system, discipline is a common denominator and thus a nonfactor. Many students, either willing or forced, work hard, but only a fraction of them succeed. Today, top Chinese students are successful at home and abroad not because they benefit from a rigorous education, but because they have enjoyed increased independence in a system that is supposed to offer little.

In China, creative thoughts in classrooms are not always “suppressed,” as is often claimed in the West, but creativity is generally not encouraged. When textbooks are the only readings available, when authoritarian teachers are the only literate adults around or when exams are the only criterion for success, students have almost no incentive to think independently.

But with increased economic prosperity, which opens up alternative opportunities and experiences, students in China have started to learn — and think — differently. Today, in China’s big cities, it’s not rare to see schools offering students a wide range of opportunities that go well beyond the traditional classroom format. Still, compared to the general population, only a few fortunate beneficiaries have the chance to study in Chinese high schools and colleges that offer them freedom, change the way they think and eventually influence their characters.

This freedom, however, stems from material abundance, not the Chinese education model itself. Since the underlying reason for Chinese education’s hostility to creative thought is more political than cultural, any sort of academic freedom is an accident, and the authorities are fully cognizant of this fact. Last November, an official Chinese newspaper published an article denouncing university professors who repeatedly criticized Chinese society in politics classes (all Chinese undergraduates must take five semesters of politics). In recent years, a few prominent Chinese professors with dissenting views were dismissed from their positions.

These crackdowns are certainly in tension with the Chinese authorities’ longing for innovation. Indeed, innovation requires freedom and involves creative destruction, either of which threatens the very existence of China’s current political as well as educational systems.

Therefore, most of China’s top students will ultimately seek out more freedom. Even if Chinese universities dominate in world rankings, absent greater liberty, China’s brightest minds are still likely to prefer the Tsinghuas of America.

Yifu Dong is a junior in Branford College. Contact him at yifu.dong@yale.edu .