Late-Night Education: A Review of Little Soldiers

I sat in the back of the classroom, sketching the enormous vase of flowers in front of me. A girl walked in and looked over my shoulder. She was maybe eight years old, and Asian—probably Chinese, since they taught Mandarin as well as art here. After a few minutes of conversation, the girl announced, “I bet my parents are stricter than yours.”

“I bet they are,” I said blandly.

The girl blinked. “My mom,” she said, unfazed, “made me stay up and study for a test that the teacher didn’t even tell us about.”

I gave her a second glance. She was an eight-year-old living in the United States. What kind of eight-year-old would study for a test? Just how different was the Asian method of education from the American way?

Little Soldiers: An American Boy, A Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve is a nonfiction book by Lenora Chu. When Chu moved to Shanghai with her husband and her two-year-old son Rainey, she decided to enroll him into Soong Qing Ling, the preschool nearby. Soon, Rainey became a prime student, able to sit still and focus for extended periods of time. But other effects followed, like an excessive deference to authority figures. Chu decided to investigate what happened behind the school doors. What follows is a stunning view of China’s educational system—with all its blessings and all its faults.

In her book, Chu compares some of the stark differences between the Chinese and American school systems. The Chinese system, she says, is extremely rigorous. Most students are vastly ahead of their American counterparts, and Chinese teachers focus much more on grit and perseverance than natural-born talent or innate skills. But Chinese students also suffer from immense pressure, backbreaking loads of homework, and low self-esteem. According to Chu, American schools are more focused on individuality and freedom, but are less disciplined. So which is the better system?

Chu argues that neither is superior to the other; the ideal system would combine Chinese rigor with the American sense of freedom. But to me, actually creating such a system will be a near-impossible task. Already the American system is forcing loads of homework on their students. And with corruption blooming up top, it will be increasingly difficult to reform the system. Will we be able to take the steps necessary, or will we procrastinate until it becomes too much of a problem to ignore?

Little Soldiers is a captivating, thought-provoking book about what education looks like today. It answered some questions about certain eight-year-olds, but it also raised many more. Will we take a stand about education, or will we wait until it becomes inevitable—like late-night studying?

High school nonfiction, ages 14 and up.