How Collectivism and Individualism Affect Students

By Daniel Morgenstern – HCC Intern

In my interactions with Chinese students, I have been surprised to find that many are not particularly interested in their majors. One of my friends, for example, was a math major for several years even though his passion is the art of filmmaking.

Why do they do it? What causes these young people to invest so much time in subjects they don’t really care for?

The answer lies in culture.

Every person has a distinct worldview that shapes their reasons for going to college, and these worldviews are deeply impacted by the culture of their nation. The predominantly individualistic tenor of America and collectivist thought of China affect their students in profoundly different ways.

To understand how collectivist and individualist ideas influence students, we need to understand these ideas on their own. The two ideas can be summed up, albeit imperfectly, as what the purpose of society is. An individualist sees society as a vehicle to enable the individual; a country, family, and organization exists to serve the individuals within it. A collectivist views society as an end in itself; an individual exists to serve the country, family, and organization he or she resides in.

These distinctions are not concrete; indeed both types of societies will inevitably promote values that reflect the other ethos better. It is more accurate to view the implementation of these ideas as a scale. A country is more collectivist than individualist rather than completely one or the other.

There are hardly two better examples of these societies than HCC’s focus of cultural exchange: America and China. The fierce independence and love of freedom has been interpreted into a strong individualist mindset in America. The immense respect for legacy and the pursuit of mastery has formed into a collectivist ethos in China. Both cultures use these frameworks as powerful motivators for their people. Almost any action can be traced back in one way or another to these ideologies.

This, unsurprisingly, includes the decision to go to college.

College students are more affected by these ideologies than most because the act of education is future focused. Colleges exist to prepare their students for the future, but what the focus of that future is depends on whether one is a collectivist or individualist.

My Chinese friends, when asked about their choice of major, said that the primary reason they were at college was to enable them to get a good job. These good jobs were not for their benefit alone but rather their family, their community, and their country. Ultimately they go to college to increase their value to the society. This is not to say that other motivations are not there, but the primary motivation is service to the group.

Ironically, the reason I found this surprising was due to my own cultural ideas about college. When it comes to college, Americans accept the ideas of individualism in entirety. The whole method of selection of major comes down to what the student wants to study. The goal is to increase the students’ ability, enabling them to reach their own personal heights. Americans actively encourage our young adults to pursue whatever career they wish, sometimes even to the detriment of the family. All the young music artists or aspiring entrepreneurs living in their parents’ basements are a direct result of individualistic thought.

These cultural guide rails are not universally followed. Just ask my friend, the now-graduated film student. Nonetheless, they serve to outline the expectations each community puts on its future generations. Neither collectivist nor individualist methods are necessarily the right way to approach the issue. Rather both are priceless collections of values that are worth taking the time to understand. Because if I understand collectivism, then I understand why my friends have chosen the paths they walk.

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