Why the Chinese Were Going to Kick Our Asses

May 10, 2013

Sometime in the early to mid-2000s, people were circulating a funny email.  I want to provide the public service of recreating it, with some additional notes.

It began with a photo of what was supposed to be a fair representation of American college seniors:


and then continued with a representation of Chinese college seniors:


The subject line of the email was something like, “Why the Chinese are going to kick our asses.”  At the time, I believed it was a pretty accurate comparison.  Of course, the scene in the American photo was not a formal occasion, and it also seemed that we might be comparing apples and oranges — a party school (the University of Colorado, according to some) against a Chinese technology school or perhaps one of its top universities.

In college at Columbia, I had certainly encountered an ambiance in which professors failed to convey, and students failed to acquire, a love of learning.  I had thought, however, that this might be especially a feature of Columbia, with its excessively careerist orientation arising from its location in New York City.  I had also gathered, in the 1990s and beyond, that Ivy League admissions had become more competitive, and had therefore guessed that things might have changed at Columbia and elsewhere.

Then came the discovery, in the early 2000s, that Harvard was awarding honors to 90 percent of its students.  This was followed by the decision to reduce honors to only the top 60 percent.  Honors to 60 percent?  It still sounded like a joke.  In the years since, I have obtained more exposure to American higher education, including the discovery that college graduation is commonly seen as a right rather than a privilege.

And now I read these words from a Yale undergraduate who has studied in both U.S. and Chinese universities, in a blog post focused primarily on life in the latter:

Last spring, I took a class with a few Yalies and a few Peking University students. The class had one major assignment: a term paper. On the night before the paper was due, one hundred percent of the Yalies stayed up all night, starting and finishing the paper. One hundred percent of the PKU students stayed up all night to keep us company, since their papers, full of far more complex data and economics models with difficult math, had been finished for weeks. All semester long, the Yalies bragged to each other about how little they had done so far, and commiserated about the unpleasant all-nighter coming their way, while the PKU-ers simply put their heads down and worked. Did I mention that the papers were all in English, so the PKU students had to write in their second language? . . .

In an American lecture hall, 60% of the students are toggling between Facebook and half-hearted notes; I can’t imagine a PKU professor tolerating the behavior that is par for the course at Yale.

I haven’t traced the lifestyle of Ivy League undergraduates throughout the past 40 years.  But when I was at Columbia, people talked about “the gentleman C scholar” and otherwise conveyed the impression that your prestigious degree would surely get you a job somewhere.  The C grades have now become Bs and As, but the story seems the same.  Employers, deprived of clues regarding the merits of graduates, still default to the academic selection process.  It may have been four or more years since you were admitted to your hoity-toity school, but at least that admission provides a hint that you used to be a good student.

So the Chinese were going to beat us because they took education seriously, and we didn’t.  But to expand on the thought noted above, that stereotype was doubtless untrue in many specific universities and programs.  Another student, quoted within that same blog post about Chinese universities, says that the science students at Peking University work hard, but the political science types don’t.  That may be substantially the situation in many U.S. schools as well.  It seems that, in either country, you may be able to take it easy, depending on your choice of major, not only in these kinds of undergrad programs, but also in grad school — comparing, say, a competitive law school program against a PhD in social work.

These observations suggest some caveats on the thought that the Chinese are going to kick our asses in higher education.  It does seem likely that students who are trained in a highly competitive system, or who perceive that their present success depends on hard work, will tend to turn in a superior performance.  It also seems that nationality is no guarantee:  in either country, professors who are not kept on a tight leash by educational customs in their own field, and who are not policed by employers or other monitors inside or outside the university, may become indifferent to students’ actual learning.  The results in that case may include grade inflation and a general disinclination to stand up to parents, administrators, and students who prefer a watered-down education.

In addition, schools in the U.S. have enjoyed a certain perceived advantage that may not be real and, where real, may not endure.  In particular, there has been a belief that American educations offer freedom to think, question, and thereby learn, whereas China’s universities are still obliged to indoctrinate and to restrict discussion.  Certainly there has been an undeniable difference in political systems, with educational ramifications.  But the American advantage can be overstated.  As already demonstrated by the Soviet Union, political repression need not impair the production of world-class scientists and engineers.

On the American side, too, there are reasons to doubt that we are well trained to think independently.  In many of our educational programs, questioning can be superficial and limited.  For example, in my book about my experience at Columbia Law School, I expressed surprise that so many reputedly bright, inquisitive law students would get in line and reproduce the same failed legal system, generation after generation.  It seemed that the ballyhooed American education manifested in these, allegedly among the best and brightest, had perenially failed to produce real-world questioning of the received wisdom.  We students, and our professors, had been bought; we were not going to do much to interfere with the injustices from which we profited.  In a variety of other professions as well, the country’s smartest and hardest-working students commonly learn to become experts at bilking the public and corrupting the system.  This is a strange concept of superior education.

It has seemed, indeed, that genuine questioning might go hand-in-hand with rebelliousness — that the students most likely to challenge corrupt bureaucracies might be those whose doubts were manifested in their behavior all along.  In other words, there were, and are, very bright people who simply would not and/or could not subject themselves to the power structure and the preoccupations of a program in law or engineering.  Some of us will spend years memorizing formulas or legal cases, just because someone says we should; but others will bristle at an academic refusal to convey knowledge in a form that one can embrace intuitively and ethically.  In the words of one computer programmer, “I would rather break rocks” (i.e., spend time in a prison) than continue to do the kind of work they trained him to do in school.  In this sense, the advantage of American universities over their Chinese counterparts may not be precisely that American students are encouraged to think for themselves, but rather that higher education in the U.S. has been more supportive of, and the national economy has been less rigidly harsh toward, those English and philosophy majors who do subordinate prestige and material comfort to their commitment to read, think, and ask questions.

The two photos (above) suggest an era of decadence in American higher education.  Whatever the distortions in those two images, the larger story contains much truth.  We are now at the dawn of a time that seems likely to bring widespread shrinkage in American bricks-and-mortar universities.  The relatively plush salaries, administrative sprawl, and building sprees of the past few decades have outpaced their means of support.  Online education is becoming more widely used and accepted.  The age of academic legerdemain (of e.g., corruption in Ivy League admissions) seems to be transitioning into a time of greater skepticism.  Our English-language advantage fades as more top-flight universities around the world become English-based, attracting applicants who previously might not have looked beyond the U.S. and the U.K.

The competition in higher education, between the U.S. and China, may prove to be much like our competition in other spheres.  We still have IBM; it’s just that, now, they do too.  There will be a continual sorting and realignment of the parts of higher education that we surrender, or that China takes from us.

Generally, in these times of  “the rise of the rest,” one must expect gradual erosion of the advantages and dominance of U.S. universities.  Ten years from now, MIT may still be among the top ten universities.  But it will no longer be surprising that a place like Indiana University could be ranked 83rd nationally but only 210th globally.  To refine what the photographs (above) suggest, internal rot is likely to undermine the international appeal of such places in coming years.  One can only hope that the passing of the Baby Boom generation of faculty, and the sobering fiscal realities of this dawning era, will stimulate a real awakening to the contrast between what American higher education has become and what it could be.


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