In my absence from the US, Tom Friedman tackled an interesting topic regarding education in his New York Times column. (You can read a copy of the column at this site, since the NY Times requires registration, and the blog I’m linking to doesn’t.)
He examines the worldwide anxiety over the state of education efforts in the US, China and India.
In the US, of course, the concern is that math and sciences get short shrift.
In India, the concern is that the education system doesn’t encourage innovation or "incubation of ideas."
Friedman claims the same for China.
My first morning in Beijing, I could hear a song playing outside. When I got out and investigated the source of the music, which by now I’d identified as, "It’s a Small World After All" — in both English and Chinese — I saw that it was coming from a grade school down the street. The kids were racing out of classrooms to line up, hands behind backs, like miniature soldiers dressed none alike. One girl stood in the same pose at the front of the pack, facing the crowd. None of the parents standing and watching alongside me seemed to speak English, so I couldn’t ask anybody what that little girl was being singled out for; my guess is that she was the model student for the day.
Later in the day, my traveling companion (my brother) and I headed to Tsinghua University to meet up with an assistant professor in the technical school there. His interest was in compilers. He introduced us to two students who were also interested in compilers. My brother’s interest, when he was a true-blue techie, was in compilers. He says not much has really changed in compiler science since he entered and left it many years ago. I don’t know much about compilers, for sure. But I’d say that if my brother is any measure, the US won’t be making the next great leap in compiler technology. That’ll happen in the research laboratories peopled by Tsinghua graduates and those from other schools trying to compete with Tsinghua. Maybe IBM and other multi-nationals are choosing to place research centers in China because a) the PhDs come cheaper ($25,000 a year) and b) there’s a patience there that perhaps we’ve lost in the States that appreciates incremental progress and doesn’t necessitate immediate practical application.
Coming back to the hotel on the metro that day or another, I sat next to two school girls discussing homework in Chinese (presumably Mandarin). I could see that the homework was an English language exercise. When they started practicing their conversational English, I piped in and one of them asked me to help her with a particular problem — filling in the correct response to a missing word in a sentence. When I offered my solution, her companion smiled and made the apparently-universal kid symbol for being right about something — an arm-pumping victory fist.
Every Chinese person with whom I spoke English in China had a college degree of some kind. And they all seemed like unique, thoughtful people. It didn’t appear to me that what held them down was rote teaching or a lack of liberal arts in education. It was a lack of great job opportunities. So that a graduate of international trade ended up working as a tour guide. An English major wandered around Tiananmen Square, befriending Americans. A tech major hoped to get a job with the university where he was studying, because that seemed more interesting to him than any job available to him in the open market.