Of all the people the Bush administration cannot afford to ignore but ignores anyway, Sen. Lester Hill of Alabama stands out. According to Hill, a certain country, which “only 40 years ago was a nation of peasants, today is challenging America in … the application of science to technology.” Furthermore, Hill claims, the way Washington handles the emergence of this country will affect America’s position in the world for decades to come.
Perhaps Hill’s words are ignored because they were spoken in 1957, following the launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik. But details aside, the senator’s warning still resonates today. Like the Soviet Union’s menacing military capabilities during the Cold War, the emergence of China as a global economic power constitutes a fundamental challenge to American hegemony.
The United States has experienced many changes in the years between these challenges — but none will be more relevant to how America deals with China’s rise than those in education policy. During the Cold War, America harnessed the power of schooling in a way that directly responded to the Russians; today, Washington has failed to utilize or even recognize the connection between education and the maintenance of international dominance.
With the ascent of Soviet technology, especially the unexpected launch of Sputnik, American politicians had the foresight to vitalize the nation’s science education programs. Senators pushed for exposing quantitative sciences to students at younger ages, emphasizing the importance of critical thinking over simple memorization. The bipartisan National Defense Education Act of 1958 called for a dramatic increase in funds for science education and research. President Kennedy’s call to put a man on the moon not only galvanized the nation behind a common cause, but also helped foster a general scientific curiosity among U.S. students.
Did all this directly lead to America’s Cold War victory? Probably not, though putting a man on the moon in 1969 did provide a badly needed psychological boost. But the real point is that Washington used public education in a way that directly addressed the Soviet threat. First, a problem was identified: The Soviets, with the potential to develop “weapons from space,” seemed poised to surpass American military technology. Then, an appropriate solution was implemented: the production of a new and improved batch of U.S. scientists.
Today, America faces a different problem. Though its prospects of surpassing America in global economic influence seem distant at best, China has already begun eroding America’s dominance in relative terms. But all this is not a problem so much as an opportunity — and therein lies America’s solution.
As outsourcing to places like China continues to lower their costs, companies will be increasingly willing to finance new business ventures. These projects will rely on people who are innovative, analytical and oftentimes skilled in science or engineering. It is these people who will wield control over the factories in China and supervise the tech centers in India — in short, it is these people who will shape the world. The logical American response to China should therefore be similar to the response to Sputnik: the nurturing of a learned, thoughtful generation of American scientists.
Unfortunately, though, President Bush sees education the way Donald Rumsfeld sees the armed forces: You work with what you have, not with what you want. No Child Left Behind, Bush’s hallmark education legislation, mandates that all students pass various standardized tests by 2014. But the content of these tests is largely left to individual states. So instead of laying out national curricular goals and providing the best means of attaining them, the law simply pressures schools to do a better job teaching whatever it is they teach. NCLB kicks American public education into a higher gear, but pays no attention to the direction of the vehicle.
It’s bad enough that Washington doesn’t get it; it’s even worse that China does. In China, students are exposed to fields like physics, chemistry and biology in junior high school; in America, students generally don’t take these subjects until high school. Chinese students are urged to begin homing in on a particular field when they reach the rough equivalent of American high school. Students then take one of two national exams, either in the humanities or science and engineering, and list the colleges and departments they would like to attend right on the test. The federal government then systematically oversees enrollment on the basis of exam scores.
Furthermore, China’s federal government recently put its support behind a newly developed Internet platform capable of centralizing educational Web sites across the mainland. The platform can also provide teachers with lesson plans and assessment tools, and gives students access to practice exams, exercises and Web sites specialized in 22 academic areas. Think of Yale’s classes server, super-sized.
In brief, education in China is centralized, specialized and modernized. Should it be a model for American educators? Probably not. But we have to know what’s out there, and there are aspects of Chinese education policy that Washington should take careful note of. Most notable is China’s focused, direction-oriented academic program, the same kind that served America during the Cold War — and the same kind that will be essential for America to maintain its economic influence. Unfortunately, however, it appears as though nothing short of another Sputnik could shock the White House into this reality.
Glenn Thrope is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College.