When Russia launched the world’s first space satellite in the late 1950s, America entered one of its many paranoid fits. According to the thinking of the times, Sputnik was a sign that the United States had lost its technological superiority — with a tin can spinning in heaven, Russia seemed to be running circles around us.
And so it is with China today. The fear is that China, armed with 1.3 billion people and a fistful of American dollars in its treasury, like Russia in the ’50s, is beating us at our own game.
The fact is that China is neither the economic nor technological dragon that many fear. China is a very poor country, despite shimmering skyscrapers in Shanghai — on average, a Chinese worker makes $160 a month and many, especially peasants in the rural far west, live hand to mouth. And since China embraced capitalism, millions of Chinese have been discarded by state-run factories.
Some worry that because China claims to graduate more than half a million engineers a year, compared with 70,000 in the United States, it is already winning the global economic race. But a closer look at China’s engineers reveals that more than half are graduates of vocational schools, with diplomas in plumbing, auto mechanics and air conditioning repair, not qualified with degrees from universities.
Smelling something fishy, a Duke University study reported the United States actually produces 137,437 engineers annually — nearly twice the number frequently reported. Even if you accept China’s official figures, the number of U.S. degrees earned per million residents is far greater than in China.
Under Mao Zedong, Chinese universities nearly shut down entirely, and students and faculty members were torn from school and sent to the countryside to work on farms. Today, China is devoting enormous resources to rebuild its decimated academic enterprise. Even so, China spends merely 1.2 percent of its gross national product on university education, a fraction of the 4 percent spent by the United States.
Remember that the U.S. economy is five times the size of China’s. According to the World Bank, China is unable to keep up with growing demands for education — despite the country’s skyrocketing economy, China’s resources are unable to fund the educational needs of its vast population.
China acknowledges its university graduates do not meet the requirements of its own industry (official reports confirm only 60 percent of college graduates find jobs in fields in which they earned their degrees). A McKinsey study concluded that fewer than 10 percent of candidates are prepared for work in multinational or even local companies.
Why is that? Classrooms in China mostly follow traditional Asian practice, with professors lecturing in front while students dutifully take it all down, spilling it all back in exams. It’s an educational digestive system, with little or no interaction or discussion, and it certainly doesn’t allow students to challenge professors. Because Chinese students are forced to memorize great swaths of content, teachers often mock them as “stuffed ducks.”
That’s why global companies operating in China spend millions training employees. At one bank in Beijing, new hires just out of China’s top universities spend one year training to reach the level expected of personnel in the West. Chinese technical personnel tend to exhibit poor social skills such as persuasion, empathy, social confidence and influence.
Despite its bad press, American education commands respect for its learning-centered style, with students encouraged to solve out-of-the-box problems. In China and elsewhere in the developing world, the objective is to fill heads with facts. At its best in the United States, the object is to teach students how to think.
International trainers and educators in China encourage high-level discourse, virtual teaming and collaborative interaction among peers and between faculty and students. Professors say that even among highly qualified students, reticence prevents them from participating actively, raising questions or challenging authority.
It’s unwise to fall into the paranoid delusion that China will soon overtake the United States. It took only two generations for Russia to go from launching its proud Sputnik to imploding (not that China will succumb to the same fate).
On the contrary, mindful of Russia’s stumbling, China is making enormous strides, but it has a very long way to go. Someday, it will not come as a surprise that China will challenge American dominance, but if the United States continues to embrace China as economic partner rather than contain it as an enemy, we will both be better off.
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