Go China!

27 04 2009

That’s right, I’m rooting for the Chinese. In what, and why? Well, let’s start at the beginning.

On July 16th, 1945, the Trinity test was conducted. America was the first and only country to master the most devastating weapon humanity had ever seen.

When 1949 dawned, we were secure in the knowledge that the Russians would not have the bomb for at least 3 more years. We were rather shocked (not to mention terrified), therefore, when later that year the Russians detonated their own nuclear bomb. We were ahead of them and could blame it on spies, however, so all that came of it was the Red Scare, rather than a period of national introspection.

Then, in 1957, the event which I consider to be, symbolically if not practically, the most important event in human history to date took place. I’m referring, of course, to Sputnik’s launch. This time, America had no response. We were still a long way from space, and so this time we looked at ourselves and realized that we were simply not prepared to compete.

Our response was to launch a massive research and education program. Sputnik brought about a fundamental rethinking of United States STEM education, especially science and math programs in public schools. Excellence, it was realized, mattered. Science and math programs received huge amounts of funding and attention, and were reformed to truly provide a solid science and mathematics education. Post Sputnik programs weren’t perfect (funding was often pulled from other subjects, most of which also matter), but they were important, and they generally worked.

***

US education is a mess. Science isn’t really taught in schools, facts are. The scientific method is, ironically, taught by memorization, and as if it were a rigid, restrictive, tidy structure. Math, when it isn’t paced far too slowly, often skims over important fundamental concepts. English destroys rather than fosters a love of reading, and where it could be used to teach intelligent insight and thought, is instead turned into a postmodern playground. History is taught as dates, names, and bits of legislation. Analysis of it and application of it is mediocre at best.

That brings us to China. They are going to be the next superpower, and pretty soon will be our biggest scientific and economic rival. I’m hoping desparately that they will give us another Sputnik moment, whether it be with nanotech, genetics, or anything else. Anything less than another Sputnik, I think, won’t be enough to drive America to fix our education system, a fix that we are in dire need of before we fall too far behind to catch back up.

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One response

28 04 2009
Albert Ip

Unfortunately that Sputnik impact won’t come from China. China is huge, consists of about 1/4 of world population with many citizens still living below or near the poverty line. So its progress will be slowly yet steadily.

Chinese have traditionally value education. I am commenting as a Chinese Australian. We put our money towards the education of our kids willingly with high priority. We have also high expectation on our children as well.

Today, although the University education rate is still low compared with most developed economy, the *number* of graduates is higher than almost any country, just because of the size of the population!

By the time the world realised China has overtaken the developed world, China will have a momentum almost unstoppable. To prepare children from the developed countries for the coming century, we need to rethink the whole education system again, especially in light of the readily availability of information. Many traditional roles (e.g. information gateway) have become insignificant! The whole nature of work will be very different too. Our children’s occupations have not been invented yet.

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