Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Sunday, May 04, 2008

I took the bus into town this morning for breakfast at McDonald's. I met a young lady who is a student at the college, so I invited her to go to church with me. After church we had an interesting conversation about education in China. I told her that American kids tend to be very poor in Math and Science, but that the American system does encourage creativity. She said that she and her friends had often commented on the irony that Chinese students score high in Science and Math, but none of the Nobel Laureates in the sciences are from China.

It is not unusual to hear Chinese people disparage their own education system. But having worked in both of them, there are some unique advantages to the Chinese system that I would not dispense with so quickly. The Chinese tend to envy the Americans' creativity. And it is true. The Americans have always been strong in that area. But again, their creativity is at the expense of competence in the sciences. Students here comment about the fact that Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison all dropped out of college to found hugely successful software companies. I remind them that guys like them are able to get by with it because they hire engineers from China and India. An educational system (like the American public school system) that encourages creativity at the expense of competence will suffer from a shortage of skilled professionals.

But there is something more personal (and perhaps a bit selfish) about my concern. It is easier to teach in a situation where admission is so selective. To be sure, I deal with students in every class who are just trying to get by, but at least their ability is strong. Actually, the biggest aptitude problem has to do with language. There are some students in every class who have never taken English very seriously. What I don't have to deal with in Beijing, are students who have paid large amounts of money for a challenge that they just are not up to. Beihai is a different story. Springing up all over China are a whole bevy of schools that are employing the American "everyone should have a try" approach to higher education, and admitting students who normally would not have a chance to go to college because of their entrance scores. As in America, you can see the good and bad in it. I have students in Beihai who are exceptional scholars, but for some reason or other did not do well under the pressure of the National Entrance Exams. But I have other students who make me feel like I am teaching in an American junior high school. The young lady I spoke with this morning feels frustrated because the course of study she is in seems to easy for her. I told her that she needed a new challenge. Since she has a gift for languages, I suggested that she consider learning Japanese.

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