不过这就自然而然带出一个问题：如果美国的大学也就不过如此，那么何以美国整体而言无论在科学技术，还是人文社会研究方面都在世界上处于领先的地位，各种创新层出不穷？如果中国的大学水平早已迎头赶上，何以今天在核心技术方面要仰人鼻息，创意缺乏，山寨盛行，以至于美国人发明了一个C2C的概念，即Copy to China？人文社科方面的差距当然就更不用提了。
This semester, a visiting scholar from the mainland visited. In addition to his research, he was also interested in the American university system and as a result would often audit courses. He wanted to see what exactly the US university system was all about. Time flew by and the semester soon came to a close. Talking to our visitor, I got the sense that he was full of mixed feelings: he said that he used to adore the American Education system, but after auditing the courses, that was no longer the case. Now, it seemed to him that the Chinese system was actually better.
I found this interesting and asked him to expand upon this. Explaining, he said that the classes he attended seemed to be broad outlines, but did not go into many technical details and STEM students did not really fully study their subject. In China, on the other hand, professors focused on the details. I told him to reserve judgment until he saw the student presentations. After said presentations, his point of view did change. He thought that most of the students were average and unremarkable, there was a small group of students who knew their stuff very well; they knew technical specifics to an almost unexpected degree. He thought this was basically due to the student’s abilities being different. I agree with him, but think that in addition to this, it also reflects the underlying differences in logic between the American and Chinese systems.
Over the past few years, universities in China have seen ample investment and one after another, teachers and students alike are encouraged to apply to visit foreign universities, and even apply for year-long exchange programs there. There are a lot of applicants, so much so that some leading American universities are feeling overwhelmed, even to the point of having to institute a quota system to limit the number of foreign exchange students from China. What is interesting, however, is that after spending a bit of time at an American university, many students wind up feeling the same way that our visiting scholar did. Sure, there is a pretty campus and an atmosphere that is conducive to learning, but the place does not seem to amaze as much as expected. Last year, a famous visiting professor from Beijing University wondered quite openly as to how the equipment here could be so old.
This naturally raises a question: if American universities are not all the are cracked up to be, how come America is a world leader not only In STEM, but is also a leader in humanities research, and a source of seemingly endless innovation? If Chinese universities long ago caught up to America’s, why is China at the mercy of others when it comes to technology, why is there a lack of innovation, why are knock-offs prevalent, to the point that American have had to invent C2C (Copy to China) as a concept? The gap in the social sciences and humanities goes without saying.
For me, if this is the conclusion exchange students come to, they are clearly wasting their money. What is very clear, or should be, considering that Chinese students have been studying abroad for more than a hundred years now, is that too many people hold America up as some sort of Mecca or holy place for their studies. Actually, the reason for America’s leadership is not to be found in the classroom. The American education system’s success is not to be explained by the quality of its textbooks. Nor is it to be explained by those endlessly fascinating “cowboy schools”; no, the explanation lies in the logic inherent in the thinking of the entire educational system.
Every educated Chinese citizen knows that the particularities of the Chinese system: top-down indoctrination, little choice, and little room for free thought. Especially in our current climate of “catch up to Europe and America”, fight to be the number 1 country in the world, and our microclimate of an industrial slump, everyone having to find their own jobs, and our “don’t get left behind at the starting line” attitude, which beings from Kindergarten. As a result, we now have a solidified paradigm of “grooming talent” through the skills we teach.
The American system is completely different. If we compare it to the Chinese system, the core idea is quite different from the Chinese central focus of “grooming talent.” In America, it is rather “finding talent” using the mechanisms of the market economy and promoting the use of said talent. Concretely, what this means is that from the very beginning of their studies, American students are given a degree of freedom in order to develop their hobbies and interests. Many people know that American students do not face a very heavy workload in school. Chinese students often hitting the books, burning the midnight oil, which is unthinkable for their American counterparts. But, please don’t think this is simply a question of academic workload. This is just the beginning of the differences in the two systems.
Chinese people know the story of Shan Zhong Yong*. The moral of the story is quite simple: a person can develop their talents, with childhood and youth being key periods. Talent is very obvious in the younger years, and I have up till now never seen a case of talent spontaneously appearing in old age. The current Chinese system of “stuffing the duck” and “grooming talent” has probably snuffed out the aspirations of countless talented children. In my view, America’s loose education style definitely has an upside: given talented children the time to develop themselves. Many students are proud of getting into Ivy league schools, as are American students. The difference is that CHinese students get into these schools on the basis of their high test scores, whereas their American counterparts are admitted based on their qualifications and/or extraordinary diligence. 很多中国学生以进美国“牛校”为荣，美国人也如此。但区别在于中国学生很多是靠着应试教育的底子进去，而能进去的美国学生常常是资质非凡外加勤奋。这也就是为什么“牛校”毕业以后能打出一片天的中国人很少见的原因之一。
Why are we talking about talent? America is the world’s biggest market economy; the logic of the market has therefore unquestionably influenced its education system, warts and all. The market will not take the initiative to “groom nurture?! talent”, but will rather work to discover talent and use said talent, including discovering talented people. In America, those who have talent can be quickly discovered, or they can find their own market. At the same, all sorts of resources will quickly flow to talent with potential. Thus, talent’s use and potential can be dramatically expanded, and have huge economic returns.
In another sense, however, the American education system can be seen as a brutal elimination mechanism: everyone has the right to basic education, but most resources will wind up flowing to the most talented, who wind up forming a real social elite. The market tries to find the talented and then provide them with opportunities and support when they need it. Those who are rated mediocre will not be smiled upon by the market, since according to market principles, investing in them will be a waste. Everyone oohs and has over Google’s explosive rise to the top. But, once we’ve understood the logic behind America’s education system, these types of miracles are always found in America.
In the late 1970s, China started dispatching foreign exchange students to America. At that time, China was unhappy with the way things were going, and requested that Chinese exchange students enter only top-tier universities. At the same time, they founded “junior class” * associations. Deng XiaoPing introduced his “early computer education” requirements, thus hoping to “nurture talent” and help technology progress in China. Looking back on it now, this strategy has not worked out. It seems that all of early “junior class” members moved to America, and there were few people left to serve as leaders in the world of Chinese technology. China hasn’t yet seen its own version of Microsoft or Google, or any other innovative technology companies, for that matter. It is here that we see the shortcomings of our “nurturing” style of education: we produce technicians, but not great leaders. It is not possible that China does not have a Gates, a Jobs, or a Brin, or people of their caliber. It is the absolute lack of an environment for such talent that explains our lack of technology leaders.
Over the last few years, “tiger moms” have become a topic of discussion in America and China, stirring up all sorts of debate. But anyone who has seen the basic logic behind the American educational system can easily see that “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” is not an effective method. It amounts to our old friends “pulling up seedlings”* and “stuffing the duck”*. Doubtless, a person can improve their skills through long hours and practice. But how far we are able to advance largely depends on individual talent. Only with a child’s talent and practice simultaneously can one reach expectations. In general, how likely is one to succeed, subjectively speaking? An even bigger problem arises: once out of the key talent development window, a person’s potential can still be tapped out.
“Discovering talent” and using talent are clear aspects of the logic behind American universities. Professors will tend to give extra guidance to those students who have potential, are interested in their studies and willing to spend the time. They may hire them as student employees, and use the connections that they have both in and out of the school to give these students more opportunities and even help them in their future careers. I asked an old professor how he would deal with a student who was uninterested in their studies. He said he would give them a bad grade and then not trouble his mind with them again. This old professor certainly did not have our traditional attitude towards nurturing talent.
This style of education presents its own problems, of course. On the one hand, America may have the world’s most creative and powerful corporations. On the other hand, many average American students lack the necessary skills, and as a result graduate into unemployment, and become the leaders of the “Occupy Wall Street Movement”. China and India, on the other hand, with their education systems which put a big emphasis on skills, train a large number of engineering graduates. But the problem in these countries is the lack of innovation, resulting in sluggish employment. After all is said done, America “harvests” a large number of Chinese and Indian talent, making these two countries a large source of labor for America.
(Having written thus far, I thought of a middle school classmate of mine. He was definitely a unique talent. He failed many of the classes he took, but everyone knew he was a little genius when it came to inventing things, and we would often see him fiddling around with amazing designs. He once sent one of his designs to a large international competition and actually won a prize! School officials were very happy when they were notified. The principal came to talk to our class about his exploits. The teacher was dumbfounded, seeing as he always got the lowest grades in the class. When it came time to take the University Entrace Exam, his grades were still hopeless. In my sophomore year, this classmate got tired of his parents’ constant angry harping about his grades and killed himself without warning.)
With many exchange students, with more and more younger students, China is more and more concerned with American education. Everyone always talks about how great foreign education is, but no one is capable of putting their finger on why exactly. Comparing the two systems always carries an inherent bias with it. The mistake we make is trying to compare two different production lines, with one simply producing higher quality products. Actually, the two education styles reflect many different aspects of two very different countries. The most salient point for Chinese people is that without understanding the logic behind each education system, we can not really understand in any real way the strengths of each.