Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Education and Americans

Lately (well, more like for the past 10-20 years), American parents, politicians, etc. have spoken of a crisis in the American educational system. Indeed, American kids are woefully behind in academics (especially math and science) compared to children from other nations (e.g. Asia and Europe). Much time and money has been spent on improving K-12 education - with what appears to be only limited success.

One has to ask oneself whether it is really the educational system that needs fixing? Are our teachers really that much worse than teachers in other countries? Are our kids just dumber than those of other countries? I have experience with both the European and American school systems (I went to German schools from K through 7th grade and to American schools from 8th grade through graduate school; my daughter is currently in 4th grade in a US elementary school) and I feel comfortable saying the answer to both questions is NO.

So, what is the problem then?

I think the answer lies in a sense of entitlement that has been growing in Americans since the early days of the country. The US has always been a country rich in natural resources. With the industrial revolution, exploiting those natural resources became inreasingly easy and, as a result, people didn't have to work quite so hard at succeeding. Even without working too hard, there was enough wealth being created that some of it could be passed from generation to generation. Parents not only passed their wealth on to their children, but they also became less demanding of their children: after all, why demand so much from your children when you no longer depend on them to take care of you in your old age? So each successive generation became a little "softer" than the preceding one.

This was fine in the more-or-less closed system that was the US market place. If your fellow American was just as "soft" as you were, you could compete with each other on an even footing. But in the late 80s and early 90s, we increasingly began to live in a global economy. Suddenly, Americans who, for generations, have grown to believe that their education, work ethic, and way of live were the best began to face competitors who grew up in truly cut-throat environments (e.g. Chinese university graduates - who grew up tough because the parents demanded excellence and competition from a billion others did as well).

Americans are simply not equipped to compete. Sure, we can try to improve our schools. We can equip them with the latest tech toys. But the problem is the mindset of the student as well as the parent. American parents don't know how to demand more of their children. And American children have not been taught to be emotionally strong and, thus, can't deal with the tough road ahead of them.

The sad truth is that most Americans don't even realize how weak they have become. It is endemic in American society to blame others. Nobody wants to take responsibility. Not even for their own children.

The only way for this to change is for the next generation of American kids to realize that their standard of living has become less than that of their peers in other countries, and they will then teach their children to be more competitive.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

China Rising

I just came back from my second trip to China. The first one was a 2 week visit in Summer of 2005 and was a whirlwind of impressions from all the places we saw (Beijing, Shanhaiguan, Shanghai, Suzhou, Hanzhou). This time, my wife and daughter spent most of our time in Shanhaiguan with my in-laws. But since we arrived/departed in Beijing, I also got to check up on the Olympic preparations.

China is such a place of contrasts for me: on one hand, I'm thrilled by the energy the whole country exudes. Everyone, especially in the big cities, seems so up-beat and hopeful about the future. The truly gigantic amount of construction going on in the metropolitan areas just serves to underscore this hope for the future. One feels the proverbial dragon awakening. On the other hand, it also feels like China is trading its population's health for a seat at the global economic table. The air quality, at least in all the places I've been to, is truly bad. Based on my short experience breathing this air, I truly believe that the people of China will have a long-term price to pay for all this pollution.

I want to make it clear that I'm not condemning the Chinese for the pollution in their country. Quite the contrary - I'm awed that with over 1 billion people living in the country and it being the factory for the entire world, China is still "just" the second largest polluter in the world (I believe that title still belongs to our good ole' USA). I am simply saddened that the Chinese people have to pay this price. Think about it: the Western world (Europe, US) got to pollute the planet for a few hundred years to achieve its current standard of living - pretty much avoiding paying any penalties for this abuse. The Chinese are now trying to catch up, but with the world already as polluted as it is and with the size of its population, this can no longer be done without consequences. Sad.

Change of subject: Chinese driving style :-) Although roads exhibit plenty of traffic signs, lights, etc., they seem to be generally ignored. People seem to do pretty much as they please. The only thing that seems to be, more or less, observed is the speed limit. That is probably the saving grace in all this traffic chaos - in my two visits to the country, I only saw two traffic accidents (both in Beijing) and they were very minor ones.

Well, that's it for now. In my next installment, I want to talk about Education. Growing up in Germany and the US and having a wife who is Chinese and a daughter that is beginning to go through the US educational system, I want to share my humble (not!) opinions on the subject.