If a recent projection is to be believed, China and the United States will be at gross domestic product parity sometime around 2016 (each country with a GDP in the 18-20 trillion dollar range). And because China’s growth is likely to continue being faster than the United States’s for decades to come after that, China is expected to basically “own” the rest of the 21st century.
And so arrives the talk of the 21st century being China’s century.
It was written by the ever-thought-provoking Martha Nussbaum:
What do educators in Singapore and China do? By their own internal accounts, they do a great deal of rote learning and “teaching to the test.” Even if our sole goal was to produce students who would contribute maximally to national economic growth—the primary, avowed goal of education in Singapore and China—we should reject their strategies, just as they themselves have rejected them. In recent years, both nations have conducted major educational reforms, concluding that a successful economy requires nourishing analytical abilities, active problem-solving, and the imagination required for innovation.
But China and Singapore have dropped a crucial component from their new and nurturing curriculum: free thought on any and all matters (including those touching politics and religion) and a respect for individual expression of conscience. As Nussbaum notes:
[T]he reforms are cabined by these authoritarian nations’ fear of true critical freedom. In Singapore, nobody even attempts to use the new techniques when teaching about politics and contemporary problems. “Citizenship education” typically takes the form of analyzing a problem, proposing several possible solutions, and then demonstrating how the one chosen by government is the right one for Singapore. In universities, some instructors attempt a more genuinely open approach, but the government has a way of suing professors for libel if they criticize the government in class, and even a small number of high-profile cases chills debate. One professor of communications (who has since left Singapore) reported on a recent attempt to lead a discussion of the libel suits in her class: “I can feel the fear in the room. …You can cut it with a knife.” Nor are foreign visitors immune: NYU’s film school has been encouraged to set up a Singapore branch, but informed that films made in the program may not be shown outside the campus. China, needless to say, does not foster creative thinking or critical analysis when it comes to the political system.
It is time to take off the rose-colored glasses. Singapore and China are terrible models of education for any nation that aspires to remain a pluralistic democracy. They have not succeeded on their own business-oriented terms, and they have energetically suppressed imagination and analysis when it comes to the future of the nation and the tough choices that lie before it.
In other words, the authoritarian Far East’s growth is being driven right now by the picking of low-hanging fruit (exploitation of resources, abundant cheap labor, basic public schooling for the masses, capitalist markets, etc).
But the next step for ongoing growth is complete no-holds-barred intellectual freedom. This is the step that America secured long ago via its extraordinary constitution, the fruits of which are its great universities and other mind wells (like Silicon Valley). Mind wells are those places where smart people from around the world gather, want to gather, and can speak freely whenever they do gather.
Mind wells are vastly more important to a nation’s long-term prospects than oil wells or pools of cheap labor. They are, ultimately, what drives economic and human progress.
And Europe has lots of them too.
But outside Japan and South Korea, this is not true of the rest of the Far East. And it will need them sooner rather than later. It is only then that the future will be truly bright, not just for China and the Far East generally, but for humanity as a whole.
So the human future does not belong, ultimately, to some new Chinese authoritarian model for empire and capitalism. It belongs where it has already belonged for the past two centuries: with the American Jeffersonian Enlightenment. The countries that find their way to something in the range of that model own the future.
Advantage America. (And may China find its way to Thomas Jefferson as well.)