China vs. America: Advantage the United States (Because of Its Mind Wells)

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.

But for all the buzz surrounding the United States’ long-term economic decline and China’s economic rise, I read something this morning at the New Republic that says to me Not so fast!

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.)

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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7 Responses to China vs. America: Advantage the United States (Because of Its Mind Wells)

  1. aimyself says:

    Hello. I’m Chinese and I do agree that our education is not a good model. But when you see Shanghai’s being number one at the PISA test and America’s falling behind, wouldn’t you relate the statistics to the futures of these two countries? I have been to U.S and I have to say that although most of our education is about “rote memorization”, at least we study and have certain amount of knowledge. As far as I know, many American students do poorly in even knowing the “fundamental knowledge”. Of course America is not to blame because American will not starve even if they do not go to college. But here in China, we have to work REALLY hard to get secured for the future and the majority of Chinese students work REALLY hard. Imagine when American high school students are having massive fun, there are millions of Chinese students “rote memorizing” knowledge. Isn’t it an alarm to the American education?

    • santitafarella says:


      I’m not sure it matters (at least in terms of a country’s economic health) whether the masses have a proficient acquaintance with, say, algebra, geography, and a foreign language.

      It would be nice if the masses did—but it’s not determinative of a nation’s ultimate direction.

      What is determinative is the freedom of elite students.

      So long as the education system does not interfere with elite students reaching elite and free universities as young adults (where thought is uninhibited), it will not hinder a country’s advance.

      The people who really matter—the people who will invent and lead the country—are the elite students. And they must be free to maximally perform with the full use of their minds. If they have that, they will drive the nation’s economic engine. And free universities attract the best students from all over the world.

      That’s the puzzle piece that China is missing right now: the commitment to unrestrained thought. China, for example, has a Nobel Prize winner sitting in prison right now. That’s a mark of underlying weakness, not strength.


  2. Paradigm says:

    Good analysis. A conformist culture is almost by definition a culture of followers, not leaders. Although I don’t think the constitution made America this way, it’s just a confirmation of the American culture. That culture was created by the kind of people who emigrated from Europe (and elsewhere). Who left the farm to cross the Atlantic and leave everything behind? People who were open to new ideas and willing to take risks.

  3. Colin Hutton says:

    Paradigm :
    The timeframe (2015) sounds a bit unlikely. If it happens, however, I will be arguing that I have bragging rights (‘I told you so’) before the 2020 date which we agreed on in our comments to Santi’s post on Ian Morris (21November 10)!
    : Colin.

  4. Paradigm says:

    Colin: These are two different prophecies – wether China will level out or wether they will catch up with USA. Similar but not identical. I unsurprisingly agree that 2016 seems unrealistic, although it could happen as a result of the most likely temporary problems America is now facing.

    As for China levelling out by 2020, I still think that will be the case. As Santi has pointed out, it’s all about the key persons and the fact that these are discouraged in China and tend to move to USA. Also the fact that America has been attracting these key persons for a long time and probably has gained a genetic advantage.

    • santitafarella says:

      Thank goodness for genetics! I’ve been rereading Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate.” He argues (persuasively) that perhaps half of who we are has to do with genetics. However bad an education system, you can’t take that part away from a person. So long as the education system one grows up in doesn’t actively undermine or hinder an unusually gifted or endowed mind, it will find its way to the top. Whatever faults America has, it’s nevertheless good soil for hardy intellectual plants.


      • Colin Hutton says:

        Santi : A timely reminder, thanks. Time also for me to re-read it. Again. (Should be compulsory every 5 years to ward off politically correct leftist ideologies).

        As I recall, the bell curve for the Chinese is shifted just that little bit to the right of that for Caucasians. That’s all they need (given there are 1.3b of them) to produce a lot more exceptionally intelligent brains than the rest of the world does.

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