A Liberating Education

May 18 was a glorious Sunday in the Boston area. Tens of thousands of families and friends descended on one of the nation’s best-known education corridors to celebrate the class of 2014. My husband and I were among the happy crowds joined by my family from Shanghai for our son Andrew’s graduation from Tufts University.

We fully immersed ourselves in the joy of gathering, cheering, listening, reflecting and photo snapping—including some selfies. Our weekend of celebration culminated with Andrew’s commencement speech on behalf of the Sociology Department. In a mother’s unbiased opinion, his 5-minute speech was brilliant, perceptive, and entertaining, an affirmation of the value of his college education in shaping his outlook on self and the society. Surrounded by family, I cheered and laughed as I listened to him. It was a moment of pure joy and pride that no other accomplishments of my own could possibly match.

For me this was also a big moment of relief and vindication. What made it sweeter was that Andrew had landed a job in a field he is passionate about, urban and community planning with a real estate consulting firm, two weeks before his graduation. It felt like a long exhale following four years of brutal college payments, and agonizing over the job prospects of a liberal arts education in this still sluggish job market. Looking back, I congratulate myself for having the foresight to encourage him to get a solid liberal arts education. In fact, I went so far as to tell Andrew that he should take advantage of the college days to study the “impractical” subjects because once he really grows up, the demand and stress of the working life would make focused learning a luxury that few can afford.

I know I am an anomaly among many parents. For the past four years, I had to answer three unavoidable questions time and again of which college he was in, what he majored in, and what he planned to do after college. My answers often surprised people. First, the mention of Tufts University usually drew blank stares from my Asian-born friends. Most either set their sights on the prestige of the Ivy League, or went with the practical value of a good public university education. Second, I told them it really didn’t matter what he studied because the world changes so fast that by the time he graduated, much of what he learned in college would be outdated if not obsolete. What is relevant is a core set of skills including critical thinking, writing, and speaking; an expanding and deepening awareness of self and the world; and the ability to learn new things on one’s own. Finally, I don’t really care what he does after college as long as he’s productive and happy.

I am not crazy. Studies show that my son’s generation, the millennials or Gen Ys, will have 2-3 careers (not jobs) in their lifetime. The last thing I wanted was for my son to be trained for a job. I want him to be trained for a life. My own life and career taught me the critical importance of having a set of transferable skills that are generally applicable to anything I do, except I had to learn them the hard way as an immigrant.

To be fair, Andrew was fully aware of the challenges of a liberal arts education in the job market and had interned in related fields to develop a general sense of career direction, which helped greatly in his job search. His strong writing skills, ability to articulate and analytical thinking were major factors of consideration for the hiring company.

I commend employers who give our liberal arts majors a chance to prove themselves, and the parents who allow their kids to be who they are. Unfortunately, while our society increasingly needs generalists with cross-disciplinary skills, we continue to make them feel like underdogs compared to their specialist peers. Liberal arts majors may face initial hurdles of proving their worth, but over time, they soar and lead. More than anything, I am proud that studying sociology and environmental studies has given my child the mindset to care about the greater good more than just his personal success. While I have made many mistakes as a parent, I can pat myself on the back for his education.

Culture of Learning

Since leaving China over two decades ago, I have been amazed at the scale and speed of the physical transformation the country is undergoing. Every time I visit, I feel less familiar with my native land, which is experiencing what may be the most rapid positive transformation of any country in human history. The last three decades have seen explosive changes.

It occurred to me during a recent delegation trip to China that beneath the most modern-looking skyscrapers and the most impressive public infrastructures and buildings that Americans can only dream of these days, is a culture of learning that has propelled the country to be a global economic giant.

China’s thirst for knowledge, combining technological and managerial know-how, is a major driver for its modern miracle. The tremendous value the Chinese people place on education and learning is a time-honored tradition, reflected in how they raise kids, run school systems, and invest in workforce development. And that includes training government officials at all levels. Teaching is a highly regarded profession in China, and calling someone older and more experienced a “teacher” is a common gesture of respect. Some of the most highly regarded figures in Chinese history happened to teachers, such as the Confucius.

We visited a mid-sized city undergoing a mind-boggling number of development projects that only China seems capable of these days. One question we had for the Deputy Mayor was how they decided where to put all the residential, commercial, educational and medical facilities when they planned the new “city within the city.” He said they utilized “MIT modeling,” as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology integrates the best practices from around the world in planning science-based parks and cities. This desire to learn from the best around the world is obvious at every level of government in China, and the U.S. is often the source of that knowledge. That mindset is also reflected in the fact that most local government officials we met had children studying in the U.S.

At a central business district, I saw on the huge LED monitor a news story about former British Prime Minister Tony Blair visiting Vietnam and other countries. I was at first puzzled by this reporting of a visit between two other countries because in the U.S., such reporting is not this prominent if the visits are not directly related to America. But in China, there is a much greater sense of awareness about what’s going on around the world, especially events in the U.S. Our presidential election was a topic of intense interests almost everywhere we went, and the level of detail ordinary citizens knew about our presidential candidates would surprise most of us here.

Investing in education at every stage is a major national priority and is being carried out in earnest at local levels. A city with just over a million people is investing in large-scale training academies to turn the millions of people in the surrounding farming communities into skilled workers and technicians in just a few years. Chinese officials understand that hi-tech parks and development zones without technology or talents would not take them where they need to be.

China deserves a great deal of credit for achieving a literacy rate of 92 percent in the most populous country in the world, for turning out 6 million college graduates each year, and for numerous other accomplishments in educating its people. But I am reminded how fortunate we are as Americans, and how effective our American public education system is in serving as an equalizer rather than a training ground for the elites. Learning may have become a national mission in China, but what’s being learned and taught today are still mostly technical and hard skills, along with the value of personal success. Less obvious is the teaching of core values much needed in a civil society, or the development of independent thinkers capable of innovation down the road. At two key middle schools we visited (equivalent to our magnet high schools), it was obvious that academic excellence at these public schools is partly achieved by weeding out the academically weak.

What the Chinese can really learn from the U.S. is that the real power of America is not something one can build physically or buy from us, such as the iPhone. Rather it is our fundamental belief that every human being deserves a shot at life’s opportunities no matter what circumstances he or she is born into. More than just technology or innovation, our moral power lies in our appreciation of the talents of the individuals who comprise “the huddled masses” from around the world. This is America’s true competitive edge.