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.