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Column

The world might be passing America by

Higher education is more prized in China and India

Jim Nowlan
Jim Nowlan

I worry that much of the world is in the process of passing America by, and that most of us are either unaware of same or are resigned to our fate.

Over recent years, I have taught American government for 6-week periods at Fudan University in Shanghai, one of their top schools. This past week, I hosted one of my former students in Chicago and rural Stark County, prior to his resuming graduate studies at Stanford.

Xudong Yang, 22, is bright as a new penny, outgoing and has a great sense of humor. He has been working his tail off to succeed since grammar school.

He told me he worked morning through evening and had no time for outside, extracurricular activities. Many, many Chinese young people are doing the same, strongly encouraged, even pushed, by their parents.

They are hungry for success, and the things we take for granted.

Xudong told me he attended an elite high school for 7 classroom hours a day, 230 days a year (half days on Saturday). In Illinois and most states, students are in school about 6 hours a day for 175 or so days.

I figure my former student spent the equivalent of 1.6 more years in high school, based on classroom time, than does the typical American student.

You think he didn’t learn more math than most American students?

While in Chicago, Xudong asked if we might visit the University of Chicago, a school right up there with Stanford (the Chinese are captivated by top rank and status). Walking among the English gothic buildings on the handsome campus, we saw lots of Asian students; rarely did we see blacks or Latinos walking between classes.

Xudong reports from his friends that there are so many Chinese at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that whole dorms are occupied by his countrymen and women.

Based on test scores, many top American colleges could fill their whole incoming classes with Asian students.

Soon, top Chinese students may prefer to stay at home for their higher educations. China is pouring huge money into new and better campuses, laboratories and top-flight faculty. Between 1998 and 2012, Chinese enrollment in higher education increased from 6 million to 24 million, compared with 20 million college students in the U.S. in 2017.

All this while in the U.S., especially in the Midwest, we are disinvesting in higher education. This month, the Washington Monthly magazine is running a major piece about the looming decline of the public research university, especially the flagships in Wisconsin, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio – and Illinois.

The land-grant public universities established by Congress and Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War became founts of cutting-edge scientific, engineering and medical advances. I have mentioned before how the Internet web browser was basically created at the University of Illinois, just one of countless examples from our public research universities.

According to Jon Marcus of Washington Monthly, state cutbacks at our Midwestern research universities have allowed elite universities on both coasts as well as in Texas to poach our star faculty, their multimillion-dollar labs and bright grad students.

At the same time, in a hypercompetitive academic environment, the best-funded universities elsewhere say to emerging Ph.D.s from top schools, “Tsk-tsk, you don’t want to go to Illinois or Wisconsin (normally quite attractive places). They are cutting funding; their states don’t care about their universities, you know.”

I am just getting into the 2016 book, “The Complacent Class,” by economist Tyler Cowen. He says Americans overall, up and down the economic ladder, have lost our dynamism. I would say hunger. As if, since tomorrow will be pretty much like today, which was OK, why worry, why hustle?

Maybe Cowen and I are wrong. Two decades ago, many thought Japan would be the world-beater, but that country has stalled since. And Japan, where population is shrinking, has less than half the population of the U.S.

China, and India, are different. Together those countries have about eight times our population. They have many more honor students than we have students!

What if a serious presidential candidate declared he or she would require us to go to school year-round (to reduce significant learning loss) and maybe longer each day and year? And that the candidate would raise our taxes to pay for it?

I expect he or she would be hooted off the speaker’s platform.

What to do?

In addition to investing more, rather than less, in education at all levels, I think the U.S. must attract the absolutely best and brightest from wherever in the world, to create and discover right here.

We may be in decline, yet we still offer a very attractive setting in which to achieve, for the benefit of all of us.

Note to readers: Jim Nowlan of Toulon can be reached at jnowlan3@gmail.com.

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