In recent weeks, Amy Chua (aka The Tiger Mom) endured a firestorm of criticism, aimed largely at her parenting methods, which most people here in the U.S. regard as extreme. From my perspective, however, it was the reference to the “Chinese way” that struck a chord with many Americans who, deep down, have come to fear that the U.S. has lost its edge and is no longer the world leader in an increasing number of important categories, including education. More specifically, many of us believe that China has become our primary nemesis precisely because it emphasizes and invests in rigorous education and strict discipline more than we do.
The statistics do give us cause for concern. In her recent Time Magazine article about the Tiger Mom, Annie Murphy Paul shared these discouraging statistics: “If our economy suffers by comparison with China’s, so does our system of primary and secondary education. That became clear in December, when the latest test results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) were released. American students were mired in the middle: 17th in reading, 23rd in science and 31st in math — 17th overall. For the first time since PISA began its rankings in 2000, students in Shanghai took the test — and they blew everyone else away, achieving a decisive first place in all three categories. When asked to account for the results, education experts produced a starkly simple explanation: Chinese students work harder, with more focus, for longer hours than American students do.”
In last week’s State of the Union address, President Obama proclaimed that the keys to winning the future will be education, innovation, and improving our infrastructure. He called upon our indomitable American spirit of competitiveness. The President is right to focus on winning the future because we’re not winning the present. Although we remain for now the largest economy in the world (nearly triple the GDP of China), this is cold comfort. Not only is China our biggest creditor, but it is leveraging its financial might to invest heavily in higher education. China’s focus on the natural sciences and engineering, for example, has resulted in 36% of Chinese students receiving undergraduate degrees in engineering compared with 7% in the U.S., according to 2006 figures.
While this doesn’t paint a pretty picture, Amy Chua’s story is a fitting metaphor for why I believe we will win the future. For all of China’s discipline and rigor, which is admirable to a point, and more of which we too must instill in our youth through education, our innate pillars of freedom and entrepreneurism are a formidable competitive advantage. Our strength as Americans has always been demonstrated by our ability to blend will and discipline with creativity and risk-taking. It’s where innovation and businesses and industries come from. And assuming we can notch-up our education and discipline without toning down our creativity and inventiveness, I like our chances.