Finding the Next Einstein

Why smart is relative

Is America "on the Wrong Side of History"?

How China sees U.S. and what we can do about it

Barack Obama President of the United States
from whitehouse.gov
“We know the countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow." –President Barack Obama

Jane Perlez of The New York Times recently discussed a Brookings Institution paper by Kenneth Lieberthal and Wang Jisi that suggests that China’s political elite views America as being “on the wrong side of history.”

Although China’s top leaders do not think that America’s superpower status is going to be challenged anytime soon, they do think that the U.S. is headed for decline.

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The United States is no longer seen as “that awesome” according to Wang.

As Wang writes, “The United States is seen in China generally as a declining power over the long run.  America’s financial disorder, alarming deficit and unemployment rate, slow economic recovery, and domestic political polarization are viewed as but a few indications that the United States is headed for decline.”

Here is another indication of America’s potential future decline that I’ve written about in my article If You Are Creative, Are You Also Intelligent?: America’s performance compared to China’s performance on tests such as the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).  We are performing at best in the middle of the pack worldwide and this is potentially a long-term problem because test scores are linked to later educational and occupational achievement and innovation.  China is out-teaching us which means in the long run they will likely be out-competing us.

The New York Times article and the Brookings report neglect to mention a key reason why the Chinese might think that America is headed for decline in the long run—the way that we educate our students and the populations of students that we focus on educating.

So what can we do about this?

In my article How Do You Make An Intellectual Dream Team? I discussed the importance of America recognizing and developing talent from all over the world, which I think is very important.  However, in this article I want to present a different way of thinking about our focus on education in America.

Consider the basketball championship matchup tonight between Kansas and Kentucky.  These are both outstanding teams who have star players, average players, and bench warmers.  What if at the beginning of the season the Kansas coach decided that he wanted to focus on training his bench and the average players on his team and ignore his star players?  Would Kansas fans think this was a good move?  Would Kansas have even made it to the championship game?  At the very least, I doubt Kansas fans would approve.

Yet here in America this is what we are doing educationally—we focus on educating our below average and average students and we tend to ignore our top students.  In fact there is very little funding for programs for intellectually talented students today, but plenty of funding for everyone else.  This is essentially the equivalent of ignoring our star players.  If this doesn’t make sense in the competitive world of college basketball, why does this make sense in our cutthroat global economy?

I believe that it is important that we educate students at all levels because we need students who are literate citizens as well as students who are intellectual innovators.

We need to educate a team that will be able to compete today and in the future.

Bill Gates said that "Unless the schools of the U.S. find the tools to bring students up to the highest level of accomplishment, it places the nation at risk in the international economy of the 21st Century."

How we educate our students today will directly impact how bright our future is tomorrow.  I hope that when tomorrow comes, we will look back and know that we did everything we could to ensure the prosperity of this great country.

© 2012 by Jonathan Wai

You can follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or G+. For more of Finding the Next Einstein: Why Smart is Relative go here.

Jonathan Wai, Ph.D., is a psychologist, writer, and research scientist at Duke University.

 
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