Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Exporting Idiocracy

Sending American-style education to China could stunt the dragon's rise.

China’s rise from the nightmarish reign of Mao Zedong to maker-of-all-things WalMart typically rests as lightly as a feather on me. Or rather, many feathers: I think of China as spreading a down comforter over the great futon of American life. Sometimes as I doze comfortably in this splendid world of cheap luxuries, however, I am agitated by an intrusive thought. Where is all this leading?

China’s barreling economic growth, military vigor, gargantuan trade surpluses, and disdain for Western niceties like elected government and free speech are almost enough to make me want to go out and buy something American. Then I get hold of myself. What do Americans make besides YouTube videos, pornography, and vitamins? In any case, I frequently run across the assurance that having achieved economic freedom, China will inexorably move towards political freedom. I am a little shaky on the mechanism by which this will occur, but occur it must. The Chinese down comforter comforts all alike and makes no exception for political theorists.

I don’t mean to imply any reservations about the value of free trade between the U.S. and the world’s most protectionist regime. I am second to none in my exuberance for household goods that, adjusted for inflation, cost about the price of a red licorice stick when I was growing up. And Milton Friedman rules.

No, what jabs me, like a quill poking through a feather pillow, is the political regime behind China’s beneficence to Western consumers. When that quill pokes me I think of Tacitus explaining how the Romans finally pacified the rambunctious Britons. They built the Britons baths and introduced them to Roman delicacies. “All this in their ignorance they called civilization, when it was but a part of their servitude.”

China, if not best buddies with North Korea, seems to like having a mad dictator on a short leash. The diplomatic logic is that if other countries want to make sure Fido doesn’t break loose, they have to deal with the Man in Beijing. China to this day hinders Cambodia from any serious reckoning with Beijing’s former clients, the Khmer Rouge. And China is intent, sooner or later, on snatching Taiwan. It is increasingly hard to believe that the U.S. would risk war to defend Taiwan, no matter what we say. Add to this that China’s spies have reportedly stolen vast stores of our classified aerospace, nuclear, and military research. Suddenly I’m feeling a whole porcupine in my pillow.

But all is not lost. There was good news in the April 1 New York Times Magazine, in an article by Ann Hulbert entitled “Re-education.” Hulbert describes the enthusiasm among Chinese for American-style education. She opens with the story of Harvard freshman Tang Meijie, an exceptional young woman from Shanghai who earned her way into Harvard by bucking the usual academic grind in China and focusing instead on extracurrriculars. Meijie is on our side: “There is something in the American educational system that helps America hold its position in the world.” Meijie’s goal is to bring American-style liberal education to China.

Several comments come to mind. First, Meijie better hurry and get the job done before U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings achieves her goal of dismantling American-style liberal education in America. Spellings is in the midst of decertifying the primary liberal arts accrediting body in the United States, the American Academy of Liberal Education. She is also ramrodding through a federal system of No-Child-Left-Behind-style testing requirements for higher education.

I’ve been speaking out against Spellings’s actions, but that was before I grasped their cool multicultural logic. It appears that what’s really happening is that Spellings has cut a deal with China. We get a version of China’s Imperial Examination system dating back to the Sui Dynasty in AD 605, and in exchange, China gets our flexible and pragmatic form of liberal education. Spellings has pulled off the grandest cultural swap since Native Americans gave the Conquistadors chocolate in exchange for smallpox.

But that analysis may not be 100 percent correct. Let me try again. Another possibility is that Tang Meijie is a highly valued CIA operative. Her Mission Impossible objective is to undermine the Chinese economy by getting the Chinese to adopt as many faddish and silly bits of American educationism as possible. Meijie is not, of course, operating all alone. I feel free to write about this because Ann Hulbert has already played the role of Richard Armitage by outing our hiding-in-plain-sight operatives. As Hulbert puts it, Meijie is at the center of “a cosmopolitan array of Harvard undergraduates [who] would offer a dose of the more free-wheeling American campus and classroom experience” to Shanghai. They have in mind “extracurricular excitement and social discovery—chances for students to try new things and connect with one another.”

Yes, that’s exactly what happens on American campuses. Some of those “new things” and “connections” aren’t what the parents had in mind, but that’s the price of freedom. Hulbert does a good job tracking our agents of influence. The McKinsey consulting firm, for example, has issued a report on “China’s Looming Talent Shortage” that emphasizes the need for China to stop looking at education as “knowledge transfer” and get busy teaching “teamwork” for the “global era.” Clearly, the McKinsey folks are part of the Spellings Swap. Just as our Department of Education embraces “knowledge transfer” as the be-all-and-end-all of American higher education, our consultants are persuading China to scrap that approach in favor of co-operate-don’t-compete, learn-with-love atmospherics.

Hulbert doesn’t mention this, but the Harvard effort to derail Chinese education is also attracting public benefactors. In 2003, Albert Merck—he of the pharmaceutical fortune—and his wife Katharine gave $15 million to Harvard to promote the fruits of Harvard’s educational research “around the world.” The Mercks are enamored with the idea of “global education.” One of their projects is WIDE World, which offers online courses to teachers in many countries. But Al Merck and WIDE World’s executive director, David Zarowin, are especially focused on bringing Harvard Ed School wisdom to China, and they have a China Project Manager, Qin Jiang, specifically to work with WIDE World’s “collaborators in China.” In 2005, WIDE World launched a joint project with the Shanghai Distance Education Group, which included stars such as “Min Zeng now commonly known as WIDE World’s Oprah Winfrey due to her command of the audience.”

Our master plan for dumbing-down Chinese education, however, is not just about atmospherics or theatrics. Let’s not forget: this is American educationism. And that means theory. Hulbert eventually gets to this: “If there is an American figure to whom Chinese proponents of more active, multidimensional, student-centered learning have listened especially attentively over the past half-decade, it is Howard Gardner of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.” Gardner is, of course, the originator of “Multiple Intelligences” theory, or M.I., the charming idea that intelligence isn’t a single capacity but many separate capacities. Gardner’s theory has instant democratic appeal since it implies that no one is truly dumb. We are all just different. I may have trouble with calculus, but I’m really good at skipping stones. I have stone-skipping intelligence. So there.

Gardner’s arguments are occasionally more sophisticated than this but not by much. M.I. theory has pretty direct links to the contemporary classroom. If it is true, we shouldn’t try to teach the same stuff to everybody in the same way. Gardner originally distinguished seven kinds of intelligence: linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, kinesthetic, spatial, interpersonal, and intrapersonal—and later added an eighth, “naturalist” intelligence, which is attentiveness to the environment. Gardner believes all eight kinds of intelligence need to be cultivated, so an M.I. approach to education would necessarily be broad. Moreover, this kaleidoscopic view of intelligence emphasizes discovery over didactic approaches.

Is Gardner’s theory consonant with what we know about the mind from more rigorous forms of inquiry? Or is he misusing the word “intelligence” to speak of talents? Is my stone-skipping excellence really best conceived as exemplary of my “kinesthetic intelligence”? Or do I just have good hand-eye co-ordination?

I don’t have to answer this to be delighted that China began a national project in 2002, “Using M.I. Theory to Guide Discovery of Students’ Potential.” Hulbert quotes a Chinese high-school principal who sees a link between Gardner’s theory and the traditional Confucian emphasis on the need for teachers to understand the character of their students. Hulbert’s article prompted me to look a little further, and she is right. Gardner is catching fire in China. He has attracted graduate students to his program at Harvard; he went to China on a speaking tour in May 2004; and his book, Multiple Intelligences, was published in Chinese in 1999. In a conference paper last year, “How MI Theory fits into Traditional and Modern China,” Jie-Qi Chen also points out that a 2001 directive issued by the central government ruled that Chinese education had to focus on “developmental characteristics of children … individual differences [and] active learning.” Gardner wasn’t mentioned by name, but according to Jie-Qi Chen, “it was quickly perceived” that M.I. would be “one of the main theoretical frameworks for China’s curricular reform.”

Let us be patient. It took nearly a century for the “reforms” of Dewey’s progressivism to make American schools into places that cultivate self-assurance over knowledge, co-operation over achievement, blandness over distinction, and dullness over everything. Gardner is widely recognized as one of Dewey’s most important heirs, and we need to give his ideas some time to turn China into a nation of self-satisfied ignoramuses.

This thought is as a freshly smoothed pillow to my troubled sleep. Assured that the Long March of the Revolution will inexorably reach the Great Frivolity of American-style educationism, I can worry a little less about the coming Chinese hegemony. Sure, it will take more than Meijie’s infectious enthusiasm for extracurriculars and liberal arts and more than Howard Gardner’s multiply intelligent disciples, but we’ve got lots more where that stuff came from. With luck, we can push up the functional illiteracy rate, stigmatize the cultivation of memory, turn mathematics instruction into a culturally sensitive cul-de-sac, and establish academic credit for life-experience in China before they suspect a thing.

I do worry that the Chinese will begin to distinguish between the worthy and the unworthy aspects of American-style liberal education. That could gum up the works. Perhaps our patriotic duty is to forestall that by shipping the whole of the Harvard University School of Education to China. Just a thought.


Peter Wood has recently been appointed Executive Director of the National Association of Scholars.