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ADec 5, 2011

America’s Promise

Andrew Hallam
America’s Promise

We’re all getting smacked with reports about the U.S. economy and how Asia’s young academic tigers are going to hammer home runs against America’s kids, relegating the next generation of Americans to play second string to world-leading superstars in China.

True, U.S. educational cutbacks could have devastating future consequences, but from my perspective, as an international teacher based in Asia, I see something different.

I teach Personal Finance and English in Singapore, a tiny country of just 4 million people, roughly 80 miles north of the equator. Geographically, Singapore is closer to Australia than it is to China. But it’s definitely Asian—and forward thinking. Despite having few natural resources, Singapore’s government has no long term debt. It’s a safe, stable base for many international businesses wishing to extend their reach into the growing economies of India and China.

And when those businesses—such as General Electric, Coca Cola, and Microsoft--bring employees to Singapore from other countries, many of the employees’ kids end up in my classroom at Singapore American School, where more than 50 different student nationalities are represented. With roughly 4000 students, I teach at the world’s largest international school--- and we’re on a U.S. curriculum. In some ways, I see the future far clearer than a U.S. based economist ever could because of my daily access to some of the best and brightest students from a variety of the world’s countries. After eight years overseas, I’ll tell you what I see.

Although there are brilliant, creative Asians being churned out by some of the Orient’s best schools, this part of the world still has a deserved reputation for producing memorizers who can’t analyze or problem solve. They may come from some of China or Korea’s top schools, and they may be some of China or Korea’s top kids, but the vast majority of Asian educated kids are still hard-working memorizers. And from my vantage point, progress towards educational systems that (they hope) will churn out creative thinkers isn’t materializing. I believe that it will take many generations before they turn that around.

That said, put a contingent of young six year old Koreans or Chinese kids into an American school (such as the one I teach at) and years later, they’ll morph into superstars. These are the kinds of kids who could end up mastering the universe. The American educational system teaches them to debate, problem-solve and analyze with the best of America’s kids, and their work ethics usually bring smiles to the lips of even the hardest core Tiger moms.

But what about the kids who are actually educated in China? They might be as proficient in English as a Californian kid, if they come from an elite school. But if they enter an American school, such as mine, at the age of 15, how do they compare?

Although every country has its extraordinary outliers, most Chinese-educated kids would surprise you with their inflexible thinking. For example, after studying an array of classic American novels, you can ask them why Jay Gatsby wanted to grow wealthy. Instead of giving an opinion, they’ll start flipping through the pages of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, looking for the answer. Ask why Huckleberry Finn wanted to help the slave, Jim, and the same fruitless strategy gets employed.

So are Asia’s students really going to rule the economic world one day?

If countries like Korea and China can teach creativity, problem solving, and analyzing in the future, then an economic monopoly centred in the far-east would be a near certainty. But as I suggested, it isn’t going to happen anytime soon. It would involve a cultural shift, and these can take generations.

The American educational system, for all its flaws, teaches kids the kind of skills that you’d expect future power brokers to yield: thinking, over memorizing. And it’s still the American schools (like Singapore American School) and American colleges like Stanford, Yale and Harvard that carry the most prestige in Asia.

Bash the American educational system if you want, but Americans still have something that the world covets—a core ability to educate, based on an American culture of challenge and thought, over pure memorization. Will the next economic powerhouse be in Asia?

Again, I’m not sure. But I do know one thing: if the United States government begins to make a greater financial commitment to American schools (on American soil) the U.S. could distance itself from its fast closing eastern economic rivals. This would probably surprise many of America’s economists.

But it wouldn’t surprise me.