Who is the smartest of them all?

“If you are the smartest person in the room, then you are in the wrong room.” Confucius

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

There’s an old saying that America is playing checkers while China (and Russia) are playing chess.

While we are cutting education budgets and programs and burdening our college students – in their most productive years – with paralyzing amounts of student debt, those countries (and several others) are investing heavily in the only area guaranteed to pay off, and if truth be told, the only investment that really matters – the people who will inhabit and even create the future.

In China, for example, 15 year olds out-performed American students in every academic category.

Based on recent results of a test given by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), American students performed especially poorly in math and only 14 percent of American students were able to reliably distinguish fact from opinion in reading tests.

This test was given to 600,000 15-year-olds across 79 countries and serves as a global measurement for education systems in different parts of the world within varying socioeconomic conditions.

Since 2000 PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) has tested around 3 million students in more than 90 countries. (1*)

The tests focus on three major areas – each one increasingly important as our economy becomes more global, more interconnected and more reliant on technology; reading literacy, mathematical literacy and science literacy.

These are the test results from 2018. For better or worse, there has not been much change over the past 20 or so years. Students from Slovenia, Estonia and Poland (among many others) consistently score higher than American kids. Courtesy PISA (Program for International Student Assessment)
These are the test results from 2018. For better or worse, there has not been much change over the past 20 or so years. Students from Slovenia, Estonia and Poland (among many others) consistently score higher than American kids. Courtesy PISA (Program for International Student Assessment)

As I’ve mentioned before, I taught in China at the university level.

Advanced education is free in China – but you have to earn your place. There are nowhere near enough academic seats for every capable student. Many students also study abroad (which is also funded by the government).

And these students study as if their lives – and personal destinies – depend on their education – and it does.

The average Asian student is vastly more diligent and determined than the average American student.

In China, for example, literally every college student speaks (and reads) English. Many, if not most, textbooks are in English.

The major tests, for graduate school, for example (like the GRE) are also in English.

Could you even begin to imagine how most American students would fare if they took every major exam (and had to write essays) in a language as foreign from their own as Mandarin Chinese?

The Chinese, by accident perhaps, have profited from a key educational principle; the earlier a child is introduced to a second language, the smarter they will be. (2*)

I’ve worked with these students; they know the intricacies of English grammar at a level few of us native speakers of English can even imagine.

The Chinese government, like ours not so long ago, knows what every culture knows – no investment is more important than our children.

As their most revered philosopher, Confucius, put it about 2,500 years ago, “If your plan is for one year plant rice. If your plan is for ten years plant trees. If your plan is for one hundred years educate children.

Lest you think that education is theoretical and not very practical, Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World, reminds us that if the US PISA scores were the same as Finland’s, our GDP would increase by 1-2 trillion dollars per year.

Malcolm Gladwell, a Canadian journalist and author, explores the Asian emphasis on education (especially math) in his book Outliers.

The premise is quite simple really, if a culture reinforces at every level honest diligence and rewards it accordingly, the bulk of its citizens will willingly, even eagerly, contribute to the larger cause – the health and well being of the community. A healthy community builds healthy individuals and healthy individuals build a healthy culture.

Too many of us are distracted by the ‘gold rush’ mentality of striking it rich whether by YouTube or some viral app.

Somehow our most popular America goal has been to become rich so we don’t have to work. I can’t imagine a more corrosive philosophy for individuals or societies.

Here’s another quote from Confucius; “We have two lives, and the second begins when we realize we only have one.”

When it comes to education, we all know we can do better.

Education is not a luxury. In our ever more complicated and inter-related economy, no skill is more important – and more universal – than the ability – and willingness to learn.

(1*) You can see all of their research results here – http://www.oecd.org/pisa/publications/#d.en.420737

(2*) https://bigthink.com/laurie-vazquez/the-sooner-you-expose-a-baby-to-a-second-language-the-smarter-theyll-be

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