Should one seek knowledge for knowledge’s sake, or simply to obtain a job? Perhaps our 21st Century Great Recession recreated a Depression era mentality, not unlike our parents’ and grandparents’ generation that came through the Great Depression of the 1920s and 30s. Job obtainment is a worthy goal, but it should not be the only goal.
Most of us are familiar with the maxim, “knowledge is power.” Deng Xiaoping understood the power of knowledge and learning from the West when he proclaimed, “When our thousands of Chinese students abroad return home, you will see how China will transform itself.”
The tide has turned
Recently Reuters News Service reported American students are getting cold feet about studying Chinese in China, with many study abroad programs in the country seeing a substantial drop in enrolment over the last few years.
“The Institute of International Education reports the number of U.S. students studying in China fell 3.2 percent in 2012-13 to 14,413, even as overall study abroad numbers rose modestly. Chinese students still clamor for a U.S. education. The number of Chinese studying in the United States jumped 16.5 percent in 2013-14 to more than 274,000.”
Given the importance of the U.S. - China relationship, having a group of Americans across different industries who speak Chinese and understand the culture is of vast importance. Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center in Washington, has it right when he said, it is “a matter of national interest.” And I would add, “security.”
Jeff Wang, head of The Asia Society’s China Learning Initiatives worries, “We need to be more compelling than just jobs when appealing to American students to engage in learning foreign languages and cultures. It’s not only linguistic fluency, but more so the sensitivity and dispositions necessary to successfully navigate another culture. Furthermore, being multilingual is like being upgraded from a monochrome display to a gorgeous color high definition one, allowing the student to appreciate the diversity, vibrancy and intricacy of this global village—no matter if one’s in international trade, a scientist, an artist, a writer, they will always be a productive global citizen.”
Wang, taking a broader and even more worrisome view, points out: “China, India, Korea, and Saudi Arabia now have a combined half a million of their students studying on U.S. campuses, while fewer than 40,000 Americans study in the whole of Asia.”
Why Cultural Knowledge Matters
As large and powerful as China is, few in America know much about the country — its history, customs, geography, language, politics or people. When the Chinese know more about us than we do about them, an unequal power relationship exists, one that could easily be exploited. The relationship between China and the U.S. is, and will remain, the most important bilateral relationship on the planet. Creating a “seesaw” relationship where one country is consistently in the “up” position is unhealthy, to say the least.
American financier Stephen A. Schwarzman, founder of Blackstone, a private equity firm, understands the value and power of assuring that more people in the West know about China. He has established an international scholarship program in China endowed with $300 million (¥1.8 billion). The program is the largest-ever internationally funded philanthropic effort in China’s history soon to support 200 scholars a year for study in China. Forty-five percent of the students will hail from the United States; another 20 percent will come from China with the remaining students representing Europe, South Korea, Japan, and India. The 21st century Schwarzman Endowment emulates the world famous Rhodes Scholarship program established in 1902.
The New York Times reported, “The program’s creation underlines the tremendous importance of China and its market to Wall Street financiers and corporate leaders, who have become increasingly anxious as security and economic frictions grow between China and the West … a third of the endowment comes from Mr. Schwarzman’s personal fortune, a third comes from donors, and the remaining $100 million is expected to be raised by the end of this year.”
In making his announcement, Schwarzman said, “When Cecil J. Rhodes created the Rhodes Scholarship program in 1902 to promote international understanding, Europe was at the center of gravity for the world’s economy, and the United States, the British Empire, and Germany were the world’s most influential global players. While the 20th century was defined by U.S. ties to Europe, there is no question that the nature of China’s international relationships will play at least as important a role in this century.
Designed to prepare the next generation of global leaders, Schwarzman Scholars scheduled to begin the first class in 2016 is the first scholarship created to respond to the geopolitical landscape of the 21st Century. Whether in politics, business or science, the success of future leaders around the world will depend upon an understanding of China’s role in global trends.
Deng Xiaoping, captured China’s philosophy over the past 30 plus years this way, “China will bide its time and hide its capabilities.” Clearly, the Chinese are no longer hiding their capabilities by sending some of their best and brightest to the West to be educated. It is alarming that American students are not being both encouraged and provided scholarships by both the private and public sectors to study Chinese language and to “know” China in far greater numbers.
The 100,000 Strong Initiative Foundation encourages students of diverse backgrounds from across America to learn Mandarin and study in China. The Foundation believes that its best ambassadors are the American students who have studied in China and learned about the Chinese culture, language and people first hand.
Old “china hand” Henry Kissinger captures the essence of the need and value of knowing and understanding China saying, “China is one of the central challenges of our time and we need to forge a deeper understanding between the U.S. and China.”
China is not content to be the factory for the world: they are now striving and succeeding to be an educated, innovation nation.
The viability of U.S. society, the strength of our economy, the quality of our lives, and our place in the world are inextricably linked to the quality of global world-class education provided to our people.
America is at another “Sputnik Moment.” The report that “American students are getting cold feet about studying Chinese in China” should be a trigger mechanism to force American leaders and educators to take action to reverse this trend and change the trajectory of Chinese knowledge at every level.
We need to fast-forward our investment and knowledge in all things China before we fall another generation behind.
Knowledge is a terrible thing to ignore and waste. America, let’s invest in China knowledge before it is to late.