Silly people vs. serious people
Writing last week in the Wall Street Journal, William Galston, a former senior policy advisor to President Clinton, enumerated five broad pillars of Chinese president Xi Jinping's strategy for world dominance.
One of those is technology. Xi's "Made in China 2025" seeks to secure China's lead in the "technologies that will dominate the global market in coming decades, many of which have military applications." Another pillar of Mr. Xi's strategy is military. China possesses the largest navy in the world, and is busy establishing a "global system of ports to give its forces access all over the world." And its land forces are far better equipped than they were a decade ago.
President Joe Biden appears to recognize the threat, and spent a great deal of his time on his recent European trip marshalling support for confronting China.
Yet in that confrontation, the United States is seriously handicapping itself: As one comedian put it recently, it is a confrontation between a serious people (China) and a silly people (the United States). China, he said, builds major dams in the time we spend arguing over what to name them. In the time China has taken to build 40,000 kilometers of high-speed rail, the state of California has not quite managed to connect Bakersfield and Merced, the raisin capital of the world, despite spending $6 billion to do so. In 2019, the United States issued more degrees in visual and performing arts than in computers, information science, and math.
The battle between China and the United States for world leadership will largely be determined by technological superiority, and that in turn will depend on our respective educational systems. And it is precisely with respect to education that the United States is deliberately hamstringing itself. Rather than identifying our top students and fostering their development, we have declared war on standards and all the ways in which students once distinguished themselves.
The Princeton classics department recently declared that knowledge of Greek or Latin will no longer be required for an undergraduate degree in classics. Admittedly, the quality of our classics scholars will have little impact on our global competition with China.
But the war on standards in pursuit of "equity" — representation for "oppressed" racial and gender groups, according to their percentage of the population — certainly will.
That leveling impulse is running rampant in American education. California has done away with advanced math classes below grade 11. Standardized testing, which once served as a boon to good students without familial connections and the like, is now suspect. The California university system no longer requires SATs as part of the admissions process, and by 2023 will not even consider SAT or ACT scores if students choose to submit them as part of their application. The tony Dalton School (tuition $54,180 per year) has decided to do away with high-level academic courses by 2023 if the performance of black students is not on par with non-black students.
Getting rid of all objective measures gives full rein to all those deans of inclusion and diversity to create perfectly balanced classes along racial lines.
Instead of increasing the quality of the math curriculum and develop math skills, the state education departments in California and Oregon have declared that current math instruction places too great an emphasis "on finding the right answer." That focus, according to the Oregon Department of Education, manifests "white supremacy." If you had to predict the future technological development of a country, would you bet on the one emphasizing getting the right answers to math problems, or the one with a more touchy-feely approach?
Instead of upping the time devoted to math instruction, the Seattle school board created social justice resources for math teachers to introduce into their classes that focus on "power and oppression" and "the history of resistance and liberation" within mathematics. The implicit message to minority students is not one of empowerment — "You can learn to do math" — but the opposite: "You can't do math, but it's not your fault."
The solution to every academic failure is to lower the standards. When the University of North Carolina discovered that over a quarter of students received a D, F, or withdrew from math and statistics classes, the response was to revise the general education math requirements to make them more "applicable and equitable."
The exhibit on "whiteness" at the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of African-American History and Culture lists among the qualities of "whiteness": "the scientific method," "hard work," "objectivity," "punctuality." Identifying the "scientific method" with "whiteness" should go a long way to encouraging more black scientists.
INSTEAD OF ENCOURAGING HARD WORK, a silly people will punish it or seek to lessen its rewards. Asian-Americans are the victims of the latter today. Mention the "Wuhan flu" and one will immediately stand accused of being a "white supremacist" and a "racist." And yet that same accuser will have no problem with the systematic discrimination against Asian students in admissions to elite colleges and universities.
Asian-Americans are the Jews of a century ago. Once, New York's Stuyvesant High School, one of America's best public schools, was 80 percent Jewish. Today, it is approximately three-quarters Asian. That imbalance has generated repeated calls to do away with Stuyvesant's rigorous entrance exam, most vociferously by outgoing New York mayor Bill de Blasio.
When it comes to college admissions, however, schools find ways to get away from objective scores and the like. A suit charging Harvard University with discrimination against Asians, Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard University, has been wending its way through the federal court system for seven years. According to the Harvard's own Office of Institutional Research, Asian-Americans would constitute 43.4 percent of Harvard undergraduates if only grades, SAT scores, and extracurricular activities were considered. In point of fact, they make up only 23 percent of the undergraduate population, which is still four times their percentage of the general population.
That 23 percent is slightly higher than the percentage of Jews among Harvard undergraduates in 1922 (my grandfather's class), when alarums went off in the head of Harvard President Abbott Lawrence, who proposed a Jewish quota of no more than 15 percent. He worried that too many "insensitive, aggressive, and ill-conditioned" Jews would drive Christian gentlemen away.
Similarly, Harvard today consistently ranks Asian applicants lower on such personal qualities as "positive personality, likeability, courage, kindness, widely respected." Amazingly, these negative evaluations are meted out by admissions officers who have never met or spoken to the applicants. Talk about racial stereotyping.
A cottage industry exists in advising Asian applicants to Ivy League schools. They are told to never mention how hard they work. And if they happen to win a national science contest or the like, not to write their essay about it, lest they appear to be too serious.
THERE IS YET ANOTHER, MORE SUBTLE WAY in which America's woke educational system has helped destroy its natural advantages: by undermining a culture of vigorous debate, which has been a hallmark of Western culture back to the Greeks. In his landmark The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently — and Why, Robert Nisbet notes that American scientists won 44 Nobel Prizes in the 1990s, while only one Japanese scientist did, even though Japan spends heavily on scientific training and research. West Germany and France, which spend far less than Japan on science, garnered five and three Nobel Prizes respectively.
Some Japanese scientists themselves attributed the deficit in the highest level scientific work to the absence of debate and intellectual confrontation in Asian culture. Peer review and criticism are rare in Japan. One Japanese scientist offered the example of two eminent American colleagues, who were personal friends. But at conferences and in scientific journals, they would go at it tong and nails. In Japan, he told Nisbet, such a thing would never occur. It would be considered unforgivably rude.
But that Western emphasis on debate and a free marketplace of ideas finds ever less space on the campus today. It is incompatible with a culture of "You can't say that."
And that has seeped down into science, in which Twitter and Facebook have increasingly become the arbiters of what scientific and medical opinions can be publicized. Last October 4, Professors Sunetra Gupta of Oxford, Martin Kulldorff of Harvard, and Jah Bhattacharya of Stanford published the Great Barrington Declaration, in which they expressed their opposition, as epidemiologists, to the lockdowns then in effect, and urged a focus on protecting vulnerable populations instead. The existent policies, they argued, protected young, low-risk professionals working from home on the backs of children, the working class, and the poor.
As the lockdown failures became increasingly clear, instead of the debate intensifying, censorship increased, according to Kulldorff. YouTube censored a roundtable in which the three eminent scientists stated that children do not need to wear masks; Facebook closed an account of theirs arguing for prioritization of older populations in receiving vaccines; Twitter censored a Kulldorff post in which he said children and the previously infected do not require vaccination, and later locked his account after he wrote of the death of an older couple, with whom he was friends, who had relied too much on their masks to protect themselves at the expense of other forms of social distancing.
As long as American culture continues on the path of "silliness," at the expense of open debate, rigorous standards, and fostering merit, the future will belong to Chinese autocrats.