Inside the box
Which country -- the United States or China -- will make the 21st century its own?
When President Obama recently called for American young people “to be makers of things” and focus on subjects such as science and engineering, it was partly a nod to China’s rapid growth. Had he lived, taught and consulted in China for the last 33 months, as I have, he might have urged American students first to follow his example and study the liberal arts. Only technical knowledge complemented by well-honed critical and creative thinking skills can help us regain our innovative edge. China’s traditional lack of emphasis on teaching these skills could undermine its efforts to develop its own innovative economy.
I once challenged my Chinese MBA students to brainstorm “two-hour business plans.” I divided them into six groups, gave them detailed instructions and an example: a restaurant chain. The more original their idea, the better, I stressed -- and we’d vote for a prize winner. The word “prize” energized the room. Laptops flew open. Fingers pounded. Voices roared. Packs of cookies were ripped open and shared. Not a single person text-messaged. I’d touched a nerve.
In the end, five of the six groups presented plans for, you guessed it, restaurant chains. The sixth proposed a catering service. Why risk a unique solution when the instructor has let it slip he likes the food business?
Though I admitted the time limit had been difficult, I expressed my disappointment and reiterated what I had expected -- originality -- and why. But they’d been so enthusiastic that I couldn’t deny them a winner. After a polite discussion of the merits of each idea, the Haagen-Dazs gift certificates were awarded, but not without controversy. Runners-up later complained that an identical concept had been featured on CCTV the night before.
My students weren’t recent college grads. They were middle managers, financial analysts and marketers from state-owned enterprises and multinational companies. They occupied the space in the developing economy that has spawned a small industry of articles about “China’s great talent shortage.” Most were intelligent, personable men and women, not without talent or opinions, but they had been shaped by an educational system that rarely stressed or rewarded critical thinking or inventiveness.
The scenario I’ve described occurred in different forms throughout my two years at the school. Papers were routinely copied from the Web and the Harvard Business Review. Case study debates meant to be spontaneous were jointly scripted by the opposing teams and memorized. Students frequently posited that copying is a superior business strategy to inventing and innovating. When they considered the wealth that Chinese industry had amassed in such a short time, it was hard for them to believe otherwise.
Throughout the semesters, like students everywhere but more so, they wanted to know exactly what they needed to memorize for the mid-term and final. Considering it takes me a week just to commit several Chinese phrases to memory, I had to respect their skills.
Nonetheless, I reminded them that their exams would require analysis, and often re-explained at their request the difference between analysis and summary.
My Western-trained colleagues, both foreigners and Chinese, tell similar stories. It’s not that university students in the West hadn’t also needed coaching in critical thinking, but they weren’t so blindly locked into such a seemingly entrenched style. It doesn’t help, of course, that certain important topics related to politics and business have to be avoided in my Chinese classes.
Ironically, the government that has enforced such restrictions and focused its schools so intensely on math and science seems to realize its efforts may be too effective. Highways, dams, bridges and airports have been built, every conceivable product manufactured and sold, but so few sophisticated marketing and management minds have been cultivated that it will be a long time before most people in the world can name a Chinese brand.
With this problem in mind, local partnerships with institutions such as USC, Johns Hopkins, Yale, MIT and Insead of France have been established. If not quite ready to create cadres of disaffected litterateurs and cineastes, Beijing clearly recognizes it will take different kinds of thinkers to invent new products and sell them around the world.
And then there’s the “thousand-talent scheme,” a new government program intended to boost technological innovation by luring top foreign-trained scientists, including those of non-Chinese origin, to the mainland with big money and perks.
But the officials and professors who conceived this “scheme” are likely products of the educational system that generated the problem they are trying to solve. They are ambitious. They are confident. They want to push China forward. But worries about China’s research environment, hardly known for fostering independent thinking and openness, may overshadow lucrative salary offers.
“Money is important for practical issues,” said Zhangqing Li, a University of Maryland professor, to Nature.com in January. “But the determinant factor is whether we would be able to be as productive in China as the United States.”
Ultimately for China, becoming a major world innovator -- and by extension, a robust economic power -- is not just about setting up partnerships with top Western universities or roping off elites and telling them to think creatively. It’s about establishing an intellectually rich learning environment for young minds. It’s about harnessing the same inventive energy of the street markets and small-time entrepreneurs and putting it in the schools.
The Chinese don’t need expensive free-agent scientists. They need a new farm system -- and about 10 million liberal arts professors.