The Big Bang Theory of Education

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Authoritarian countries don’t seem to be doing well at the knowledge business. That’s probably no accident.


China just doesn’t manufacture more stuff than the rest of us — it’s also about to dominate the world intellectually. Chinese universities are preparing to conquer the world. China is now taking the lead in the publication of academic papers. Each year Chinese campuses are producing legions of super-qualified engineering graduates — and no wonder, given those Spartan study habits!

In fact, none of these things is (entirely) true. Of course China is amply supplied with great minds, and of course many of its students are hard workers. But a lot of the oft-quoted statistics about China’s academic triumphs turn out to be hollow. Yes, Chinese academics publish a lot of papers — but that’s because they’re meeting government-set publication quotas. The quality of most of those Chinese-authored monographs (which can be measured by how often they’re cited by other scholars) is spotty. And those awe-inspiring figures on engineering graduates have been thoroughly debunked as well. Some of the numbers have unclear origins, and many of those “engineers” are better described as “technicians,” people whose actual qualifications are minimal. (And let’s not even get started on the fraud and corruption that apparently permeate the Chinese education system.)

In short, talk of China’s academic rise needs to be taken with a grain of salt. All this came to mind the other day, when I spotted a story in the New York Times that bore the ominous headline: “U.S. Falls and Asia Gains in University Rankings.” The article refers to the latest study of global universities conducted by Times Higher Education magazine (one of the few organizations that offers an annual ranking of institutions of higher education around the world). Here’s one of the takeaways:

Asian universities were the biggest gainers, with universities in China, Singapore, and Australia moving up the table, as did every university in South Korea, led by Seoul National University, which jumped to 59th place from 124th. “We’ve been talking for years about the rise of Asia,” said Phil Baty, editor of the rankings. “But this is the first solid empirical evidence.”

Entirely aside from the question of whether Australia ought to be considered part of Asia, I found this thesis somewhat intriguing. A closer look at the rankings quickly revealed that, yes, universities from Asia are certainly on the move. But the more interesting question turns out to be: From which Asia?

Given all the talk about the stunning rise of Chinese academia, you’d expect that universities from the People’s Republic would be over-represented here. But that’s not the case at all. Altogether, 57 universities from Asia make the top 400 in the rankings this time around. Of those, nine are from mainland China. That’s nine out of 400. The highest-ranked Chinese institution is Peking University, at number 46 (right after Washington University in St. Louis).

But this doesn’t mean that all Chinese universities are playing academic catchup — as becomes apparent when you take a look at the rest of the rankings. Taiwan boasts seven out of the top 400, and tiny Hong Kong — the real stunner of this survey, in my view — six. So why should these two Chinese-inhabited territories be so far ahead that their combined total outdoes that of the mainland — even though they have only a miniscule fraction of its population?

Let me hazard a guess: I think it might have to do with the nature of the societies in which these universities are embedded. Though the people of Hong Kong can’t properly elect their leaders, the culture of the territory is indisputably democratic, with a strong rule of law and well-established habits of assembly and debate. (Yeah, I know: Hong Kong is officially part of the People’s Republic. But it enjoys considerable autonomy and still jealously defends its unique character.) Taiwan, of course, is a multi-party democracy — no qualifiers needed.

So why would my theory that the difference has to do with democracy make sense? Presumably because it’s really hard to build a proper research university without freedom of information and inquiry — just the sort of thing that authoritarian regimes have a hard time allowing. “Academic freedom is a fundamental part of the formula for creating a world-class university,” says Phil Baty, who was in charge of the survey (and yes, he’s the same guy who was quoted in the Times article cited above). “You have to give your professors the room to question received wisdom.” Throw enough money and infrastructure at the problem and you can do quite a lot, he notes; Chinese leaders, who understand the importance of technical knowledge and innovation, are definitely making up for lost time in this respect. But even when it comes to math and science, you probably won’t get the best bang for your buck unless professors and students are allowed to think freely.

Perhaps this is why the overwhelming majority of the other East Asian nations prominently represented in the top 400 — Japan (with 13) and South Korea (6) — also happen to be vigorous democracies. The only possible exception is the tiny, authoritarian city-state of Singapore, which has two universities in the rankings — quite an impressive achievement. But it’s an exception nonetheless — and it becomes even more so when one notes that the vast majority of the institutions in the top 400 still hail from the democratic nations of Western Europe and North America. (American universities account for seven of the top 10 and 76 of the top 100.)

Of course, we could also see it from the other way around: Of the world’s autocracies, mainland China is the only that really has any serious presence in the top 400 at all. Only two universities from Russia made it in. In the Middle East, Israel and Turkey both have a clutch of schools; but Saudi Arabia and Iran can only manage one each. (Yes, that’s right: The entire Arab world, once the storehouse of the world’s knowledge, can claim just one of the world’s top 400 universities.)

Perhaps the autocrats should take a closer look at the No. 1 school in the survey: the California Institute of Technology. As Baty points out, Cal Tech is distinguished not only to its innovative approach to learning (where small groups of students actively solve problems, rather than passively listening to lectures, with the world’s leading scientists), but also by its spirit of free-wheeling creativity, which includes a love of creative pranks and general craziness. The same applies to MIT (fifth in the rankings), which also prides itself on its unorthodox teaching approach — as well as its rich history of “hacks.”

A successful research university, Baty argues, has to allow “academics to follow their noses and to think in a blue-skies way.” (In this context, I don’t think it’s any accident that the main characters in the hit U.S. TV comedy The Big Bang Theory, which celebrates the virtues of iconoclastic nerdiness, are Cal Tech grad students.)

Of course, things are not all rosy at universities in the United States and Britain, either, as Baty is quick to point out. Costs are rising. Research funds are, increasingly, narrowly targeted, crowding out financing for the sorts of fundamental research that are essential to big discoveries. And yes, there’s rising pressure from new players on the global scene.

This should not be a source of undue hysteria. To the contrary: Established universities should welcome the competition (not to mention the new possibilities for collaboration). But that certainly doesn’t mean that the schools with successful traditions of untrammeled inquiry should lose sight of the values that got them where they are today. Freedom is the air that good thinking breathes.

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