James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne.
James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.
Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.
Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
It's easy! If the CIA says one thing and former Sen. Graham says another, then the CIA is lying. Or, "in error," if you prefer.
(Background here and here, in which Graham says that some of the briefings in which he was allegedly filled in about waterboarding and related techniques never occurred. This matters, because the CIA's claims are part of the same argument that Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats in Congress had known about and acquiesced to waterboarding all the way along.)
Part of the payoff of reaching age 72 and having spent 38 years in public office, as Graham has, is that people have had a chance to judge your reputation. Graham has a general reputation for honesty. In my eyes he has a specific reputation for very good judgment: he was one of a handful of Senators actually to read the full classified intelligence report about the "threats" posed by Saddam Hussein. On the basis of reading it, despite a career as a conservative/centrist Democrat, he voted against the war and fervently urged his colleagues to do the same. "Blood is going to be on your hands," he warned those who voted yes.
More relevant in this case, Graham also has a specific reputation for keeping detailed daily records of people he met and things they said. He's sometimes been mocked for this compulsive practice, but he's never been doubted about the completeness or accuracy of what he compiles. (In the fine print of those records would be an indication that I had interviewed him about Iraq war policy while he was in the Senate and recently spent time with him when he was on this side of the world.)
So if he says he never got the briefing, he didn't. And if the CIA or anyone acting on its behalf challenges him, they are stupid and incompetent as well as being untrustworthy. This doesn't prove that the accounts of briefing Pelosi are also inaccurate. But it shifts the burden of proof.
Yesterday, two reader-arguments (here and here) that the gaokao or 高考, the standardized, nationwide college-admissions exam for students in China, plays a central role in the parts of Chinese education that people inside and outside the country dislike. (On that larger debate, here.)
Since then, a flood of correspondence from people generally offering a "Yes, but..." defense of the gaokao. Yes, it's not connected to "real" education. Yes, it makes students' lives hell. Yes... But: it has other advantages. Or, the obvious alternatives would be even worse -- especially given widespread Chinese fear that any more "subjective" system would certainly be rigged.
Here is a sampling. Judge for yourself -- and be convinced, at least, that allocating educational opportunity in a country with the scale and extremes of China is a complicated business.
1. From a reader in China:
I just read your posts on the nationwide college-admissions exam, the
gaokao. While I agreed that this system did focus too much on
memorizing books and exam preparation, it cannot be replaced for the
current sociaty. The advantage of this universal exam system is
Yes, there are much unfairness in the exam system, i.e. Beijing and Shanghai got too many quotas for the colleges entries, minority groups got extra points, and some can get in based on their privilege and wealth. However, this system is the most fair and practical one compared to all other alternative systems. The American system including essays, reference letters, community service experiences...all too subjective and easy to manipulate in China. The privileged ones will benefit even more from American system and squeeze the poor talented ones out of the best schools.
I am all for a reformed education system to promote innovation. But the first thing the education should achieve is fairness: the best students can be selected to get the best education.
2) From Ella Shengru Zhou, a Chinese student who has just finished college in Beijing and will enroll in a Harvard graduate school this fall. She has worked with me as a interpreter and assistant.
Officially done with my college study today, I feel I just have to say
something about the discussion on China's education. I don't think gao
kao is the problem in China's education.
About the public hearings on the terrible crash in Buffalo three months ago, in which 50 people died:
- Authoritative wrapup of the situation here by Andy Pasztor of the Wall Street Journal, who has had well-informed stories on this topic from the beginning.
- This more-complete information supports the hypothesis Pasztor raised early on, as discussed previously here, that the cause of the crash was a basic and fatal failure of airmanship. That is, at a moment when saving the airplane would have required pushing the plane's nose down -- to regain airspeed and avert an aerodynamic stall -- the pilot apparently fought the autopilot, which was trying to push the nose down, and succeeded in pulling the nose up. This further reduced airspeed and, apparently, put the plane into a full stall, at which point it stopped flying and fell to the ground. If you're not 100% confident on the difference between aerodynamic "stalls" and normal stalls, see the note after the jump.*
- The complete transcript of over-the-airwaves transmissions and in-cockpit chatter, available in PDF from the WSJ site here, has the intrinsic horrific fascination of any document of this sort. You know you are observing the routine preoccupations and chit-chat of people who don't realize, as you do, that they are in their final moments of life. I don't share the total astonishment of some commentary about how much of the en route talk is "unprofessional" -- about career plans and family problems and the rest. Given how things turned out, any banter whatsoever now looks very bad. But none of it would have mattered save for the one horrible error in judgment and reaction. Had the pilot pushed forward on the stick rather than pulled back, in all likelihood it would have been another normal flight -- albeit in rough winter conditions -- and he and everyone else would now be going about their regular lives.
- Of course the big question is how much the loosey-goosey atmosphere in the cockpit had to do with that awful error. Miles O'Brien, a pilot and ex-correspondent for CNN, has his thoughts on the subject here.
- This is NOT crash related, but for a way to see what it is like to descend into a cloud bank on an IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) landing, check out this YouTube video taken from inside the cockpit of a Cirrus SR-22 in the last three minutes of its approach to runway 16R at Van Nuys airport. (The Cirrus is a four-seat single-engine plane of the type that, as it happens, Miles O'Brien flies and that I used to own and fly before coming to China.) The shot does not concentrate on the instrument panel during the descent, which is what the pilot is obsessively scanning when he can't see anything outside the window. Also,the propeller appears to "stop" or move jerkily at times, just because of a strobe effect with the camera. But the beginning and end of the clip conveys something most passengers never see: how it looks to enter the clouds, and then finally to see the runway -- in this case, underneath quite a low cloud ceiling. Really, watch this and you'll have an idea of the mantra drummed into your head a million times in instrument-flight training: that you've got to watch the instruments and trust the instruments, because there is no other guide to where you're headed.
(UPDATE: YouTube appears to be getting Firewalled again in China, as happens from time to time. I posted this link while using a VPN, as I do most of the time to get around the firewall. But after hearing complaints from others, I turned the VPN off and couldn't reach YouTube from Beijing. Oh well.)
- Speaking of runway 16R at Van Nuys Airport, here is the site for a movie called One Six Right, about that very runway and the activity that surrounds it. It's for sale on DVD rather than free download, but it is visually very rich, eye-opening, and fascinating to watch. It also talks about all the routine safety measures that are normally built into aviation, and which in this Buffalo case didn't prevent a huge tragedy.
From Joshua Davis, a foreigner teaching English in China, a further critique of the nationwide college-admissions exam, the gaokao, following this one earlier today by another foreign teacher. These are worth noting less for the novelty of the complaint (objecting to the effects of the test on Chinese education is like objecting to the effects of money on American politics) than for giving examples of how central and powerful the test's effects are. Mr. Davis writes:
Earlier this year, I decided that one of the things that stifles creativity in China more than anything else was high school. All Chinese students are required to take an all inclusive,
end-all, be-all exam at the end of their high school careers called the
Gao Kao.. If I can remember from the top of my head, this test includes
physics, biology, math, politics, Chinese, English, history, geography,
and maybe 3 or 4 others.
Because this is the only grade that actually matters in high school,
it's the sole determiner for students going on to college. There is no
college essay, interviews, etc. The only thing that matters is the gao
From Benjamin, a foreign teacher who recounts what his Chinese students don't like about their educational experience. The big focus here is the 高考, or gaokao, the nationwide college entrance exam that, as in some other Asian countries, is the make or break moment for many life prospects. Americans think their kids are stressed by the SAT. Hah!
The ripple effects of the gaokao (and its Japanese and Korean counterparts) are a familiar theme in complaints about Asian school systems. But after the jump, Benjamin gets his students to explain what a better Chinese school system would look like. He writes:
Having taught English here for the past year, mostly to recent high
school and college graduates (and a few primary and middle school
students), I have had countless opportunities to hear what Chinese
students have to say about their educational system.
They don't like it that much, and it goes beyond ideas about
critical thinking and creativity. They have said that they find it a
very stifling experience, filled with long days focused on boring books
and lectures with rote assignments to ensure that they've memorized the
essential facts (and pre-decided interpretations) and mastered the
I don't talk about it as often as, say, small-plane aviation or, recently, Chinese education, or my doomed quest in Asia for good beer. But for many many years I have been fascinated by the relationship between "pure" acts of thinking - logic, memory, argument, expression, the process of making connections and finding distinctions; all of which rely fundamentally on words - and the various tools, cues, shortcuts, and stimuli other than words that can play an important part in what we think of as thought.
I'm not talking about entirely separate realms of expression - like music, which obviously conveys meaning beyond words, or the emotional or imaginative power of artwork, photography, illustrations, and other visual representations. Rather I mean systems specifically designed to help the plain old reasoning parts of the brain do their job better, by shoring up common weak spots or by giving more or better material for the "real" brain to work on. For an Atlantic article on this topic from 2007, go here. Things have changed since then, mainly for the better, in ways I'll go into in coming days.
Today's design theme: the potential of argument maps. These are something like sentence diagrams, without the drudge-work overtone. I was introduced to them through two programs from the Austhink company of Melbourne, Australia: bCisive, whose name is I think a pun on "decisive" and is a tool for decision-making, and Rationale, which is supposed to help students improve the logic of their presentations. Tim van Gelder, who teaches philosophy at the U of Melbourne and founded Austhink, weighed in here yesterday on the Chinese education, defending the proposition that critical thinking can be taught.
Here's one illustration of an argument map, a small portion of a complex map prepared by Austhink director Paul Monk (an author and former intelligence officer) to weigh arguments about who "really" killed JFK. Different kinds of maps, and reading about them, after the jump. (His argument map on the proposition "The war on Iraq was illegal" is here.)
Yesterday I posted a report from a teacher in Hangzhou who, along with other foreigners on the staff, was being called in for special health checks as part of anti-flu precautions. The teacher wondered whether this was a Hangzhou localism or a wider policy.
Since then I have received no reports of special health checks for foreigners, and many comments to the effect that "all is routine here." So it appears to be a one-city or even one-school policy. Worth noting.
Update: Have heard from one teacher in Suzhou about health checks there too (not far from Hangzhou, so maybe....) and an expat in Beijing about getting temperature checked on the way into his apartment building gym. Adding: "(lucky they didn't take it one the way out. Would have been quarantined for sure. Or perhaps shipped out to a morgue)."
News and events in China today are dominated by commemorations of the Sichuan earthquake of May 12, 2008.
In that spirit, here is a link to a video released today by Afterquake, a project by Abigail Washburn and Dave Liang, American musicians living in China, to document and assist the recovery effort.
I think most people will find the video affecting but not depressing. It certainly makes clear why this event so dominated the country's consciousness last year. The only thing the post-earthquake scenes don't convey is how vast the devastated area was. You could drive for hours, far away from the epicenter, and still see crushed buildings and shaken-down mountains like those depicted here.
From a Chinese person teaching in America; then an American teaching somewhere else; and finally the man who kicked the whole thing off, Randy Pollock himself. (Previously here.)
First, from a Chinese reader:
I had a pretty low opinion on Chinese education when I was in China. Certain subjects such as history and Marxist philosophy are just crammed in without any critical discussion. But when I came to US and worked as TA for a top state university, I changed my mind a bit. Almost none of my students (first-year economics) are interested in understanding the materials critically. Most of them are just looking for a good grade. Also the math preparation some of my students received are so inadequate, I doubt they would be able to graduate from high school in China, not mentioning entering a top university. My classmate told me a story that one of his student could not do 7*7 by hand. From what I read in newspapers about quality of inner city schools in US, the situation may be even worse than I see. So the conspiracy theory one of your reader talked about that the poor quality of rural area schools is set on purpose by Chinese government to keep people ignorant is far-fetched. Compared with some of the public schools in US where so much resource are spent with so few results, I think the education system in China is not so bad.
I don't think Nobel Prize is a valid measure to compare different education systems. Most of the best scientific talents in China are attracted to US, studying and working here. This alone can make any comparison meaningless. Also scientific research in US was weak till 20th century. I remember reading Schumpeter's discussion about why there were so few first-rate American economists till very late in the 19th century, his explanation was that the best talents in US were attracted to entrepreneurial adventures in a fast growing economy. Similar things may be happening in China right now.
Next, from an American expat:
I've been reading your series on Chinese education because it so greatly resembles my daily life as an English teacher. The thing is, I don't teach in China, I teach in a Eastern European country.
A foreign teacher in Hangzhou writes with a question:
I was informed this past Friday by my school's Foreign Affairs Dept. that we should report our "health status" by 3 pm daily. Only the foreign teachers have been asked to report their health (whatever that means, we are still not really sure) according to my Chinese colleagues. I was wondering if you had A. heard any other reports of such behavior and B. Does this indicate that the virus is in Hangzhou? (It doesn't seem likely if Chinese teachers aren't also being "checked") Or is this just another example of over-response (since none of us have been out of the country in over a month)?
I have not heard of or experienced anything like this, and my default explanation for regional variations is that it's a great big country with lots of different things going on. But if anyone has experienced something similar, let me know and I'll collate results. Meanwhile, stay healthy!
... how about the prospect that the GPS system will be the next part of America's neglected infrastructure to be in trouble, with ripple effects on modern commercial life?
It is impossible to overstate the importance of GPS to the worldwide modern economy. Trivial recent example: the other night in Beijing, my wife and I were lost getting to an address. Didn't see street signs around, although streets in big Chinese cities are usually very well marked. We pulled up the Google Map function on my Blackberry, and it showed us (via the "my location" function) that the street we were looking for was the one we just passed rather than the one still ahead. [This cut is an important improvement to the post! On the reasons for this improvement, see below*] Multiply this a million-fold each day in operations of the world's navigation and transportation functions, and you see how economic life is being built on GPS almost in the way it has been built on electricity over the last hundred years. The world's airlines, to choose one obvious case, would be in huge trouble without reliable GPS.
And so it is with heavy heart that we learn about a new Government Accountability Office study (here in PDF), via Michael Cooney's story in NetworkWorld, saying that the U.S. Air Force, which runs the GPS satellites, has not managed to get new "IIF"-model satellites ready in time to replace the ones that are wearing out.
For years, other countries have said they needed their own alternative to the GPS system, precisely because it was run by the U.S. military and, in times of crisis, could be used as a strategic tool. Simplest version of the fear: that in an emergency the US could block or encode signals so that only its own receivers could interpret them, meaning the American military would know where it was going and no one else would. You can get the idea from the illustration below, included in the GAO report, showing sample "aviation" and "ground navigation" uses for GPS.
There's a long history on this score, mainly involving the European
Galileo project, plus Russian and Chinese efforts; plus the Pentagon's
gradual willingness to make high-precision signals available to the
world generally, rather than deliberately fuzzing the open-use civilian version. All for
another time; I invite you to look it up for yourself.
But the nightmare scenario no one thought to
worry about was that the US-run system would start to crumble and wear
out. Arrrgghh! _____ * IMPROVEMENT!!!: Let me quickly shift from Arrrggghh to OOOOOPSSS! Let's entirely forget that struck-out part above, in light of this item from TelecomAsia.net that a technically sophisticated friend just sent me.
Ummm, I don't know what I could have been thinking. Of course my Blackberry couldn't do anything like that....
Recently we've had Chinese and non-Chinese perspectives on Chinese schools (background here). For balance, a Chinese and a non-Chinese view in the same post!
Reasons I'm offering such long first-hand testimony: (1) no one has to read it! (2) many things about life in China -- and yes, life in other places -- are conveyed not in theoretical summaries but in accumulations of day by day experiences, like those recounted here. Several more still in the queue. Also, bear in mind that the foreigners writing in are ones who generally came to Chinese schools to "do something good." They're not here for the big bucks or the easy life but because they thought it would be valuable as well as interesting to be part of China's development at this stage.
First, from a foreigner now teaching in China:
The articles that you have featured are focused largely on University
students in China. I teach English in the public middle schools (what
we call grades 6, 7, and 8). The problems in Chinese education show in
the University students, but to fix them you need to look at what's
happening with students who are much younger.
First, from reader Terry Foecke. After the jump, from a non-Chinese person currently teaching in a Chinese school who doesn't want his (or her) name to be used. I'm not planning to run every letter that comes in -- lots have -- but these are very representative of views from non-Chinese people working inside Chinese schools or companies and valuable in that way. They also resonate with Randy Pollock's LA Times op-ed about his business students.
My connection with these effects is through working with second- and third-tier Chinese suppliers to US-based companies. My job was to improve the production process (mostly electroplating, with some heat treating and stamping/machining) enough to assure consistent results.
After a personal run-in period, I finally got it through my head that even my own (Chinese) engineers were extremely reluctant to deliver bad news. Furthermore, their definition of "bad news" was far broader than I could have imagined. This leads to a lively chase when Step 1 is "Identify Problem(s).
We did our best work when we had a late night and stopped for their kind of Chinese meal.
From Jiang Qian, an overseas Chinese physicist trained at Harvard, about the "is Chinese education any good?" theme introduced here and here. The LA Times article, by Randy Pollock, that started this discussion talked consistently about "critical and creative" thinking as being the weak spots of the Chinese system; Jiang Qian's criticism is mostly about the "critical" part. Still an interesting complement. More on the way.
I do not doubt that some reform in the educational system de-emphasizing rote learning would be helpful, nor do I deny that there are anxieties among Chinese educators in promoting "creativity" or "critical thinking."
But just to point to the other side of the story, I would like to suggest that it is not clear whether "liberal art", or anything being taught in school, can improve "critical thinking". In fact, as [an attached article] points out, "critical thinking" is not a skill like reading or carpentry that can be taught, but rather something attached to a specific set of knowledge. And the American schools' efforts to actively promote "critical thinking" have at best a mixed track record.
Given the torments that await those who try to bring cheese into China (see here, here, here, and here), it is with mixed emotions that I see the banner ad now running on many parts of the Atlantic's site, including mine.
Elements of the emotional mix: Honor, in being associated with such fine cheese! Tantalized despair, in knowing it's out of my own reach. Gratitude, in seeing such a precise advertiser/ medium matchup. And exhortation, that all of you who are able to do so go out and buy Comte Cheese. I'd be doing it if I could...