Clash of the titans: Harvard v. China

Several replies queued up to the post yesterday about problems with Chinese education. Leading off: Jerome Doolittle of the Bad Attitudes site -- a novelist, a former writing instructor at Harvard, and long ago my colleague on the Jimmy Carter speechwriting staff. Here is his response to Randy Pollock's observation that when he asked his class in China to brainstorm about a problem, they all answered the same way:

Some years ago I assigned my class of Harvard freshman a paper describing the college they would create if they had unlimited money. I did my best to convince them to take a zero-based budgeting approach: to reinvent the whole notion of "college" from the ground up. Of the 30 papers I got back, 29 described something that looked very much like Harvard, except a little farther out of town. The single exception came from an Alabama girl whose paper began, "My idea of the perfect college would be to spend four years in bed with Aldous Huxley."
So I had at least one live one, which is more than Randy Pollock had. But not by much. The Harvard admissions office seems to be just about as effective as its Chinese counterparts at screening out the undesirably creative.

I think Doolittle is missing a chance as a successful lecturer on the university circuit here in China. He could draw big crowds on the theme of "Catching up with Harvard: Almost there!" To wax earnest for a moment, it's worth being clear that the complaint by Pollock and others concerns the educational system, as opposed to the students themselves. As is well known around the world, many of them flourish when they get a chance someplace else. More to come.

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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. More

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.

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