Clash of the titans: Harvard v. China

By James Fallows

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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2009/05/clash-of-the-titans-harvard-v-china/17291/