In his book The China Dream, Joe Studwell chronicled the ambitions and delusions of foreign entrepreneurs scrambling to get into China. The absolute article of faith was that if only one in every hundred Chinese bought a razor, that this would still be a hell of a lot of razors sold.
Today’s China gold rush is in education. In his book The Rise and Decline of the Great Powers, Paul Kennedy pointed out that historically, the Chinese have spent their capital either on land or in education. And, as a Beijing public school official, I can confirm from experience that Chinese parents will sacrifice everything for their child’s education.
It’s something US colleges and high schools have discovered to their delight, with at least 100,000 Chinese students currently enrolled in the United States, many of whom are paying around $50,000 a year for the privilege. That’s probably why the US embassy in Beijing seems keen to rush through student visa applications, and why Chinese education fairs draw so many foreign participants.
If Joe Studwell were to write a sequel to The China Dream, it would likely focus on education, China’s last great untapped market, and he would probably write that while there’s been an increasing trickle of US schools entering the China market ever since the late 1990s, the deluge will really have started after Dr. Kenneth Smith, a short and bespectacled educator who seldom ventured outside his native New England, decided to visit China.
The superintendent of the Millinocket, Maine public school system has been looking to enroll Chinese teenagers to save his financially-troubled school system. The New York Times is rightfully curious as to why Chinese parents ‘would spend $27,000 to send their children to Stearns High, which is housed in a 1960s building, has only one Advanced Placement course and classroom maps so outdated they still show the Soviet Union, and where more than half of the 200 students are poor enough to qualify for free lunch’. But, Dr. Smith assures us, there’s fresh air, a tall mountain to hike, and ‘a great’ performing arts programme. (And to make Stearns High even more appetizing, the school cafeteria will soon offer lo mein.)
Yes, it sounds like a crazy idea. But it’ll probably work because, well, China is a crazy place.
And it’s also a big place where you have demanding parents who plan obsessively and meticulously over their child’s schooling, career, and family and where you have thoughtless parents who ship their child off overseas with a lot of money and freedom because he was too spoiled and undisciplined at home. So you can bet that unscrupulous Chinese agents working on commission will make a more convincing pitch than Dr. Smith does to Chinese parents on the value of a Maine education.
Regardless of what happens in Maine, there are going to be a lot of Chinese students attending American high schools in the coming years — and I know from personal experience there’s as much peril as promise in such a trend.
As a six-year old Chinese immigrant to Toronto, I had an unhappy and traumatic experience in the public school system, but as a 21st century educator I believe it’s crucial that Chinese students learn to be global citizens. The trick, though, is to educate students at an early age to be confident and outward-looking, to welcome difference and diversity, and to send them to a Western school that will both push and support them.
A year ago, an experimental programme I started called Foundation aimed to prepare seven Chinese middle-school students for American high school. The programme has taught them how to write a five-paragraph essay and how to cook a Chinese dinner for their future American host family, as well as the joy of team sports and of quiet reading. Having witnessed these kids, repressed by an often soul-crushing education system, blossom, we looked for a school in the United States that would love them as much as we did. When we felt we found a good partner school, we invited their principal, maths teacher, a student, and his mother to China, where they spent a week hiking the Great Wall and eating Peking Duck with our students and their families.
In the spring, our students will be going to the US — and that’s when our work will really begin; we plan to communicate weekly with our students and our US counterparts, and we’ll try to mediate if any cross-cultural problems arise.
We’ve invested so much time and thought into our seven students because, more than commodities and consumers, we see them first and foremost as children. They are innocent and impressionable, and they trust us adults to love them as human beings with unlimited potential, and not as a source of endless profit or as a quick fix to budget shortfalls. It’s a principle I’m afraid Dr. Kenneth Smith and others involved in China’s great education gold rush may forget.