USA vs. HK #4: Education

By most objective measures, this should be an easy one for HK.  In 2007, HK ranked among the best in the world on most measures of math and science science performance, ranking among the other developed Asian countries like Japan, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea.  The US is toward the middle of the second tier, not as horrible as the media makes it seem, but not competing with East Asia.  (The US is way ahead of China though.)  So Hong Kong seems to be doing a much better job of teaching math and science to it’s children, at least on average.  But what about higher education?

The US still has the best universities in the world.  But on a per capita basis, the US and HK are pretty comparable.  Because of it’s protection of freedom of expression, and it’s high per capita income, HK is one of the leading centers of education in Asia, and the world.  The US has historically had a big advantage in this area, because there was a long period of time when it was one of the few places where academics could work without fear of the government looking over their shoulders.  This is the primary reason China will never have world class universities under the current regime, and why HK and Japan have such a regional advantage in Asia.  Asia is catching up in higher education and Hong Kong is a big part of that advance.  For a look at the world rankings of universities, according to the Times of London, check out this link:

Since we all know that K-12 education in the US sucks, and the US doesn’t have a big advantage over HK in higher ed, why am I still writing?  Doesn’t HK win?

I guess it depends on what the purpose of education is.  Basically all the school systems in the world were designed to train workers for the industrial age.  The goal was to teach basic literacy and computation skills, and to make people good at following schedules and obedient to authority.  Nobody explains this better than John Taylor Gatto, and his  basic argument is here.

Americans have never been the obedient type, blind obedience to authority is not an American value.  Years ago, I remember crossing a street with no traffic in Berin, watching the Germans wait for the light to give them formal permission to cross, rather than decide for themselves when it was safe.  The Chinese do not wait for the signal, they just go.  Obedience to authority is a Confucian value though, and it can stifle  creativity.  American schools have been much less successful in training obedience than Asian schools, and this helps explain why innovative companies like Apple and Google are located in the US, not Asia or even Europe.  Confucian values teach students not to question their teachers and professors.  So when a Chinese student has a new idea, and it conflicts with what the prof is saying, I have a feeling that student is less likely than an American student to decide that they might be right and the prof might be wrong.

Because of Americans’ issues with authority, they often have difficulty the hierarchical rigid environment created by most schools.  So even though American schools are failing to teach math and science as well as HK schools, they’re also failing to teach blind obedience.  In the age of the Google search and the smartphone, being able to do calculations quickly and memorize information is not a particularly useful skill; it’s creativity that counts.  Since public school systems all over the world teach how not to be creative, American schools succeed by failing.

The winner, in a shocker, is the USA.  It’s all tied up after 4: USA 2, HK 2.


9 responses to “USA vs. HK #4: Education

  1. I’ve read before that for K-12 education, if you isolate the top quintile, the U.S. is just as good as the other leading countries. What we suffer from isn’t exactly low quality but low equality. And considering how much they have tied education to non-education poverty factors, it might be interesting to consider how both policy and culture might affect how economic inequality promotes educational inequality in other countries. Would something like Confucian values render poverty less an inhibition on “performance” as measured by testing (while recognizing that this may not ultimately be the best measure)?

  2. Bondo: I think education is more equally funded in HK than it is in the US. But you make an interesting point. I think that Confucian culture may render poverty less of an inhibition to learning. There are other key differences that probably work in the same direction. In the US, race and class are much more intertwined than they are here (where almost everyone is the same race, so it’s not an issue). Working in the Denver Public Schools, I often felt like students were refusing to learn from me because they were too busy challenging my authority. Part of that was the fact that I was a white man in a black or brown classroom, part of it was American culture’s natural distrust of authority figures (particularly those who work for the government). When I have taught in an environment where race was not an issue and where the students naturally accepted my authority, I’ve been much more successful as a teacher.

  3. Slick,

    Mi esposa esta embarazada. 3 meses, hoy. You heard it here first.


    (sorry to go off topic)

  4. My boss sympathizes with my chinese counterparts secretive, lying, backstabing tendnencies becasue of the competitive nature of their educational background in China.
    Justifying that type of behavior only leads to acceptance of said actions. Thus, propagation of the bullshit lies.

  5. I bet your Chinese counterparts are from the mainland, not HK. The Chinese definitely have a different concept of what constitutes a lie than we do.

  6. I’ve been an ABC my whole life and want to move to HK after I graduate. I think having an American style education that emphasized creativity would be a competitive advantage, especially in the computers field. Would companies in HK think the same, or would they just focus on the quantitative deficiencies of an American?

    • Andy,
      People in HK and even mainland China recognize that their education systems have issues when it comes to inspiring creativity. Both governments are currently re-vamping their systems to try and address this issue (I seriously doubt it will work in authoritarian China, I have a little more hope for HK). So people here do respect that aspect of the American education system. But what they value more is a brand-name degree from US universities. So if you have one of those, you’ll definitely have a competitive advantage.

    • Thanks, I will definitely keep trying then. Have you worked with Georgia Tech at all? I know my department is ranked well but have no clue about it’s “brand-name” quality overseas.

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