Monday, January 22, 2018

Democratic or Authoritarian

You might not want to, but you probably remember the Bush administration’s Neo-Wilsonian democracy agenda. Considering how badly the Wilson administration did in its effort to make the world safe for democracy, you would expect future presidents to offer a different approach to foreign policy. And yet, bad ideas and specious ideals die hard… especially when implemented by people who lack basic competence.

You probably also remember the Common Core education program promoted by a High Tech billionaire who knew nothing about pedagogy and the Obama administration. Today, we are happy to report, the Trump Education Department just declared that Common Core has failed. It is officially dead.

Among the non-innovations coming to us from Common Core was the Platonic idea that authoritarian teaching methods are bad. In the Meno Socrates allowed his pupil to believe that he could learn geometry without it being taught, that is, without having to take it on anyone’s authority. It’s an enticing notion: you possess all knowledge but do not know that you possess it. Your teacher will help you to discover what you already know, and you will accept it unquestioningly because it was not imposed on you by any higher authority.

You might not want to think that this pedagogical technique contains the germs of democratic governance, but it is certainly more democratic than the authoritarian mode, practiced previously in America and currently practiced in the Far East.

In a Chinese classroom, the teacher’s authority is absolute can never be questioned. You might imagine that students who respect such authority are better behaved and you would probably be correct. Too many American schoolchildren are so undisciplined that they cannot learn anything. Moreover, as studies have suggested, it is easier to learn math and science by having the teacher teach it than to have students pretend that they can figure it out themselves. In the authoritarian classroom, children are told the rules, they memorize the tables, and they are drilled until they master the technique.

As it happens, said students generally outperform their American peers, but such is life. American pedagogues will retort that the Chinese authoritarian method produces robotic children who cannot think creatively. In the language of the tech world, such children will never be able to innovate.

Within this frame we report on a new study of technological innovation. The news, as Robert Samuelson reports in the Washington Post, is not good for us:

The National Science Foundation and the National Science Board have just released their biennial “Science & Engineering Indicators,” a voluminous document describing the state of American technology. There are facts and figures on research and development, innovation and engineers. But the report’s main conclusion lies elsewhere: China has become — or is on the verge of becoming — a scientific and technical superpower.

We should have expected nothing less. After all, science and technology constitute the knowledge base for economically advanced societies and military powers, and China aspires to become the world leader in both. Still, the actual numbers are breathtaking for the speed with which they’ve been realized.

We will console ourselves with the thought that we are still No. 1, but China is fast catching up. Uh, oh.

In several areas:

China has become the second- largest R&D spender, accounting for 21percent of the world total of nearly $2 trillion in 2015. Only the United States, at 26 percent, ranks higher, but if present growth rates continue, China will soon become the biggest spender. From 2000 to 2015, Chinese R&D outlays grew an average of 18 percent annually, more than four times faster than the U.S. rate of 4 percent.

There has been an explosion of technical papers by Chinese teams. Although the United States and the European Union each produce more studies on biomedical subjects, China leads in engineering studies. American papers tend to be cited more often than the Chinese papers , suggesting that they involve more fundamental research questions, but China is catching up.

The key is not that China has overtaken us, but that China, for having been significantly behind us, is gaining significant ground.

Why is this a problem? Samuelson answers:

One danger is military. If China makes a breakthrough in a crucial technology — satellites, missiles, cyberwarfare, artificial intelligence, electromagnetic weapons — the result could be a major shift in the strategic balance and, possibly, war.

Even if this doesn’t happen, warns the commission, China’s determination to dominate new industries such as artificial intelligence, telecommunications and computers could lead to economic warfare if China maintains subsidies and discriminatory policies to sustain its firms’ competitive advantage.

“Industries like computing, robotics, and biotechnology are pillars of U.S. economic competitiveness, sustaining and creating millions of high-paying jobs and high-value-added exports,” the commission said in its latest annual report. “The loss of global leadership in these future drivers of global growth” would weaken the American economy. Chinese theft of U.S. industrial trade secrets compounds the danger.

How can we catch up? Perhaps if Silicon Valley was not torturing its collective soul over diversity it could focus more intently on innovation. Not because it does not innovate, but because it could do better.

Samuelson adds that we should overhaul our immigration system in order to make it more merit-based. We should accept fewer relatives of current immigrants and focus on admitting those who have a higher skill level. Where have we heard that before?

Call it a wake-up call. Strangely, it coincides with a story in today’s Wall Street Journal. Chinese high tech innovators recently visited Silicon Valley. Their reaction will surprise you. It surprised me:

Silicon Valley has loomed large in China’s tech world in the past two decades. China’s internet industry started by copying Silicon Valley technologies and business models. That’s why there’s the Google of China ( Baidu Inc. ), the Uber of China (Didi Chuxing Technology Co.) and the Groupon of China (Meituan-Dianping). Some of the biggest Chinese internet companies, such as e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. , were funded by Silicon Valley money. Translations of best-selling books by Silicon Valley sages, such as “Zero to One” by Peter Thiel and “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” by Ben Horowitz, became instant best sellers in China too….

But for most of the 18 entrepreneurs and investors, and especially for those in their 20s and 30s, last week’s visit largely failed to impress. To many in the group, northern California’s low-rise buildings looked shabbier than the glitzy skyscrapers in Beijing and Shenzhen. They can’t believe Americans still use credit cards and cash while they use mobile payment for almost everything back home, including settling bets for their Texas Hold’em games one night in Palo Alto.

As China’s internet industry has grown larger and its companies have become more competitive and confident, Silicon Valley’s allure is fading.


Sam L. said...

Was it in Animal House or Ferris Beuhller that the line, "Fat, dumb, and happy is no way to go thru life, kid." was used.

Christopher B said...

I've always felt memorization and drills were a way to free your mind to focus energy on more advanced problems as you were exposed to them. The less mental energy you need to expend performing basic arithmetic gives you more to focus on performing and understanding more complex equations and procedures.

trigger warning said...

Mike Moritz, Partner at Bay Area's Sequoia (among the bluest of the coastal blue chip venture capital firms), recently referred to Progressive whining by Silicon Valley techies as "unhinged". He also touts Chinese tech employees as hard-working and focused.

Column (1/17/18) is available at FT.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks for the reference to Mike Moritz... and thanks to Christopher B for making an important point.

David Foster said...

I wrote about Thinking and Memorizing quite a few years ago....will repost here to spare your clicking finger:

Jakob Dylan has a song that includes the following lines:

Cupid, don't draw back your bow
Sam Cooke didn't know what I know

Think of how much you need to know in order to understand these two simple lines:

1)You need to know that, in mythology, Cupid symbolizes love
2)And that Cupid's chosen instrument is the bow and arrow
3)Also that there was a singer/songwriter named Sam Cooke
4)And that he had a song called which included the lines "Cupid, draw back your bow."

(This is actually a post about education, not about music.)

"Progressive" educators, loudly and in large numbers, insist that students should be taught "thinking skills" as opposed to memorization. But consider: If it's not possible to understand a couple of lines from a popular song without knowing by heart the references to which it alludes--without memorizing them--what chance is there for understanding medieval history, or modern physics, without having a ready grasp of the topics which these disciplines reference?

And also consider: in the Dylan case, it's not just what you need to know to appreciate the song. It's what Dylan needed to know to create it in the first place. Had he not already had the reference points--Cupid, the bow and arrow, the Sam Cooke song--in his head, there's no way he would have been able to create his own lines. The idea that he could have just "looked them up," which educators often suggest is the way to deal with factual knowledge, would be ludicrous in this context. And it would also be ludicrous in the context of creating new ideas about history or physics. To use a computer analogy, the things you know aren't just data--they're part of the program.

I've seen no evidence that there exists a known body of "thinking skills" so powerful that they bypass the need for detailed, substantative knowledge within specific disciplines. And if such meta-level thinking skills were to be developed, I suspect that the last place to find them would be in university Education departments.

There are skills which facilitate thinking across a wide range of disciplines: such things as formal logic, probability & statistics, and an understanding of the scientific method--and, most importantly, excellent reading skills. But things like these certainly don't seem to be what the educators are referring to when they talk about "thinking skills." What many of them seem to have in mind is more of a kind of verbal mush that leaves the student with nothing to build on.

There's no substitute for actual knowledge. The flip response "he can always look it up" is irresponsible and ignores the way that human intellectual activity actually works.

None of which is to say that traditional teaching practices were all good. There was probably too much emphasis on rote memorization devoid of context--in history, dates soon to be forgotten, in physics, formulae without proper understanding of their meaning and applicability. (Dylan needed to know about Sam Cooke's song; he didn't need to know the precise date on which it was written or first sung.) But the cure is to provide the context, not to throw out facts and knowledge altogether--which is what all too many educators seem eager to do.

Jack Fisher said...

Sam, it's "Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son." said by Dean Vernon Wormer to Flounder.

David Foster said...

"Translations of best-selling books by Silicon Valley sages, such as “Zero to One” by Peter Thiel and “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” by Ben Horowitz, became instant best sellers in China too…."

The Horowitz book is good, I reviewed it briefly in this post:

I'll also be reading the Thiel book shortly.

(Ben Horowitz is, btw, the son of David Horowitz, the one-time Leftist who is now a prominent conservative writer and activist)

James said...

In athletics I made my people practice the daylights out of the basics for that reason. My motto; "If you can do the normal without thinking, then the above normal is actually very close and easy".

Stephen Baraban said...

Re/ the Jakob Dylan lines, it might be helpful to remember also that one of Sam Cooke's most famous songs is in the guise of a student who "don't know much" about various things, except that "I love you". Anyway, thanks for the reference, David Foster--it looks like I should learn something about Jakob D. And that is a reward for my recent morbid fascination with this blog, though I agree with so little here.

Ares Olympus said...

China's advantage might not just be that its authoritarian, but that a higher population country (4x larger) and so a higher individual competition for limited opportunities, and the single child families also encourage more children to excel.

Perhaps the answer is that public education has gotten too "soft", and democracy has been corrupted by weak feminine principles like "leave no child behind".

Perhaps having a 6th grade education is good enough for 50% of the population (they can be crop pickers or wall builders), and so if we're willing to sacrifice more youth of lower intelligence or lower motivation, perhaps we could do wonders in raising our school test scores, and get them into STEMS fields that will help save humanity from its own excesses created by our technical achievements?

And same with immigration. Why not take the best and brightest exchange students who are still willing to come here under president Trump and try to entice them to stay? I sort of thought we already did this, but maybe we need to do more?

I'd better start keeping up with my CSci studies before an immigrant comes in and takes my job because he's willing to work twice as well at half my pay. See? Look how fast productivity will increase when you add the right incentives?

Sam L. said...

AO, I would expect those transfer students to go back home to China. Or, suspicious me, that some would stay here and pass along everything they learn back to China.

James said...

One of the problems of living in an authoritarian country that controls all info is, how would you know it?.

David Foster said...

Stephen..."one of Sam Cooke's most famous songs is in the guise of a student who "don't know much" about various things, except that "I love you""

But note also that the students says he's "trying to be" an A student to win the girl's love. (song is from 1960)

Stephen Baraban said...

Definitely, I remembered the speaker of the "don't know much" song wanted to be an A student to please his love interest. My point was simply that the web of associations in the Jakob Dylan song would seem to be even more complex than what those things you mentioned, probably encompassing the word "know" in the second Cooke song I brought up. But I'm into all kinds of old fashioned things like explicating texts, and depth psychology (as an amateur observer)