Stupid Americans? Send Them to China

We are not alone.

So says President Obama, who is working with Chinese officials to ensure that the US sends 100,000 students to China over the next four years. The number of Americans studying in China has been rising steadily on its own, but what is the point of this? That’s a vast generalization, of course, but take it from someone who spends all day every day with American kids — they know nothing about the world outside the US.

Overseas students in China.

When I say “nothing” I want you to understand exactly what I mean, so here are some examples. I asked my students what language they speak in Australia. Less than half of them knew for sure, several thought “Australian”, and one of them said French. I asked them what continent China was on, and only around half of them got it right. Several of them wrote “China”. I could go on, but you’ve heard these statistics before. That’s because they are true. American students are woefully, woefully ignorant of the world outside their iPods.

As some of you know, I teach Chinese and History at a boarding school in New England, so my students tend to be privileged. They have grown up with more and better access to education than the average American. Many of them have traveled abroad with their parents before. By all accounts, they ought to be performing better than the average American on simple questions like the ones I asked them, which makes their abject failure even more worrisome. Obviously, my “study” was not at all scientific and my sample size far too small, but this is a blog, so I’m going to make the point anyway: Americans don’t know anything about other countries.

More worrisome than that, though (after all, as a teacher, isn’t that kind of my fault) is that at least among my students, I believe there is a complete lack of empathy for those outside the US’s borders, especially those in faraway places like Asia. Students act as though historical events were plot points in a movie, and their writing further betrays that conceptually speaking, they do not perceive the places we are talking about as real.

The World According to Americans.

I probably don’t have to explain why that’s a problem in the long term. Now, maybe kids are all like this, or have always been like this. I wouldn’t know. But I do think I understand why Obama wants to send 100,000 Americans to China. They aren’t all going to come back speaking Chinese fluently, ready to join the CIA’s China analysts pushing desks in Virginia. But they are all going to come back with a real sense that there is a world outside the US. They’re going to come back with friends, business contacts, and experiences — real life experiences, not classroom knowledge — that turn the Sino-American policy debate into something that seems real and important. Say what you will about Obama, but at least when it comes to China, it seems like he’s not planning to throw the whole “mutual understanding” thing under the bus.

But I am extremely tired, and it’s possible this line of reasoning makes no sense, so, what do you think?

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  1. The maps are cool, did you do them?

    I was wondering how old are your students? I ask this because I remember when I was 10yo, not only my country was the most important in the World, but by coincidence also my dad was the most powerful person… perhaps they are just too young?

    On the other hand, I understand the people Obama want to send are University students, so yes, definitely positive. I wish European politicians were so intelligent. Unfortunately they are not.

    • Sadly, my students are high-school age (14-18)

      • Bin Wang

        Wow Custer, if you’re talking New England prep school, then I assume we’re talking about those being groomed for your various Ivies … destined to become the future magistrates and noblemen of the nation. Slightly troubling …

        • Terry

          This has to be exaggerated! or has to be a pretty crappy low level prep school. I just can’t believe it is that bad! I mean, there are a lots kids from China and Korea and other places around the world studying in all those schools now. At first I thought this was an April Fools post. (most schools statistically have 10% of students are international).

          Yes, I went to a New England prep school in the early 70’s and got a damn fine education and we had long debates and discussions on international affairs. We grew up with National Geographic and a crappy war we all opposed in Vietnam. We were required to have a studied at least 3 years of one foreign language to graduate. In fact I took a course on Revolution in a Marxist state comparing the Chinese and Soviet revolutions, a course on Chinese history and another on SE Asian history in a our trimester system.

          Bin, the days that New England prep schools had high percentages of their students going to the Ivies vanished in the 60’s. I think about 10% of our graduating class went to Ivy League schools and in my case (to UPenn) that only happened after taking a gap year and literally taking a slow boat to China (coal freighter to Taiwan), studying Chinese and traveling on the Hippy trail in SE Asia all at the tender age of 18 – an independence of spirit I attribute to my 4 years of boarding school education.

          • You WISH it was exaggerated. All true. Although my classes do happen to be light on international students.

            And if you think that’s bad, you should read their writing. Schools have stopped teaching writing, and you would not believe how bad it is.

  2. Well…as someone who spends all day working with and teaching American students of Chinese here in Beijing, I’m a little more optimistic. Average Chinese levels for incoming students continue to rise, their understanding when taking our courses in Chinese history, economics, sociology, or other disciplines is also becoming increasingly sophisticated.

    Our students do independent research projects incorporating primary language materials or field work, live with either Chinese roommates (from a CSL training program, not English language students) or a Chinese family, and take four hours of intensive Chinese every morning.

    They know where China is on a map, and I’m hoping that more students from American colleges and universities join them in the future.

    Then again…My sister went to the school where you teach, and I’ve played against your students (or their predecessors) in soccer, and, yeah, well…those kids are special.

    • Hah…to be fair, I think the caliber of students now is much better than it was. There’s a new head and they’re trying to turn it into a real school (my impression is that prior to this guy, it was mostly a 24-hour teenager babysitting service/convenient place to purchase and use recreational drugs).

      But we definitely still have some “special” kids.

  3. jamie

    There is some kind of underlined plan there. No US president would send students off shore to study, without knowing how he will use them for the New World Order he is plotting along with the Bilderberg Group and all the money grubbing bank hold old f*cks that have tortured and tormented the citizens of this great country but putting us in “recession” time and time again.. anyway.. i could go on and on but no time… got to find a way to beat the “recession” after being unemployeed for 2 months now.. thanks Federal Reserve!

  4. Great points. I agree that Obama’s decision to send 100,000 students a year is a great long-term strategy.

    Just an aside though, if you’re teaching Chinese and History, shouldn’t you make sure your students know where China is? That’s not a rhetorical question, as I understand there could be several explanations.

    Thanks for the post.

  5. hm

    Some people are really really clueless… It’s pretty funny because young Chinese seem more Americanized than some Americans.

  6. hm: Chinese youth “seem” Americanised, but are far from it. As supported by this Business Week post early in the year -“Chinese Gen Ys modernize, they do not Westernize” [].

    • lolz

      And just how do you define “westernize”? It’s clear that the modern world as we have it today is dominated by Western culture.

      To narrow the definition of “westernization” to only political terms is silly.

      • Terry

        I have used that argument of modernize or evolved due to changes from agrarian based to urban commercial based society for years.

        Calling it Westernized or Americanized is sort of ethnocentric and a bit of arrogant on the point of the viewer! in terms of music.. maybe you could say we all have been African-nized? given the essentially afro-american roots of a lot of popular music??

        sorry lolz… you ask us to define “westernize” in the first sentence and then use that term to broad brush the whole of the modern world as being dominated by “western” culture.

        • lolz

          Well the world is dominated by western culture. Learning English, learning how to use forks and knives, political ideology, etc. The Western nations, US and European nations specifically, have lead through the industrial revolution and have been the thought leaders of all sorts of topics on modernization whether people admit to this or not.

          Sure, the Western nations may not be the ones who originally came up with the concepts which they are associated with today, but then the Western Nations are responsible for influencing other nations to adopt to many things which the Western Nations are more comfortable with in modern times.

          • King Tubby

            LOLZ Are you serious? Knives and forks, chopsticks, backscratchers….as ideological agents of cultural/economic imperialism. Thats what you are arguing.

            If you really want to understand the function of knives, forks and chopsticks, you should be thinking about the historical development of social etiquette, concepts of family relations, cooking techniques, even the development of agriculture etc in the East and the West, respectively.

            So many overly-generalised claims here. If explaining the impact of the West was so easy, boards like this would have no reason to exist.
            My point.
            One of the big tendencies is the overwhelming desire to inter-connect everything under the sun (and a few things beside), when writing a post. Sometimes a particular thing (eating habits) can be treated in their own right without reference to other larger debates.

            It is no big deal today that many people are multi-skilled in that they are capable of using both knives, forks and chopsticks with equal ease. Thats a consequence of global travel and other rather more mundane factors.

  7. yangrouchuan

    It would be more important for 500,000 American students to study somewhere in Latin America, excluding the pussy, broke ass Spanish and Portugese.

  8. Educating as many Americans as possible is a worthy cause… the maps, which are great by the way, are a good representation of how many Americans – mainly the ones in the middle (which is everything more than 5 miles from the coast) – view the world.
    God bless China :)

  9. Rocas

    Yesterday I was in a class postgrad level in Media Studies in Sydney with 25 Chinese (mainland) students. The teacher made a quick quiz about identifying countries in the American continent: no one knew any!! Average Chinese just think about China, Meiguo and Faguo!! If you are not American, then you should be french!

    • JuZZi

      What Rocas earlier says is pretty true. For most of the Chinese there are roughly two kinds of people: waiguoren and chonguoren (oh an maybe 3rd one which is heiren) Generally at least from coming from European background we/Europeans seem to be interested to know from which specific country the person we meet is from. In America today its hard to say who is american and who is foreigner. In China this is pretty obvious. If you don’t look chinese you are waiguoren. Even those “small” Japanese look quite different in their groups during sighteeing tours. Generally average Chinese seem to be happy with the knowledge of “foreigness” or not. Most of the people I’ve met never ask from what country I am from. Usually when asked I answer Ouzhou.

      So my point being. Bigger the country, more people seem to be in indifference about their surroundings. But there is a difference between American and Chinese way of seeing the rest of the world.

    • Rocas,

      This has also been my experience when teaching postgrads and undergrads in China.

      If the ‘world according to Americans map’ is accurate (and I’ve reason to believe there is more than a grain of truth therein), Chinese and Americans have more in common than they think.

      But Chinese students aren’t geographically challenged for reasons of poor learning habits or limited intelligence, it’s because their domestic curriculum doesn’t (or didn’t) pay enough attention to a world outside China.

      And are the Americans studying in China the stupid ones? A couple of decades from now they might not appear so dumb. Besides, they took the plunge and climbed outside the box – a laudable first step in shaking off the world according to the ones they left behind.

  10. Oh I dunno.
    I tend to agree that more Americans coming to study in China (or going anywhere actually) is a good idea. It’s a good idea for all people to visit other countries and educate themselves in other cultures.

    Then again, encounters with Lao wai’s in Beijing sometimes make me wish governments were more selective in issuing passports to folks.

    But seriously, it’s great. I join ULN in his envy of Americans for having intelligent head of state.

  11. There’s a big difference between “going abroad” and “living abroad”. Those that travel often don’t experience what it’s really like to live in and experience another culture.

    I think this is a great idea on any country’s part.

    How does the US plan on following through with this? Are there any scholarships or free money they’d like to give away to encourage this?

    • Bin Wang

      Great point. Americans “going abroad” for a few weeks often learn no more than how “they eat worms over there!” Not future ambassadors by any means I’m afraid …

      This is exactly why my Fulbright experience was so terrific; you actually got to experience and live the culture.

    • lolz

      Well, there is also the difference between living aboard in a typical expat fashion, and trying to live abroad like ordinary local citizens. This is where empathy comes in. Those who lack this quality will only hate China more the longer they stay.

  12. Hank

    More than 100,000 Chinese have studied in the US.

    Has there been any follow up as to how their attitudes, perceptions, and likes have changed as a result of their experience?

    Does familiarity breed contempt?

    If 100,000 American students come to China, well, that will be interesting.

    Again, would familiarity breed contempt?

    However, if 100,000 American male students come to China and marry 100,000 Chinese females, that will pretty much cement the relationship between our two countries.

    Alexander the Great had more than 10,000 of his soldiers marry Persian women. This helped him rule.

    Hu and Obama could do the same thing.

    • Mao already offered Nixon.

      • King Tubby

        In fact Mao offered Henry K a million or so Chinese women for export to US when he was in Beijing in 72, but Kissinger had the remarks expunged from the translation record for reasons of gravitas. Tried to find the reference again, but had no luck. (They might have been Mao’s cast offs.)

        • King Tubby

          Bad post
          “What we have in excess is women,” Mao says, discussing trade imbalances. “So if you want, we can give a few of those to you, some tens of thousands. Let them go to your place. They will create disasters. That way you can lessen our burden.”

          A Chinese female interpreter rebukes her leader — “If the minutes of this meeting were made public it would incur the public wrath on behalf of half the population,” she says. Mao apologizes.

        • Hank

          @King Tubby,

          I’m familiar with the offer.

          The Chairman was way ahead of the game. Had an offer like that been seriously considered, well, history would be a little different today.

          I can’t see any of China’s leaders today making a joke like that.

          The only suspicion of Nixon having an affair was actually with a Chinese women.

          That one affair could have been the element that gave Nixon his strong interest and respect for China.

          A female Chinese connection can be very, very useful.

          “… from newly released transcripts of Henry Kissinger’s 1973 meeting with Mao:

          “You know, China is a very poor country,” Mao is quoted as saying during the exchange. ‘We don’t have much. What we have in excess is women. So if you want them we can give a few of those to you, some tens of thousands.’

          “The Chinese leader drew laughter when he returned to the proposition a few minutes later. ‘Do you want our Chinese women? We can give you 10 million.’ he said, adding: ‘We have too many women … They give birth to children and our children are too many.'”

    • friendo

      However, if 100,000 American male students come to China and marry 100,000 Chinese females

      They would all be killed the next day just like the Persians and Arabs who disrespected the locals during the late Ming.

  13. AndyR

    If it happens, it is a smart investment in a SIGNIFICANT relationship and I applaud my President for it.

    But I’m so tired of the “stupid american” stereotype.
    I don’t fault the majority of US adults who don’t know much about other countries. 1. because it really isn’t any of my business to bitch about it and 2. If it isn’t related to their immediate local concerns, why should they be expected to be interested in it? My livelihood is dependent on knowing the goings on in East Asia, does that mean that I deserve to be called a stupid American because I’m not as familiar with the history or cultures of South America? I may be worse off for not having explored such places, but I don’t think I or anybody else needs to be looked down or called ignorant for not knowing something that has absolutely nothing to do with our daily concerns. Do we fault the majority of Chinese peasants for knowing jack squat about America? No, because such knowledge is useless to them, so why would we expect them to be interested in it? The idea that someone is “stupid” for not knowing about other countries is “stupid” itself and quite frankly “elitist”. Do particle physicists look down on all the “stupid” people who don’t know anything about particle physics? If they are snooty jerks yes, but most likely no, because most people have zero reason to study such things…same thing with China, if John Doe was born in Scranton, PA and plans to spend the rest of his life there, and has ZERO interest in China, then it’s pretty petty to fault him for not knowing anything about it.

    And as far as compassion goes, I would point out all the aid we give to the rest of the world, the money that was raised for victims of the Tsunami and is still being raised for Haiti, Americans may be ignorant, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say that this ignorance results in a TOTAL (some maybe) lack of empathy for those in trouble outside our borders.

    • Remember that we’re talking about kids here. John Doe, age 50, Scranton, PA, fine. But do you really think that in the world we live in now, or ten, twenty, thirty years from now, that kind of life is still going to exist. I think, to a much greater extent, Americans are going to be forced into situations where they must interact with people from other countries, especially China given our trade relationship and China’s general ascendancy.

      Anyway, I’m not asking they know the ins-and-outs of Chinese policy. But knowing what continent it’s in…yeah, I think that’s probably going to be useful information for them to have in the future, even if they don’t plan to ever leave Scranton, PA.

      As for the aid…what makes you so sure it’s empathy rather than sympathy/pity?

      • AndyR

        I can appreciate the position you are coming at it from. If I were a teacher, I would probably be pretty miffed that my students didn’t know which continent China was in.

        And as I said at the outset I applaud Obama’s commitment, but I still think you go overboard in estimating HOW worldly everybody in America (or anywhere) should be expected to be. If you are saying that knowing basic geography is enough, then ok, but who actually needs much more than that?

        Also, you bring up that “in the future” people are going to be forced into situations where they have to interact with people around the world, but how does having an education in the history and culture of whatever country you are forced into “interactions” with actually help most people? I know plenty of businessmen who have absolutely no training in Chinese culture or language, who probably couldn’t pick out China on a map when they were in school, who didn’t graduate college, but are more than successful “interacting” and doing business with and relating to their Chinese counterparts. These type of interactions already occur quite successfully despite all the “stupid” products of our US education system.

        Finally, what difference is it to you or the people who receive it whether the aid comes from feelings of “empathy” or “sympathy/pity”? Are you really going to complain about all the people that went into their own pockets to send money to Haiti weren’t being “empathetic” enough for your taste? Man, I hate empty displays as much as the next guy, and I’ll blast Americans for a lot of things, but give a little bit of credit where its due. If you are suggesting that all our aid to other countries comes from feelings of superiority and pity “for those poor, dirty third world non-white people”, then I have finally found a greater cynic than myself…

        • Sure, there are people without training in China’s culture and history who succeed, but for every successful businessman like that that you know in China, how many do you think there are who gave up or got frustrated at some point in the process and went home? People complain all the time about how the way the Chinese do business is “incomprehensible”, and I know plenty of people (mostly school people, as that’s the line of work I’m in) who have tried and failed to set up working relationships with Chinese (schools), mostly because they didn’t understand a few simple cultural things (like how “恩“/”yes” often just means “I hear what you’re saying”, not “I agree”, etc.) How many business negotiations between China and the US struggle when they could go more smoothly if the US side knew anything about China? How many US businesses get ripped off by Chinese suppliers because they don’t understand how things work?

          The presence of success without education does not invalidate the value of having education — my guess is even the businessmen who went into China blind and still succeeded would tell you that.

          But I’m not talking about just business, anyway. Entertainment and recreation are becoming just as international, provided one uses electronic devices. The number of Chinese people reading and commenting on English websites, for example, is increasing. As online games grow more popular, more kids are interacting with people from all over the world. There’s no way of predicting what things will look like thirty years from now, but I would expect almost every aspect of life to require more international understanding. Obviously, in the world of online gaming, for example, there are no super dire consequences for calling a Chinese person Japanese, except pissing off some guy you’ll never see. But every time that happens it spreads stereotypes about Americans that make it harder for other Americans to deal with Chinese people. And anyway, just because something isn’t absolutely necessary for every student doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taught if it might be helpful. After all, I had to take years of algebra, geometry, algebra 2, precalculus, chemistry, physics….none of which I have ever used in my adult life, but that doesnt mean schools shouldn’t teach them, right? Some of the students will need those skills. The same is increasingly true of international understanding.

          As for the US aid, I was just pointing out that just because we send money places doesn’t mean Americans really associate with those places or, in the case of students, have the idea that the same things could happen to them. Obviously, aid based on pity and feelings of superiority is still aid, and there’s no way to really differentiate the two…even if you could, I wouldn’t want to, as haiti or whatever the next disaster area is need all the help the can get, not just well-intentioned good-liberal help. My point was just to illuminate to an extent something that I’m seeing in the thinking of these kids.

    • yangrouchuan

      Yes, the attitude is tired, especially from lazy continentals and limies who spend most of their time just going around Europe and only spend a few weeks in a truly foreign country on holiday, courtesy of their overly generous social welfare system. Americans would travel more if we could have 3-4 months of vacation at nearly full salary.

      And the Eurotrash don’t learn anything either, they just lounge about Euro-cafes and expat hotels/hostels looking for their local shoe shiners and porters to take care of them.

    • AndyR,

      I don’t think Americans are generally regarded as “stupid Americans” in the same manner as snooty particle physicists regarding the average Joe as stupid for not knowing particle physics. Not knowing where major nations in the world are generally located on the globe is not on the same level of “particle physics”. The “stupid” average Joe in this scenario would be “stupid” because thinks or says something paramount to “do particle physicists, like, eat food still?”

      That said, I totally agree with your general point. America is a large nation and there are many reasons for why Americans aren’t exposed or compelled to care about elsewhere or what goes on elsewhere. America and Americans are certainly not the only ones guilty of not generally concerning themselves too much with the things that don’t really affect them. Europeans do indeed give Americans a lot of crap for this but often fail to understand how their circumstances are appreciably different, not least of which being simple geographic proximity.

      Americans get a lot of attention simply because there are a lot of them and America as a nation is the reigning world superpower. Everyone likes to poke fun at those at the top. Totally understandable.

    • David Pierce

      Unfortunately you Americans are “Kings of the World”; you should know, understand and respect the Kingdom over which you laud. If I told you where I was from I doubt whether a. You’d know where it was on the globe, and b. what we have contributed to helping you continue to be the “leaders of the free world”. With power comes responsibility, and part of having the responsibility is to understand your domain. Stop making excuses and expand your knowledge horizons to the same extent as your military influence.

      • Jones

        Whoa, someone is jealous. Where are you, though? You can’t make a claim that, if you only just say it, we’re too stupid to know where it is…and then never say it. As your King, I demand that you tell us where you are on the globe. Peasant fool! You are subjugated to me so you must do as I say! I am your king! King of the World!

  14. Zhangsan

    This may come as a disappointment to you, Kai, but the ‘100k Student Initiative’, as you stated, is to send 100k students to China over the next 4 years…by which he means, total, not per year. IE, an average of 25k students a year, not 100k a year. 25k students a year over the next 4 years is actually only slightly above what the natural growth would have been (assuming it continued, which is never a given considering the poor economy).

    I originally interpreted it the same way, but let’s just say that I was disabused of that interpretation by some colleagues who had direct input on it.

    • Zhangsan, I think you mean Custer, not me. I didn’t write this post but I did find the pimp maps for it!

    • Yes, I know. Did I say it was 100,000 per year?

      “So says President Obama, who is working with Chinese officials to ensure that the US sends 100,000 students to China over the next four years.

      No, I didn’t. Its not so much the number that’s interesting as it is the direct government involvement.

      • Zhangsan

        Just take it as a misunderstanding then. FYI, there will be no direct government involvement per se (due to legal reasons); expect a privately funded and privately run 501(c) instead, with the State dept primarily providing indirect, non-financial resources and assistance in liaisoning w/other organizations (NGO or otherwise).

        RE your original post, I do concur in general about the positive impact study abroad has, period, although I think you perhaps overstate the problem a bit.

  15. B-real

    You can ask the same questions to the chinese and they would not be able to answer the question either. I like the map too. Europeans are a bunch of pussies.

    But anyway I think most students wouldn’t necessarily come back with a mutual understanding but a better appreciation of their life in America. The world as they see it before they come to China will never look as bad as they thought it was. My initial thought when I first landed into Beijing terminal 2 was “blast from the past”. From then on to this very day that impression still stands with minor progressions. Unless these are exceptional students with high marks and high tolerance level, they will more than likely hate and greatly resent ever going. Then the exceptions are those that will grasp, embrace and or endure China and its unique roll in the world.

    They need to send more students from China so we can make our money back. Chinese education for Americans hold no water in the job market. The employer would only be impressed with the length of time spent. But your credentials are as Good as a toilet paper.

  16. B-real

    oh and the map doesn’t reflect all the territories we own. you know Guam, Puerto Rico, the Islands.

  17. one of the best quotes, I have ever heard about 美国人

    was this,

    “you can not spell American with out “I CAN!!” ”


    I will give 50c to whoever can trace the quote!!”

    in the meantime,

    defeat nationalism
    support globalization

    keep it…

    thats right


  18. lolz

    Let’s face the facts: in the next few decades there is no doubt that US-Sino relationship will inevitably draw closer even if as the anti-China activists kick and scream on their made-in-China Mac laptops hoping for conflicts.

    Sending more students to China (or any nation for that matter) is good because students unlike adults are more open to different ideas and are less judgmental. It would be good for at least a portion of Americans to learn what China is really like and visa versa, because there are plenty of misconceptions of what Chinese people are like thanks to largely to the western media and partly to the China-bashers.

    This reminds me, Danwei has a interview posted with Deb Fallows, the wife of James Fallows. Ms. Fallows is herself a Harvard Linguist and just finished her book on China after living there for sometime. Excerpt from the interview:

    “Danwei: What are the major misconceptions Americans have about Chinese people and are you hoping to address them in the book?

    DF: Wow, that is a big question. I’ll answer in a small way. Unless you’re lucky enough to spend a while in China and make some friends, it is hard to not think of the Chinese en masse – 1.3 billion people who look pretty much the same, sound pretty much the same, and seem to behave and believe pretty much the same things. A monolith. Of course we all know better, and being in China for a while helps you get some bearings on seeing that the country is actually 1.3 billion individuals, who by the way, seem as individualistic-leaning in many ways as Americans.”

  19. Josh

    While it is certainly true that many Americans don’t have a very broad world view, I don’t think one needs to look too far to find the same thing here in China. Both nations have a reasonably isolated mentality and have a very inward looking mindset.

    It may be a different story in Europe, but anyone can see that that’s easily attributable to European geography.

    Also, just as kids in private schools are in China (rich little shits), I believe American private schools are quickly approaching the same standard where money is the final say in whether or not a student gets in, not knowledge.

    I recently saw an episode of Real Time with Bill Maher where at the end, Bill was commenting on a magazine (I believe it was Time) that featured an article saying “We Must Fire Bad Teachers” and he said that instead of firing the teachers, that we should fire the parents, and that studies have shown that it’s the parents who ultimately determine the way their child views the world — not the teacher — be it public or private school. If that’s the case, then it would seem that many parents are sending the message to their children that because they have the money, the child doesn’t have to do anything but coast along. I’ve certainly found that to be the case with every private school I’ve worked at in China.

    In any case, I wonder what your note of students’ abilities would have been were they students at a public, charter, or magnet school.

    I do, however, agree that Obama’s 100k student initiative is a great idea, however, I was a bit disappointed with the way he framed it when he initially announced it. That is, he didn’t explain what the current amount of students being sent to China is.

    • friendo

      If Chinese people are insular it’s because they’re from the areas where the average person has 7 years of education. If Americans are insular it’s because they just don’t bother.

      Europe is just Europe, there are more differences between Cantonese and Northeasterners than English and Hungarians.

  20. AEC WPB

    I largely agree with Josh. above I teach in a public school system in Florida, and I previously taught in suburban L.A., Paramount to be exact. I found the levels of knowledge to vary wildly from school to school, district to district, etc, but when I told them I’d spent years in China, they all were very very curious about China and wanted to learn more, and some of them had even taken steps to educate themselves. Of course these students were largely the children of immigrants themselves, English wasn’t the native language of many, etc. Children from wealthy backgrounds are every bit as much a challenge as kids from hardscrabble areas.

    Students everywhere tend to be clueless about geography, especially when it comes to world geography. The Chinese teens I taught years ago couldn’t name all of the provinces, and I won’t even go into my time at Shanghai Korean School… Virgil and Dante should have been on the faculty there. And though I do agree that Americans really really need to learn more empathy for foreign countries and cultures, I feel this area is kind of not so much the responsibility of educators as much as parents and society. I can design the most wonderful lesson plan about China, Africa, the Mideast, etc, but when they go home, that’s where the real learning/indoctrination takes hold.

    I am glad to see people like Mr. Custer, who are cynical about the system and trying to enact some change.

  21. King Tubby

    Norway has the right idea due to the benefits of North Sea oil. Every Norwegian student is given a generous stipend to enrol in a Western uni of their choice for one year. NATURALLY, they choose Australia and yes, they do return with valuable *real life experiences* , even if their lecture attendence is pretty spotty: they meet koalas and kangaroos, show a marked improvement in their drinking skills, visit really great beaches and get sunburnt, and importantly, improve their English and horizontal folk dancing skills. Finally, they learn to deal with whaling barbs in a diplomatic manner.

    It has gotta work since Norway and Australia are right up there in the global quality of life and happiness indexes.

    Seriously, China and the US deserve each other in this misguided experiment. All it will lead to is bar fights.

    • B-real

      Yeah the fights that say” take your ass back to where you came from.”

    • Bin Wang

      Having lived in Norway for 2 years, Norway does have a lot going for it. But it is because of the oil; you have to remember that before the oil, Norway was traditionally one of the poorest countries in Europe.

      But although they run a great country (small population, rich in resources, homogeneous populace are all factors which assistance governance), this sudden wealth has created its own share of problems. At times, Norwegian youths are not sufficiently challenged (look up “Janteloven” which is a Scandinavian tradition), in that they’re taught not to stand out, not to be different, in a socialist system which does not necessarily promote innovation, i.e. separation of oneself from the “pack.” These are issues that Norway is just beginning to deal with, although I am sure they’ll manage just fine.

      They’re a great people, but they’ve also been lucky in many respects. Things in China and the U.S. are obviously much more complicated.

      • King Tubby

        Is there any country of the 170 or so around the globe which gets your very significant total seal of approval? You should try bottling your omniscient qualities: you would make Forbes in a flash.

        • Bin Wang

          Whoa King Tubby, didn’t know you had such pent up hostility toward me. Norway certainly gets my extremely eager stamp of approval. China and the US do as well. It’s certainly possible to be positive on different countries for different reasons and negative on different countries for different reasons. I thought the point here was not to simply state which nations you’re generally positive on and which ones you’re generally negative on? Just because I think they’ve been fortunate doesn’t mean I don’t consider Norwegians, amongst whom I have many friends and colleagues, to be terrific people.

    • David Pierce

      Can I meet some of your Norwegian friends please? I run koala and kangaroo familiarisation studies in North Queensland! ;o)

  22. LongTian

    I used to think that privileged Chinese students were all idiots regarding anything outside of China, but I have since changed that opinion. The truth, in general, is that if their parents were self-made, then they will be intelligent and hard-working. I find that this is true with the children of business owners and professionals. If their parents received their position based on relationships only, the children will mostly be idiots. There are, of course, many exceptions to this generalization. One notable one is the two younger children of our favorite comedian in the NE, Zhao Ben Shan. Both of them are drooling morons. I taught them English for over a year. The boy doesn’t even know how to tie his own shoes. You probably saw them on t.v. during the last Spring Festival. The daughter was singing (badly), and the son was half-hidden in the shadows in the back center twirling something. They didn’t even show his face, because he was most likely drooling.

    As for a comparison between Chinese and American students regarding knowledge of the rest of the world and geography/politics, I don’t think that there’s really a huge difference. It’s not something that’s really stressed in either curriculum, so it’s a difficult thing to compare. Both countries have their fair share of ignorant and brilliant students.

  23. Ted

    100,000 isn’t enough. I’d love to see more people traveling here and learning the language and culture. Actually a big reason I chose Chinese and China as my language and country of interest is because of how little I learned about it in school. It would be great if College grads came to China the same way most go to Europe. Europe ain’t that different, I think a trek through Asia is much more eye opening.

    As for the dumb American cliche, give me a break. Different people operate with different spheres of knowledge. If you are so intent on students knowing what you think they should know then do a better job teaching them. I had countless Chinese students who couldn’t point to Russia on a map (young and adult). do I fault them? call them stupid? Nope. I show them where it is and move on, hopefully they remember.

  24. Terry

    Sorry Custer, I hadn’t read you later comments in regard to that particular school when I went off a bit. I love the map! I personally have a big problem about State driven initiatives which are generally poorly executed and use stolen money(taxes) vs. organic growth, and don’t believe that the Presidents of countries should be saying “hey we should send (whom?) 100,000 or our kids” over like a commodity to promote understanding. From what I have been reading there is a tremendous and growing interest in China in the US with a high demand now for Chinese language teachers.

  25. MCool

    Nice post. When I first read this article I was thinking your students were maybe 11-14 years old. It sounds like you have a lot of very special students.

    @Bin Wang: these kids are not getting into Harvard. Nothing troubling about it.

    Based on my experience teaching computers at a prep school in China and at a few Universities, both American and Chinese students can be very ignorant of the outside world.

    • Bin Wang

      Haha, I guess using the word “summer” as a verb doesn’t necessarily get you in! (i.e., “yes, we summer on the Cape.”)

      The Chinese can be very insular. This sense of complacency and self-superiority is what got the late Qing dynasty into trouble. This is a whole huge topic in of itself.

      • friendo

        Try not to do this “the Chinese” stuff, Bin Wang. You must know, of course, that Chinese people from different regions have different attitudes.

        Manchu emperors do not represent anyone but Manchu emperors.

  26. friendo

    That’s because they are true. American students are woefully, woefully ignorant of the world outside their iPods.

    That’s not it. They’re morons, period. Don’t be fooled by Shang- Harvard.

  27. Jones

    Ok, so, let me see if I get this logic straight. Your students are retarded (I’d argue that this is the fault of the piss-poor educators, not the students), so therefore if Americans study abroad, then it’s just proof that All Americans are stupid? Or a majority?

    What about other nationalities that study abroad? There’s a lot of international students. Does this mean that they, too, are in a foreign country because they’re too stupid? I am sure that there are also people in those countries who had shoddy teachers who couldn’t teach them that Australians, for the most part, speak English.

    See, I thought the idea of studying abroad was always to get a better, more personal understanding of the rest of the world. I had no idea that it existed just to make sure Americans weren’t all blithering idiots. Boy, I wish I had studied abroad so I’d know very basic knowledge that my history teacher should have easily taught me. Especially when asked where China is. Especially if my teacher happens to teach both Chinese and history.

    • Jones: In your rush to get offended, you seem to have completely missed my point. I think Americans studying abroad is a great thing, and it has no connection to their being stupid. Where did I say that people who study abroad are stupid? I am an American who studied abroad in China. I never said anything like that.

      And obviously I teach my students where China is. I asked them that question before we started our unit on China. They should all be able to point it out now, but I doubt they’ll be able to after the summer break, because by and large, they just don’t care about anywhere outside of the US. It isn’t their fault it doesn’t seem real to them — they’re young and they have never been there. Which is exactly why I think it’s great the US is dedicated to sending more students abroad.

      Don’t let any of this get in the way of your sarcastic ranting, though! ;)

      • Jones

        Haha, I love the irony in the last sentence. With the winking face. That’s cute.

        “In your rush to get offended you completely missed my point” that it’s bad education that makes people not care. If you were offended by anything I said, then clearly you’re just in a rush. I mean, regardless of the fact that I chose words designed to have that sort of impact, it’s just you missing the point. Here’s an example:

        The title says “Stupid Americans? Send them to China” in which the first sentence is “So says President Obama, who is working with Chinese officials to ensure that the US sends 100,000 students to China over the next four years.” Are you suggesting that the president is wanting to send 100,000 American students to China because we’re all so stupid? If not, I’d change the wording. Just a suggestion. You know, so it doesn’t look like sarcastic ranting. ; )

        • I ignored your point because it’s completely unsubstantiated. Bad education is one factor, sure, but bad parenting, systemic pressures, personality, drive — all of these things play a factor. Blaming the teacher is easy — and in this case, super convenient — but it doesn’t make a lot of sense (and it also comes off as ridiculously arrogant, given that you know nothing about me, my students, my school, etc.). In my case, I see these kids for fifty minutes four times a week. Is their not-caring attitude really my fault, or their parents’? Is it the system? Perhaps it was a previous teacher? (God forbid we hold the kids themselves responsible for anything, or they might get the impression we want them to take some responsibility for themselves)

          As for the title wording, it’s just there to grab attention. It’s also meant to be a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I should probably stop writing things like that because it seems to get me into trouble when people take it seriously.

          I am suggesting the President wants to send 100,000 students to China in part because he feels Americans in general really need the perspective that can be gained from leaving our country, but that’s a bit wordy for a title, no?

          • Perhaps “completely unsubstantiated” is less accurate than “vastly oversimplified to the point of being totally useless”. My point is just that the issue is WAY more complex than just “bad teacher!”

            Which is why in the article, I didn’t attempt to pin the blame on anything, aside from saying “as a teacher isn’t it kind of my fault?”

  28. blinded1

    I voted ‘pointless’.

    If one is interersted in or curious about something, he/she will try to find moer facts by oneself. You cannot feed one to make him/her ‘understand’ what he/she is not interested. Most Americans, kids and adults alike, are sincerely believing US is #1 in everything, and that there is no need to learn from outside of their world.

    In addition, ignorance and arrogance, instilled by media, are now the culture and integral part of US. You cannot change it because most Americans cannot accept the fact that somethings are terribly wrong with this country.

  29. Morry

    The day they arrive in China, they will all exclaim, “What a fuckin’ shithole!” and want to leave….

  30. Milicent

    If Chinese education is so profound and would have such benefit, then explain to us please why every single parent in China wants to send their child overseas to study–their prime choice being the US?

    Are they the ones being stupid?

  31. Airene

    How old are your students btw?

  32. elenore

    Your ignorant.Americans usually don’t attend foreign schools because the over whelming amount of schools here.There are more Colleges/Universities in Michigan one state than Germany.That’s not including crap schools like Bakers or ITT tech.Wealthy/ Poor children who receive more years of education from private preschools for Rich and Headstart for poor, their children still achieve lower numbers than middle class children who have stay home parents.Maybe it being taught by people with personal interest in a child’s upbringing because it’s their offspring and one on one attention as young children by loving parent.I wouldn’t want my kids to leave country for Educations when they can go to better schools like in our own country especially a communist slave nation like China.

  33. elenore

    What really pisses me off the most,Is my children teachers see my kids more than I do and blame me when they are the ones responsible for teaching them.I am disappointed in History/Social Studies as a whole.I have to sit with my kids and teach them basic American History and they are in middle school.I have to have them read classic books and stories because the kids are all reading Harry Potter,Manga, American Chillers for essays instead of some classic literature.Most teachers have the same problem as most parents apathy.Teachers nor Parents want to be the bad guy,accept that kids learn different,force kids to do what is for their own good and yes discipline.My kids hate they have to read a book of my choosing ,have to do projects I pick out,have limits on t.v.,computer,and video games.And yes I have heard a few I hate you this is so gay(a phrase really popular with preteen boys) and why do I have to.I really hate teachers complaining where I live they get good pay,benefits,and more vacation time than anyone else.Public or Private School.Both teachers and Parents want someone else to do their job,instead doing it together.Children are not focused because the adults around them are not focused.I don’t think it’s limited to Geography lessons or just Americans either.Learning seems to be limited these days to Social interaction between the kids and not knowledge.

  34. elenore

    I have one more complaint about teachers,I know 3 of them.2 only became teachers not because they like teaching or kids but because a degree in Humanities and a modern art degree won’t fetch many jobs.They went back added teaching certificate VIOLA they teach students in subjects they never learned.They are teachers for Union pay and vacation time only.

    • Terry

      You might enjoy reading this article about John Holt a former education “reformer” who later became the inspiration for the Home School movement.

      I love this quote:
      “society demands of schools, among other things, that they be a place where, for many hours of the day, many days of the year, children or young people can be shut up and so got out of everyone else’s way. Mom doesn’t want them hanging around the house, the citizens do not want them out in the streets, and workers do not want them in the labor force. What then do we do with them? How do we get rid of them? We put them in schools. That is an important part of what schools are for. They are a kind of day jail for kids.”

      Read more: John Holt: Libertarian Outsider – Jeff Riggenbach – Mises Institute

  35. Mike

    This is what I call the “assymetry of information”. You’ve got millions of Chinese Americans who have contacts in their native land, who speak English fluently and who have integrated into American culture. Yet there is very, very few Americans who have done the same in China. It just happens so that so many “Americans” in China are also just Chinese Americans who are connecting with their roots. I’d be interested to see how many of that list of American students in China have Chinese heritage, probably over half.

    China will always be able to understand America much, much better than the other way around.

  36. David Pierce

    Believe me generally Americans are ignorant of what’s outside their borders. My own experience has been that I have only been commended on my ability to speak English by Americans – I am not American and therefore speak with a different accent, but English is my maternal language. I have seen maps on US news bulletins about incidents in Africa that display maps of South America and Australia inverted either east where it should be west or north where it should be south. It wouldn’t be important if Americans weren’t so damn powerful – knowledge influences more than firepower. I guess it’s easy to defer to firepower when you don’t know who speaks the same language as you.

    • Jones

      How long have you been studying English? You speak it really well. You must be in one of the higher intermediate courses in school?

  37. JWJ

    let me just say this China is not much more then a growing country they won’t do more then grow. also no matter where you go you will find a few people under the bar but you could find that anywhere even in china. about thirty percent of chinese don’t know how to write just to let you know. also go to high schools or colleges i promise you almost anyone would be able to tell you about the world and if you go to a debate class they would more then happy to prove you wrong Americans are not stupid maybe a little right minded thinking the us will always be on top but if a big enough world war were to happen against only the USA then maybe but only maybe
    the reason why i can say that with my head held high is because i went over there for over two years. it was not only a waste of money but time. china’s population is far too big to be able to help everyone and because of that slaves are a massive problem along with drug trades it’s a million times worse then the us. crime is also very high there in most large cities around the world it is bad but china sets the bar at a all time high! Also china’s colleges if you hadn’t noticed aren’t high rated in the world some would have trouble even calling them a college. sure they have a few good ones but thats just it a few good ones. china’s population may seem smart but that is only because they can pick and choose who they want from their best. also any smart chinese person will be sent to the usa to one of the universities to learn what they can then go back to china and share what they learned to try to make it better.
    Side Topic
    some people are also worried about china becoming a world power. Please don’t make me laugh china won’t become one at the rate its going it is eaither going to have a war coming its way or it will break out in a civil war. The reason why i say war is because the usa and south korea are getting mad at north korea. china would step in to try to stop a major conflict to show power and stop something happening at their back door but it would suffer big time. nuclear war is a big war stopper but even that can’t stop war forever.
    one last thing yes the usa may be a ocean away but they have more advance war techmology then any other nation also because they are an ocean away they don’t have to have a full focus on ground units only sea air and space
    in closing i hope dealy you answer me i would love to talk to you about this
    please people don’t send crap to this email address put US Chinese as topic i will get right to it first.
    The odd one

Continuing the Discussion