Are we in the early stages of outsourcing our education system to the same country to which we’ve surrendered our manufacturing sector and entrusted our national debt?
That’s probably too dire, at least for now, but the Chinese education ministry has been extending its tentacles worldwide, from the 550 higher-ed programs (“Confucius Institutes”) already operating in 90 countries (including almost 70 on American shores) to the newer but no less worrisome K–12 language programs that are taking the U.S. by storm. One of Beijing’s chief U.S. partners in this venture, the Asia Society, has already opened 20 pilot sites in American public schools and seeks to launch 80 more by fall 2011. Some districts and states — notably North Carolina — are working directly with the Chinese government, while still more districts are turning to their local-university-based Confucius Institutes to get started.
The basic offer is surely tempting, and doubly so in a down economy: At little or no cost to you, the government of China will teach your students Chinese language and culture. Chinese nationals handle instruction (almost 5,000 of them currently roam the globe, secondary and higher education combined); their government subsidizes their salaries and pays their airfare. China provides a free curriculum, textbooks, and materials.
Although a noisy dust-up is under way in a middle school near Los Angeles (Hacienda Heights is a heavily Hispanic community with a majority-Chinese school board), Confucius Classrooms are rolling along in public schools from Rhode Island to Oregon, as their postsecondary counterparts multiply from Rutgers to Texas A&M to the University of Alaska. According to recent coverage in the New York Times, 325 Chinese teachers are now in U.S. classrooms via the College Board’s guest-teacher program and a related initiative for independent schools. One can, of course, argue that this is a wonderful windfall that will assist young Americans to engage with what will eventually be the world’s other superpower (assuming, that is, that the U.S. remains one). One can also cite as precedent earlier powers that sought to cement their empires and solidify their dominance — of commerce, shipping, gold, cotton, slaves, political control, you name it — by getting the locals to learn their languages. That’s part of the histories of Spain, France, and England, even Portugal, Holland, Italy, Germany, and, of course, Russia. Why shouldn’t China do the same?
And one can rue the apathy that most young Americans show toward learning other world languages, except possibly Spanish. We tend to assume that everyone on the planet is learning English in order to converse with us. That’s one reason the State Department, the military, and multinational corporations wind up training their own folks in the languages of the places they will work. Indeed, State has even helped pay for some of the Confucius Institutes as part of the post-9/11 push in critical-need languages.
I’m open to the possibility that America’s interests will be advanced if more of today’s children become fluent in Mandarin. Perhaps our schools and universities should substitute it for Italian, maybe even French. But we probably want more of them to learn Arabic, too, for similar reasons. Does that mean we should be receptive if the government of Syria or Yemen offers to pay for it in our public schools? Do we want the government of Myanmar subsidizing the study of Burmese?