Education: Thomas L Friedman – China: Scapegoat or Sputnik

In a previous post, Thomas L Friedman – China: Scapegoat or Sputnik I spoke also of Russia. I forgot to include some thoughts on the effects of the Russian educational system and am so posting them here, as well as some additional thoughts on the Chinese and Indian educational systems.


I first went to Russian in late 1973 when my wife and I went there as tourists. My second visit, in September, 1976, was to attend a conference in Moscow jointly sponsored by the Soviet Academy of Sciences and the U.S. National Science Foundation.

Though the conference was just in Moscow, Jack Schwartz graciously arranged a side trip to Kiev, so that my wife and I could visit her Russian relatives. We went to Kiev to discuss our work on SETL at some kind of technical institute.

I forget the name of the institute, though I do recall it was very specialized: not “mathematics” but “applied engineering in electo-mechanical hydraulic systems,” or something like that. Let’s call it the Applied Widgets Institute (AWI).

During the meeting I had an exchange with some of the AWI folks that went as follows:

Dave: Hi. How did you come to work at AWI?

AWI: I went to the AWI university in Rostov. All our technical staff members must have degrees from that university.

Dave: What made you go into the AWI field?

AWI: The government made the call. I had done well in science and engineering, and the year I graduated Moscow felt there was a need for more people with AWI skills, so I was sent to the AWI University. The government paid for my education; I didn’t have to pay anything.

Dave: That’s great! Do you like your work?

AWI: At first I did, but if I had to do it over again I would study the theoretical aspects of our field.

Dave: Where do they do that work? Don’t they do it here?

AWI: Yes, there is the Theoretical Widget Institute, TWI. It’s located not far from here, about 10 kilometers to the north.

Dave: Can’t you transfer there? You can apply all the skills you’ve learned to date while the TWI folks bring you up to speed.

AWI: Nope. You have to have a degree from TWI University to work at TWI.

I had already witnessed how far Russia was lagging behind the West, as I reported in the first post based on this column.

That discussion with the AWI person made me realize that Russian would fall behind even faster due to a fundamental flaw in their educational system:

In the old USSR, the government told you what to study. Though they paid for your education, once you had it you were locked into that field for life.

Several dire consequences directly follow.

There was no mobility. If people were unsatisfied in their jobs, they had no way to move to a new field. Yes, they had a guaranteed job, a guaranteed income, guaranteed housing, and all that. This was true vendor “lock-in,” with the government as the vendor in this case. The government wouldn’t allow mobility, as to do so would be to acknowledge they had made a mistake in deciding what field you had to go into.

Unhappy folks couldn’t start over. Which means that those who wanted to would become cynical and less efficient.

It was also difficult to start new projects that could address technological change. Since people with available skills couldn’t be transferred, a whole new infrastructure would have to be built. New schools, new institutes, new laboratories, and all that. That took time, and that lag would almost guarantee obsolesence since by the time the newly-trained graduates arrived the field would have advanced ahead of them.


I know of at least two major challenges facing the Chinese educational system. I first became aware of them in the 1970’s and have no knowledge of the current situation, though I expect at least part of these thoughts still apply.

First, China lost a whole generation of educators, scholars and scientists as a result of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Though more than a generation has passed since those unfortunate times, the current generation of was trained by the folks who survived the Cultural Revolution, folks who put more emphasis on political correctness than competence.

Second, China suffers by having a non-Western alphabet. This applies especially in the field of programming. Jack Schwartz was among the first American scientists to engage with the Chinese in the early 70’s. He made several trips there, and had good access as he had discovered a young professor in NYC whose uncle was Chou En-lai‘s interpreter. (I forget the name of the young prof. I think his first name was “Greg”, and that he taught at Staten Island University.)

Jack spent some time while in China working with the Chinese to translate the jargon of computing into Chinese; for example, to express “hash” as in “hash algorithm” into Chinese. (Chop Suey?) He also arranged for some visitors from China to come to NYC to study.

In those days we used punched cards, and I could tell when one of our visitors was at work when I saw a deck with Chinese script on the first card. The key punches only supported our western alphabet, so the visitor was writing his own comments by hand.

I asked Jack how the Chinese wrote program comments, the english-language text that accompanies the specific form of computer programming languages to provide guidance on how the program works. He said that they didn’t write comments. Chinese programs had no comments, and as a result it was hard for one person to read the program of another.

(I observed similar behavior when I visited the Dubna Institute near Moscow, as they used IBM-compatible keypunches with an english-only keyboard.)

Third, and most important, was the heirarchical nature of Chinese society. I learned about this from Greg. He had spent a semester teaching a course in China, and had found it impossible to elicit questions from the students.

He learned this was part of the culture. Chinese professors delivered their lectures in a monotone, mainly by just reading prepared texts. Questions were never expected — and so were never asked — because to ask a question to which the professor did not have an answer would cause the professor to “lose face,” a great sin in that culture.


Among these three countries, India has the unique advantage of having English as the basic language of the higher educational system. It also has an exceptional number of world-class educational institutions, and a culture much less rigid than that of the Chinese.

I can attest to this as I had the good forture to work with a number of colleagues with Indian backgrounds in IBM Research. They were very, very good.

For example, we in the U.S. bemoan how difficult it is to get into a major university. I think the acceptance rate for schools such as Harvard and Yale is less than ten per cent.

Here’s a question for you? How do you get to major in computer science as an undergraduate in India?

Answer. You take the national exam that is administered each year. About 200,000 people take that exam. The top 50 — yes, just fifty — get to major in computer science. I think that’s the number. If not fifty it’s still miniscule by American standards (I first heard about this from two ITT graduates when i worked on a small team doing a prototype in 2000.)

India is also more effective in collaboration among academia, business and government. For example, a few months ago I had some calls with a team from IBM’s Software Group that is based in Mumbia. Working with ITT and the government, they all established a program centered in part around moodle, an open-source e-learning system, using it among other things to translate instructional materials into various Indian dialects.


Here a few thoughts about education in the U.S. Each could by itself be the subject of several blog posts.

Our system has both too much and too little heirarchy.

For example, for “too little,” I recall a comment made back in the 1970’s in response to the question, “If the U.S. can put a man on the moon, why can’t have a better educational system.” Answer: “The moon doesn’t have 7000 local school boards.”

By “too much” I am thinking of two major educational changes: No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the assumption of complete control of the NYC educational system by the mayor.

I think both are an instance of over-control, a form of DUD (Design Until it Drops). The NCLB has led to attaching higher priority to standardized tests than basic education. Mayoral control has led to an over-emphasis on process refinement, a problem that has plagued developing large pieces of software as well.

The problem with both is that since they are done with public funds, they are very carefully managed to “avoid wasting taxpayer’s dollars.” Which means there is very little risk taking, and hence only incremental innovation.

But in fact the problems facing our nation’s schools are so great that to make any meaningful progress we need to start taking risks, to invest as much as we can in new and innovative programs, understanding that while some will fail, and so will be perceived as a waste of the taxpayer’s money, failures are needed to make real progress.


One Comment

  1. Zelda Fields
    Posted November 29, 2006 at 19:30 | Permalink | Reply

    I believe that a US Educational group has to first establish educational and social goals for each grade. Then the schools have to present plans to staff and get feedback from their teachers and suggestions re direction. I feel that there would be greater interest and effort when suggestions come from teachers.

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