Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

Learning from China?

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One of the most popular set phrases in political grandstanding is that education is a key resource for building the knowledge society of the 21st century shows Peter Walkenhorst.

Education is a key factor in dealing with the impact of global megatrends. This is not the least of the reasons that have motivated Europe’s biggest circulation newspapers, BILD and Hürriyet to join forces with management consultants Roland Berger and the Bertelsmann Stiftung in initiating a major survey which should give the maximum number of people a direct opportunity to tell political decision-makers what they think of the current education situation in Germany. Over the next three weeks FC_org will be publishing blogposts which shed light on various aspects of the education system and illuminate the important role it plays in determining people’s attitudes and interactions with planet earth. We cordially invite you to add your own voice to our discussions and to take part in the survey on

One of the most popular set phrases in political grandstanding is that education is a key resource for building the knowledge society of the 21st century. This should mean that Germany too needs to invest more in the education and training of its people if it’s to retain its place on the global playing field. However, such words are seldom followed by actual deeds. Quite the reverse in fact: education budgets are always among the first to be tapped when it comes to balancing government budgets. Yet there also seems to be a broad public unwillingness to play a greater part in financing the education system and accept sacrifices to give young people a better education. In any case both politicians and the general public have so far failed to put an actual price tag on an improved education system to which they pay such constant lip service.

Perhaps this is not so surprising, because finding enough money for better education will involve sacrifices. At least that is what a glance at China shows which is well on the road to consolidating its increasing economic and political power on the world stage through massive investment in the education of its people. For instance, China recently began to invest in the systematic development of its universities. While in 1997 only nine percent of an age-group studied at university, today the figure stands at 25 percent and should reach 40 percent by 2020, according to the Chinese government. The increasing number of university graduates – last year alone, it stood at six million – has indeed led to increasing unemployment among academics. Even so, many experts still believe that the numbers of graduates in China – particularly in the research and technology sectors – are still too small to ensure long-term growth at its present rate of development.

The high value attached to education in the eyes of the general population could well prove to be more important than massive government investment. Education in China is still (or rather once more) seen as the best way to prosperity and upward mobility. This is why for most Chinese parents nothing is more important than giving their children the best possible education (as the official one child policy forces them to concentrate all their hopes on a single child). The upshot is a relentlessly competitive selection process whose results might be impressive but whose darkside is also clearly visible.

In the latest 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report Chinese school students taking part in the program for the first time shot straight to the top places in all areas of competence. China can now see itself not just as the new world leader in exports but as the new World Leader in Education. For the young people themselves, however, this means that they must learn cope with the tremendous pressure such ruthless competition places on them while also living in constant fear of disappointing their parents.

Even so, many parents pin their hopes on subjecting their children to strenuous child-rearing drills of the kind Yale professor Amy Chua puts forward in her book “Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother” as a recipe for success. Her book was top of the US bestseller lists for many weeks and provoked a heated debate in the USA about the best methods of education. Yet this debate was only superficially about education matters, because what this controversial book by the successful daughter of Chinese immigrants really did was to strike a raw nerve in the American middle class which, in the wake of the financial and economic crises, is increasingly haunted by the specter of social degradation. Similar to the Sarrazin debate in Germany, the discussions around Amy Chua’s proposals should be seen as a symptom of raised levels of anxiety. As Elisabeth von Thadden puts it so succinctly in the German weekly  DIE ZEIT (No. 5, 2011, p. 45) “In western industrialized countries the fear of a loss of social and economic position is tangible in the very nervousness with which such education issues are discussed.”

Against such a backdrop, the “Future through Education” issue receives a new kind of urgency. This is why the Bertelsmann Stiftung is conducting a study on the education situation in Germany with a view to finding out what Germans think must be done in order to improve the German education system and make it more equitable.

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