I had been teaching at a Chinese university for only two weeks last spring when my top student bluntly asked me: How can the U.S. be so far ahead of us in science when we are so far ahead in university science courses?
Although not a scientist, I ventured an answer based on what I had already learned about Chinese education. U.S. higher education encourages creativity, so even though our basic knowledge lags behind in the high school years, our students are able to pull ahead during the college years.
I think about that exchange as I listen to discussions about higher education in North Carolina. Everyone agrees that we should not ignore the skills required in todays workplace. My time in China made me realize that focusing higher education exclusively on a narrow set of employable skills would be just as big a mistake, however.
The most revered American in China last year among Chinese university students was Steve Jobs. His biography was a runaway bestseller. Random students who saw my iPhone would tell me: I love America; I love Apple in the same breath. Jobs personified American innovation and success.
My students worship of Jobs was understandable and ironic at the same time. Creativity was one of the keys to Jobs success, yet the Chinese educational system stifles creativity. Students are given little choice about what to study, are expected to memorize more than analyze, are generally not encouraged to develop their own ideas and are assigned to universities and sometimes even majors based on high school test scores.
The story of Jobs higher education could not have been more different. Despite an already considerable expertise in computers, he enrolled in a small liberal arts college to pursue his artistic and philosophical interests. He eventually dropped out because he wanted to take only the courses that interested him and continued attending classes for no credit simply out of personal interest.
Jobs also spent a lot of time in college studying Zen Buddhism, a seemingly odd choice for a computer genius but one whose influence is obvious to anyone who has experienced the simplicity of design of an iPod, iPad or iPhone. When Jobs learned to combine the fruits of his wide-ranging and passionate curiosity with his computer expertise, the result was Apple.
As we discuss higher education in North Carolina, I hope we wont lose sight of what we already do well in comparison with places like China. Human capital is the comparative advantage that matters most in todays global economy, and we produce creative thinkers and workers who are the envy of the world.
We do that by allowing students to study some things simply because they find them interesting. Steve Jobs without Zen Buddhism might have been just another computer engineer.
Maybe that is why China sent over 56,000 students to study in the U.S. last year. Next year, my top Chinese student will be one of them.
Joseph E. Kennedy is a professor of law at UNC Law School and a fellow at UNCs Parr Center for Ethics. In 2012 he taught law at Northwest University in Xian, China, as a Fulbright lecturer.