The 'Sputnik Moment' Epidemic: Is China Our New Russia?

Fear is the one common trigger of the recent Sputnik moment outbreak. Fear of being bettered educationally, economically, technologically -- the range of fears is varied, but the source of these fears is not. It's always traceable to China.
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It's an epidemic. Everyday you wake up and read about someone else who's had a "Sputnik moment." Thomas Friedman may have been the first (September 2009); an incubatory year later and the number of its victims mounts. In December of 2010 alone, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Senator John Kerry, former Assistant Secretary of Education Chester Finn, and the president himself all experienced a "Sputnik moment." I haven't had one, nor likely have you. Influential and powerful people are most susceptible.

Chester Finn describes his moment:

Fifty-three years after Sputnik caused an earthquake in American education by giving us reason to believe that the Soviet Union had surpassed us, China has delivered another shock. On math, reading and science tests given to 15-year-olds in 65 countries last year, Shanghai's teenagers topped every other jurisdiction in all three subjects.

Secretary Chu, asking whether the energy race is our "new Sputnik moment," answers yes it is:

From wind power to nuclear reactors to high speed rail, China and other countries are moving aggressively to capture the lead. Given that challenge, and given the enormous economic opportunities in clean energy, it's time for America to do what we do best: innovate. As President Obama has said, "we should not, cannot, and will not play for second place."

Chu goes on to enumerate the areas where we are now playing catch-up with China: high voltage transmission, high speed rail, advanced coal technologies, nuclear power, alternative energy vehicles, renewable energy, and supercomputing.

I'm no doctor, but as I look at the Sputnik moment for Finn and Chu and the others, its onset seems to be something brought on principally by fear. Finn feels "shock" when he discovers in early December that students in Shanghai outscored students the world over in every subject tested by the highly respected Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). He ominously predicts, "If China can produce top PISA scorers in one city in 2009--Shanghai's population of 20 million is larger than that of many whole countries--it can do this in 10 cities in 2019 and 50 in 2029. Or maybe faster." Holy smokes Batman, we're in trouble. Will American students ever be able to compete with their Chinese counterparts?

As for Energy Secretary Chu, his Sputnik moment coincides with the realization that China, through deliberate effort, is racing ahead in the development of cleaner energy technology. He'd likely be less anxious if our Congress wasn't deliberately running in the opposite direction, away from any consideration of the energy issues we now face.

Fear then is the one common trigger of the recent Sputnik moment outbreak -- fear of being bettered educationally, fear of being bettered economically, fear of being bettered technologically, fear of being out-greened. The range of fears is varied. But the source of these fears is not. It's always traceable to China.

In 1957 when Russia launched the Sputnik satellite, the US response was swift. We committed national resources to the development of science and math programs in our schools and to the invigoration of our space program. We also committed ourselves to a still more frigid cold war with Russia.

Today's Sputnik moment epidemic runs a risk. Yes, it can be motivation to engage in serious -- and to me necessary -- debate about how and what students in our schools should learn; about the measures we must take to wean ourselves off non-renewable and polluting energy sources; and about whether and how to reconfigure our infrastructure priorities. When Chu, Obama, and Friedman target China, they, I suspect, intend to move Americans to action by appealing to their competitive spirit; thus Chu prods, "When it comes to innovation, Americans don't take a back seat to anyone - and we certainly won't start now."

But, in this scenario, the distinction between China as convenient and beneficial goad and China as enemy becomes easily blurred. Our economy falters because China is a "currency manipulator"; our renewable energy technology can't compete because the Chinese government is pouring heavy -- even illicit -- subsidies into China's renewable energy industries; and the wide trade imbalance is because Chinese traditionally have a lower rate of consumption -- for fairness' sake they need to consume more, the way we do.

The 1957 Sputnik launching kick-started American progress in education and technology, but it also deepened an enmity between the world's two super powers. Today's Sputnik moment epidemic can serve to redouble our efforts in the teaching of math and science (though I'd hope not at the expense of history, literature, art, music, and the classics) and in the pursuit of new sources of energy. But let it not make China our 21st-century Russia. Let us not fall into the simple mindset that we're playing a zero-sum game, where there is a clear winner and a clear loser.

The world has changed since 1957. Economies are intertwined and mutually dependent; technological and medical advances in one part of the globe bring advances to other parts; and climate change knows no national boundaries. Let this be a "Sputnik moment" that prompts a genuine, fruitful cooperation with China, a cooperation where the entire world benefits.

When Hu Jintao visits, our message to him should be clear: We aren't in a race where either you win and we lose or you lose and we win. In this race, we either both win or both lose.

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