Thursday, March 18, 2010

Japanese Tourists, California's Higher Education System, & Me

As a result of recent state budget cuts, tuition increases, and proposed increases in the ratio of out-of-state and international students -- who pay higher fees, many in California feel that access to higher education in California is being threatened. Have no fear though, for you see, today, as I was walking through campus I came across two Japanese tourists. They asked me where they can eat. Now, coming across Japanese tourists is not something new, but hey, I came across them not at Disneyland, but in front of Bancroft Library - right smack in the middle of campus. (I recommended "GBC" or Golden Bear Cafe). As I was headed in that general direction, I walked them there. Perhaps, I should've walked them to Northside? Pat Brown's or even the Free Speech Movement Cafe? Anyways...

For one thing, they said they were here sightseeing and that they were students from a university west of Tokyo, but they were sightseeing not Disneyland, but UC Berkeley. I mean you see people take pictures at Berkeley all the time, but I always presumed it was because their son or daughter is studying here and they were very proud that their child has come to study at one of the more well recognized universities in the world. But, would you choose to spend money to visit UC Berkeley? They were second year undergraduate students majoring  in linguistics. Yesterday they were in San Francisco they said and tomorrow they will head down to Los Angeles (a better bet in my opinion). I imagine that while it's spring break here, well technically starting tomorrow morning for me, that it is probably the equivalent of summer break over in Japan -- I believe the school year in Japan starts in the spring.

But anyways, the interesting question was, why on earth would Japanese tourists visit UC Berkeley? When I visited Japan, some of the things I did was relax at an outdoor sauna (spa?) or a natural springs located in some mountains somewhere between Osaka and Kyoto and even watching Last Samurai (the movie is still one of my all time favorites). By the way, I feel I spend more time on blogger than on facebook; I should message my old Japanese friend. Other activities included going to Osaka and visiting my friend's university in Kyoto and speaking with an old Japanese man on the J-Line, who said that it was strange that I looked Korean, but I spoke English. Anyways, visiting my friend's university was nice in that I got to see where he studied and how it was (tranquil and peaceful are the adjectives that come to mind here), but if I had planned the trip I definitely would not have placed visiting a Japanese university at the top or anywhere on the list. 

And, I guess this is something that those demonstrating against letting in a higher ratio of international and out-of-state students seem to forget. One of the greatest assets that California has built up by investing so heavily -- perhaps even excessively -- in its higher education system are its internationally recognizable public institutions of higher learning. Consider the size of the UC library (second largest in the world?), there's hydrogen, helium, oxyen, and, of course, Californium, and Berkelium), etc etc. But, perhaps, it's about time to cash in on this. If there are Japanese tourists that willingly come to visit UC Berkeley, then imagine the number of students that would want to study here (though the percentage of alumni that give back seems to be rather tiny). Of course, there's externalities aside from just mere income transfers... Knowledge spillovers, economies of scale come to mind here...
Anyways, the second thing that this brought up, is well, brand names aren't build up by advertising on television (maybe aside from those television advertisements in between college football). They are built after decades and decades of academic accomplishment and, perhaps, an open university that accepts top foreign students. Now, consider the oftenly cited claim of the superiority of Korea's or East Asia's secondary education system. For example, "Oh, the math and science that undergrads learn in America is taught at secondary school." But, I doubt Korea's secondary education system is superior to the United States. Yes, it has been shown (Hanushek and Kimko, in a 2001 paper published in the Journal of American Economic Review ) that higher test scores in science and math translate into higher rates of economic growth -- but, this is through 1990. I believe it won't hold against equally developed economies. Consider Japan and the U.S. post-1995 or so. Would you rather have an innovation based economy or one that survives by making manufacturing electronics (commodities) primarily on the basis of cheap labor (China) or even technology (Japan, Korea, Taiwan) or components for, let's say, Apple. But, anyways, what is not fostered in Korea's secondary schools or its school systems (or Japan's) is the ability to think critically and ask questions. (Disclaimer: By the way, my senior honors thesis is turning out to be on international student flows in higher education, but anyways:)

The United States recent focus on standardized test scores is something I wish the country would stay away from (And, no, I've always done fine on standardized tests), but the Korean or Japanese education system is not something that I believe we should try to emulate. For one thing, consider, what would happen to a secondary school student that constantly challenges a teacher's authority not because he doesn't want to study, but because he questions whether the teacher is right or why it's important to learn exactly what he's learning. That student would either get kicked out of the system -- for questioning the the authority of the teacher and have no chance of getting back in or be forced to take the path of "rote memorization, regurgitating formulas or facts or equations, so that he can score as high as possible on a standardized test." And, well, for all of Korea's higher standardized test scores, they can't win a Nobel Prize (no, Kim Dae Jung does not count).  Or, of course, he would come to the United States, if he had the money. In the U.S., well, conformance is -- upto a certain degree -- not cool. When I was in Seoul, I never once visited Seoul National Universitiy except to stop near the campus for a job interview (at a private English Academy -- that I eventually turned down). For example, I always hear about how Korean students already learned how to do Calculus or Chemistry or something in high school. But, you see, that's when the learning stops. In the United States, the educational system is setup so that you will continually be learning for the rest of your life (Why ask Why?).

In Korea, the system is setup so that the vast majority of "learning" is in high school and learning at the undergraduate level is a joke (I have many, many anecdotal stories here and there are, of course, many empirical studies here done as well, and, of course, there's the fact that South Korea decided to adopt the U.S.' liberal education system (two years of general education before all else). Also, consider what the mandatory military draft does to Korea's undergraduate education system. But one story that comes to mind is an English conversational partner I had that scored above the 99.97% percentile or so on the KSAT and then flunked out of Seoul National University for playing too much Starcraft -- he of course, did end up graduating and is probably making a lot of money now at one of the top multinational firms in Korea. I thought him to be smart, but what if he had grown up in the U.S.? Maybe he would've discovered a cure for cancer... Or not...

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