|Global knowledge: China’s schools study about the world (top); foreign students learn to write Chinese characters|
BREMEN: During the past few decades, the global economy and global culture have changed much faster than our mental maps. It’s troubling that entire education systems have not yet caught up with the new global realities. For instance, in Europe entire cohorts of students are still graduating from high schools and universities without having acquired even basic knowledge of outside world regions. As a general trend, the curricula of many fields ranging from sociology to economics continue ignoring world regions outside of the West, including influential ones like China.
In terms of their monocultural horizons, many European students more closely resemble their predecessors from a century ago than their present-day peers in numerous states outside of the West. In China, for example, educated elites for generations have been forced to systematically travel beyond their own cultural horizons. In cities like Beijing and Shenzhen, students graduate from high school with studies in Western literature, history and society. Moreover, the higher one climbs on China’s educational ladders, the larger the proportion of individuals with intercontinental experiences and a strong command in English or other languages.
It’s thus not farfetched to suggest that Chinese educated circles possess greater levels of transcultural competence and global consciousness than their equals in Europe. In China common knowledge about the West is not only spread by the education system and official channels but also through popular culture, movies, the internet and even highbrow literature. Chinese students gain much information about the Europe and North America. The opposite is hardly the case in most of Europe where Asian literature and art remain a niche for aficionados and where there is little broad societal interest in the non-Western world.
Hence, it’s small wonder that only a tiny proportion of European opinion-makers and decision-takers have any substantial knowledge about the rest of the world. This is a great loss of potential since bicultural knowledge fosters skills like the ability to recognize one’s own cultural constraints and interact easily with others. In our globalizing world, such abilities are likely to become as essential for professional elites as the most solid kind of professional training.
The ability to recognize one’s own cultural constraints and interact easily with others could become essential for professional elites.
The source of this interest, education and knowledge gap between Europe and China is largely a carryover from the 19th and 20th centuries, a time of European and American dominance. During that period European elites regarded their own cultural habitat as a global center and the engine of the world’s development. The rise of Europe was commonly celebrated as an autochthonous process which elevated Western power high above other civilizations. For, many leaders and educators it seemed pointless to make serious efforts at understanding Chinese, Indian and Arabic societies. Certainly, specialized university institutes for subjects such as Sinology or Indology were created for that purpose, but were designed as small and highly specialized fields for philologists or art historians. As such, these studies were not expected to have major impact on the rest of the general educational and academic canon.
While Europe took the pose of a forerunner who didn’t care to look back at those lagging behind, leading circles in societies such as China were forced to react in an opposite manner. Around the turn of the 20th century, Western dominance in Asia had become so prevalent that Sinocentric worldviews were no longer a viable option, and during the subsequent decades, China’s educated circles grew convinced that monoculturalism was no longer an option. Certainly, the objectives for seeking outside knowledge have changed: Depending on the country’s dominant ideological system, educational horizons could switch from Europe to the Soviet Union and then to the United States as the supposed core of the West. Nevertheless, entire cohorts of aspiring Chinese leaders grew up with Western economy if not culture in their knowledge horizons. Similar statements could be made about the educated social strata in many other parts of the world, ranging from Latin America to South Asia.
With the 20th century, Western dominance in Asia had become prevalent. Sinocentric worldviews were no longer viable.
One may hesitate to label such a dual educational focus a “cosmopolitan” outlook. After all, the Chinese education system has long operated chiefly on a West-East axis, disseminating knowledge about “modern” world regions on the one side and China on the other side. In that manner, Chinese syllabi almost completely ignored regions like India or East Africa which not only had significant historical interactions with China but also remained key contacts for the future. Still, average Chinese outlooks are much wider than the self-reflective walls constraining the educational worlds of most current and future European leaders.
This very fact of two diametrically opposed approaches poses significant problems for Europe. On a more general level, Europe’s cultural introversion directly contradicts the dominant cultural identities of a continent which often prides itself as a civilization of discoveries, openness and intellectual cosmopolitanism. But more concretely, the challenges emerging from the current education gap affect the available pool of highly qualified labor for a globalizing economy.
For example, in many key business sectors, China has already become the largest trading partner of Germany, the boom of which in recent years has been closely wedded to steep growth in the emerging economies. However, up until the present day, German engineers, managers and corporate leaders typically lack substantial knowledge about their Chinese partners. Moreover, even among expatriate managers deployed in Shanghai and other cities, only a small fraction has a basic command of Mandarin.
Consequently, in joint ventures and other Sino-German collaborative projects, the position of bridge-builders – the management fluent in languages who can mediate between both sides – is almost exclusively staffed by the Chinese side. This pattern may have been sufficient at a time when the funds and technology gaps put German companies far ahead of their Chinese partners. But such imbalances could become the source of significant setbacks for Germans during a period when the rules of the game are rapidly changing. Already, Chinese companies are climbing the technology scale and, in addition, often start gaining influence by heavily investing abroad.
In joint ventures, bridge-builders – fluent in languages who can mediate – are almost exclusively staffed by Chinese.
The challenge for Europe becomes more pressing because the United States is not in a similar position. To be sure, large parts of US society are not characterized by their deep interest in other parts of the world. Yet at the same time, the country has a large pool of well-qualified, college-educated first-, second- and third-generation immigrants from Asia and elsewhere who can indeed serve as much needed bridge-builders in a global age. Moreover, for a number of global and local reasons, leading US universities have systematically strengthened their expertise on Asia and other world regions, and have done so for decades. For most academic fields this means that a comparatively large number of top students get the chance to learn something substantial about Asia and other parts of the world.
So compared to the United States and China, Europe’s educated circles remain monocultural by training. Ironically, it is now a “Middle Kingdom” mentality putting constraints on European economic, political and intellectual life. Widespread cultural ignorance no longer fits into a shifting world in which Chinese and other non-Western countries are themselves going global.