Democracy Lab

The Big Bang Theory of Education

Authoritarian countries don't seem to be doing well at the knowledge business. That's probably no accident.

China just doesn’t manufacture more stuff than the rest of us -- it’s also about to dominate the world intellectually. Chinese universities are preparing to conquer the world. China is now taking the lead in the publication of academic papers. Each year Chinese campuses are producing legions of super-qualified engineering graduates -- and no wonder, given those Spartan study habits!

In fact, none of these things is (entirely) true. Of course China is amply supplied with great minds, and of course many of its students are hard workers. But a lot of the oft-quoted statistics about China’s academic triumphs turn out to be hollow. Yes, Chinese academics publish a lot of papers -- but that’s because they’re meeting government-set publication quotas. The quality of most of those Chinese-authored monographs (which can be measured by how often they’re cited by other scholars) is spotty. And those awe-inspiring figures on engineering graduates have been thoroughly debunked as well. Some of the numbers have unclear origins, and many of those “engineers” are better described as “technicians,” people whose actual qualifications are minimal. (And let’s not even get started on the fraud and corruption that apparently permeate the Chinese education system.)

In short, talk of China’s academic rise needs to be taken with a grain of salt. All this came to mind the other day, when I spotted a story in the New York Times that bore the ominous headline: “U.S. Falls and Asia Gains in University Rankings.” The article refers to the latest study of global universities conducted by Times Higher Education magazine (one of the few organizations that offers an annual ranking of institutions of higher education around the world). Here’s one of the takeaways:

Asian universities were the biggest gainers, with universities in China, Singapore, and Australia moving up the table, as did every university in South Korea, led by Seoul National University, which jumped to 59th place from 124th. “We’ve been talking for years about the rise of Asia,” said Phil Baty, editor of the rankings. “But this is the first solid empirical evidence.”

Entirely aside from the question of whether Australia ought to be considered part of Asia, I found this thesis somewhat intriguing. A closer look at the rankings quickly revealed that, yes, universities from Asia are certainly on the move. But the more interesting question turns out to be: From which Asia?

Given all the talk about the stunning rise of Chinese academia, you’d expect that universities from the People’s Republic would be over-represented here. But that’s not the case at all. Altogether, 57 universities from Asia make the top 400 in the rankings this time around. Of those, nine are from mainland China. That’s nine out of 400. The highest-ranked Chinese institution is Peking University, at number 46 (right after Washington University in St. Louis).

But this doesn’t mean that all Chinese universities are playing academic catchup -- as becomes apparent when you take a look at the rest of the rankings. Taiwan boasts seven out of the top 400, and tiny Hong Kong -- the real stunner of this survey, in my view -- six. So why should these two Chinese-inhabited territories be so far ahead that their combined total outdoes that of the mainland -- even though they have only a miniscule fraction of its population?

Let me hazard a guess: I think it might have to do with the nature of the societies in which these universities are embedded. Though the people of Hong Kong can’t properly elect their leaders, the culture of the territory is indisputably democratic, with a strong rule of law and well-established habits of assembly and debate. (Yeah, I know: Hong Kong is officially part of the People’s Republic. But it enjoys considerable autonomy and still jealously defends its unique character.) Taiwan, of course, is a multi-party democracy -- no qualifiers needed.

So why would my theory that the difference has to do with democracy make sense? Presumably because it’s really hard to build a proper research university without freedom of information and inquiry -- just the sort of thing that authoritarian regimes have a hard time allowing. “Academic freedom is a fundamental part of the formula for creating a world-class university,” says Phil Baty, who was in charge of the survey (and yes, he’s the same guy who was quoted in the Times article cited above). “You have to give your professors the room to question received wisdom.” Throw enough money and infrastructure at the problem and you can do quite a lot, he notes; Chinese leaders, who understand the importance of technical knowledge and innovation, are definitely making up for lost time in this respect. But even when it comes to math and science, you probably won’t get the best bang for your buck unless professors and students are allowed to think freely.

Perhaps this is why the overwhelming majority of the other East Asian nations prominently represented in the top 400 -- Japan (with 13) and South Korea (6) -- also happen to be vigorous democracies. The only possible exception is the tiny, authoritarian city-state of Singapore, which has two universities in the rankings -- quite an impressive achievement. But it’s an exception nonetheless -- and it becomes even more so when one notes that the vast majority of the institutions in the top 400 still hail from the democratic nations of Western Europe and North America. (American universities account for seven of the top 10 and 76 of the top 100.)

Of course, we could also see it from the other way around: Of the world’s autocracies, mainland China is the only that really has any serious presence in the top 400 at all. Only two universities from Russia made it in. In the Middle East, Israel and Turkey both have a clutch of schools; but Saudi Arabia and Iran can only manage one each. (Yes, that’s right: The entire Arab world, once the storehouse of the world’s knowledge, can claim just one of the world’s top 400 universities.)

Perhaps the autocrats should take a closer look at the No. 1 school in the survey: the California Institute of Technology. As Baty points out, Cal Tech is distinguished not only to its innovative approach to learning (where small groups of students actively solve problems, rather than passively listening to lectures, with the world’s leading scientists), but also by its spirit of free-wheeling creativity, which includes a love of creative pranks and general craziness. The same applies to MIT (fifth in the rankings), which also prides itself on its unorthodox teaching approach -- as well as its rich history of “hacks."

A successful research university, Baty argues, has to allow “academics to follow their noses and to think in a blue-skies way.” (In this context, I don’t think it’s any accident that the hit U.S. TV comedy The Big Bang Theory, which celebrates the virtues of iconoclastic nerdiness, revolves around a couple of Cal Tech professors.)

Of course, things are not all rosy at universities in the United States and Britain, either, as Baty is quick to point out. Costs are rising. Research funds are, increasingly, narrowly targeted, crowding out financing for the sorts of fundamental research that are essential to big discoveries. And yes, there’s rising pressure from new players on the global scene.

This should not be a source of undue hysteria. To the contrary: Established universities should welcome the competition (not to mention the new possibilities for collaboration). But that certainly doesn’t mean that the schools with successful traditions of untrammeled inquiry should lose sight of the values that got them where they are today. Freedom is the air that good thinking breathes.

Kris Connor/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

An Idealist on Death Row

Why the desperate fate of a little-known Sudanese human rights activists poses some fundamental questions about what it means to be human.

You've probably never heard of Jalila Khamis Koko. As for me, I've only read about her. But it's quite clear from what I've read that she's an extraordinary person.

Her life story has the same improbable trajectory as that of so many other human rights activists around the world. A 43-year-old elementary school teacher, wife, and mother isn't necessarily the sort of person you'd expect to confront one of Africa's most vicious governments. But that's what she's done. For more than a year now, the government of Sudan has been waging a war in the border state of South Kordofan, Jalila's homeland. The fighting has included the same sorts of abuses already sadly familiar from the conflict in Darfur, including wholesale rape, the use of famine as a weapon of war, and the indiscriminate bombing and shelling of civilians. It has created half a million refugees in South Kordofan and neighboring Blue Nile state.

Jalila responded by turning her home in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, into a refuge for those fleeing the fighting. By this spring around two dozen people were living there. But what really drew the attention of the Sudanese authorities seems to have been her outspoken criticism, in a now-notorious video published in June 2011, of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir's brutal treatment of her fellow Nubans, the majority inhabitants of South Kordofan. (Like so many other of Sudan's ethnic minorities, the Nubans, who are not Arabs, have persistently resisted Bashir's efforts to make them conform with his own ethnic and religious definition of what "proper Sudanese" are supposed to be.) She also had the temerity to call for an immediate ceasefire in the conflict.

Note: That's all she did: criticize. Her protest was entirely non-violent. She harmed no one.

On March 15, in the early hours of the morning, the Sudanese secret police -- the notorious National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) -- showed up at Jalila's home and took her away. She's been imprisoned ever since. Just last month, according to Amnesty International, a Sudanese court sentenced her to death on treason charges. She could be executed at any time.

Clearly President Bashir wants to make an example of her. From his viewpoint, it's understandable why. This is a tricky time for the government in Khartoum. The Islamist regime's countless wars have only brought misery to Sudan's people. The economy is tanking, and discontent is rife. Earlier this year, Sudanese in the heartland of the country -- not just the long-restive minorities on its periphery -- took to the streets to rehearse their own version of the Arab Spring. Flash mobs, coordinated by mobile phones, popped up all over the place to chant anti-government slogans.

The Sudanese security forces cracked down, sending at least 2,000 protestors to jail. (Incidentally, the woman who took the video of Jalila and posted it on the Internet, another activist by the name of Nagla Sayed Ahmed, has apparently also been sentenced to death in absentia by a Khartoum court, though she has managed to flee the country.)

Bashir might be hoping that his recent deal on sharing oil revenues with South Sudan, which achieved its independence last year, will give him some economic breathing room. But even that won't help him to put his country's political problems to rest. He's betting that the only solution there is force.

Jalila knew what she was getting into. You don't take on a regime like Bashir's without knowing that you're going to be facing some harsh reprisals. Indeed, Bashir has shown in the past that he won't even stop short of persecuting one of his state's own founding fathers when he sees fit. (When Hassan al-Turabi, the Islamist who provided the crucial ideological underpinnings for the Sudanese regime, ran afoul of Bashir a few years ago, he ended up doing a long stint in jail as well.)

And this brings me to a question that I've found myself pondering a lot lately. What is it that moves some remarkable individuals to stand up and be counted even when they know that this will bring all sorts of misfortune down on them and their families? Though such people are few and far between, they represent a phenomenon that has proven remarkably persistent over the ages.

It's not immediately clear why this should be so. If humans are indeed motivated above all by a longing for security or economic well-being, then it would be impossible to explain activists like Jalila, who have everything to lose and very little to gain, in material terms, by directly and actively opposing a government that is thousands of times more powerful than she is.

To be sure, the overwhelming majority of people rarely resort to open protest or outward political activism -- especially when authoritarian governments demonstrate the will to use violence against them for doing so. Yet under the right set of circumstances even these cautious masses can be tipped into action by the dedicated efforts of an idealistic few.

In my career as a journalist I've encountered these people all over the world. In Russia there was the crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who just couldn't help but stand up to a malevolent cabal of gangsters, soldiers, and corrupt bureaucrats -- and paid for it with her life, as many bystanders might have predicted. In Hong Kong there was the activist Han Dongfang, who was punished for his efforts to apprise Chinese workers of their rights with exile from his homeland.

It feels good to see Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi accepting awards on behalf of a people now cautiously emerging into the bright light of freedom after decades under crushingly oppressive military rule. But I wonder if the honors heaped upon her now can really compensate for her decades of sacrifice, including the loss of a normal family life.

And for every Nobel Laureate who manages to make a dent in the reign of injustice, there are still many other dissidents who labor in obscurity, their names unknown, in many cases, even to their compatriots. Their fates should serve as a reminder that most activists don't get into the job to become famous. They do it because some mysterious inner force, some profound moral impetus, is urging them forward to do the right thing.

I've never seen anyone explore this impulse in a convincing way. But the story of Jalila Khamis Koko reminds us that it's still around, and as strong as ever.

P.S. -- To those readers who want to intercede on her behalf, you can find more information on her case, and how to take action, on Amnesty International's site here.

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