“Technology will drive our leadership in economic growth and national security,” the Commerce Department’s Zoe Baird, an adviser to the secretary for technology and economic growth, told an Aspen Security Forum: D.C. Edition. “It is really imperative to our leadership in technology that we develop the capacity to have the skilled workers we need across the whole value chain.”
That national security imperative, in combination with the economic disruption wrought by the coronavirus pandemic and “the acceleration of automation” that displaces blue-collar workers, could augur a pronounced government emphasis on science and technology in education. The idea might seem strange — even “a little bit un-American,” as Financial Times editor Peter Spiegel put it during the conversation — but Baird maintained that her proposal has strong historical precedent.
“When we moved from an agricultural economy to an industrial economy, we actually invented the high school in order to create the level-set of training and education people needed to make that transition,” she said, referring to early 20th-century education initiatives. “We need to invent the lifelong training system that we need in a world of enormous and rapid change.”
Chinese officials feel a similar pressure, as the communist regime’s conventional belief that “the education cause must be treated as a strategic mission and priority in the country’s overall development plan,” as then-party chief Hu Jintao put it in 2010, is overlaid more recently by an intensifying competition that has stoked the appetite, in both Washington and Beijing, to develop economic options and supply chains that do not depend on rival governments and economies.
“We must regard science and technology as our primary productive force, talent as our primary resource, and innovation as our primary driver of growth,” Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping said. “We will open up new areas and new arenas in development and steadily foster new growth drivers and new strengths.”
Chinese Communist officials, however, also use education in other subjects as a method of social engineering, especially for ethnic and religious minorities whose beliefs are disfavored by the party. Hundreds of thousands of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, facing what the State Department regards as a genocide, have been forced into mass detention camps that Beijing defends as “vocational” training centers. And Chinese officials in Tibet have banned students from carrying religious items on the grounds that “schools are places to cultivate and produce socialist scholars,” not religious believers.
“There is no hope for our new generations. They are shifting to Chinese-only education,” Dr. Gyal Lo, a native Tibetan who earned a doctorate at the University of Toronto, told RFI, a French outlet, in a recent interview. “The society is systematically being controlled.”
In the United States, by contrast, the power to set curriculum is a function of state authority, and even the states are banned from imposing “a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom,” according to a landmark Supreme Court precedent.
Still, foreign policy anxiety has galvanized previous federal intervention into the U.S. education system. The Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik, the first manmade satellite put into orbit, startled lawmakers into drafting “the first example of comprehensive federal education legislation” to pass into law, according to an account from the U.S. House of Representatives History, Art & Archives.
“It is no exaggeration to say that America’s progress in many fields of endeavor in the years ahead—in fact, the very survival of our free country—may depend in large part upon the education we provide for our young people now,” proponents of the National Defense Education Act said at the time.
A senior Google executive reinforced Baird’s historical argument while taking “a little bit of an issue with the premise” of Spiegel’s question.
“I think the American government has always had a role in promoting the advance of basic research and science,” Google Global Affairs President Kent Walker said. “So coming back to that notion of investing for the future, in a collaborative way — taking advantage of the great academic research institutes and the great private sector research that’s being done — but also having the government with a long term stake in innovation, I think, has long been a part of the American story.”
China’s emergence as a threat has “galvanized” a trans-Atlantic consensus on the need to enhance technological education, Baird added, touting a “Talent for Growth Task Force” launched this week by the Trade and Technology Council, a forum for U.S. and European Union coordination.
“If we do this right, can use the levers of our democracies, and our ability for all sectors to work together, to do this better than others,” Baird said. “And the battle for the future is going to turn on whether or not we create the skilled work forces we need to deploy and invent and build off the capacity that technology provides.”