Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The New US Sputnik Moment

On the eve of Obama's State of the Union address, there are reports that he will center his speech on the theme of our generation's Sputnik moment.  
"Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we'd beat them to the moon," Obama will say, according to excerpts released by the White House. "The science wasn't there yet. NASA didn't even exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn't just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs."
The contemporary Sputnik moment that exists right now is the competition with China. 

When international tests revealed that students in Shanghai ranked first in math and science in December, it stunned educators. Amy Chua then jumped on this sentiment with a provocative op-ed in the WSJ titled Why Asian Mothers are Superior to promote her new book, it created a fierce national debate that brought out the "USA! USA!" chanting American defenders/Chinese critics, herehere and here.

Although there could be debate on the validity of this the best way to teach children and the actual competitiveness of US education, the underlying theme is clear. While US kids are playing video games and out having fun, Chinese kids have private tutors and Sunday classes. While the US is cutting education budgets all over the country, China is increasing its own. No debate will change the fact that Chinese Confucian culture puts greater emphasis on education. Below is a great clip of Nicholas Kristof discussing this issue.

Thomas Friedman actually first started the Sputnik discussion in an op-ed in late 2009 addressing China's huge investment in green energy with governmental support.
without declaring it, China is embarking on a new, parallel path of clean power deployment and innovation. It is the Sputnik of our day. We ignore it at our peril.
This sentiment has prodded both the Secretary of Energy and Commerce to refer to the Sputnik challenge in renewable energy, investment in infrastructure and high tech computing in recent speeches. 

While the US is bogged down with its fake repeal of "Obamacare", partisan bickering, tax cuts for the rich and bureaucratic hoops, China is strongly supporting the future renewable energy sector. Hopefully Obama can utilize the unifying sentiments from the Tuscon shooting and focuses it on the country's future. Who knows if the Republicans will listen. 

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