America is the most awesome country on Earth. The more I see of the rest of the world, the more convinced I am of this. By almost any measure, the United States is far ahead of any competitor. And a key reason America is an incomparable world-beater is its unparalleled system of higher education.
My own post-secondary education began at P.D. Camp Community College and ended at Dartmouth. And more recently I have taught at several major universities in Russia. And I can tell you, the most modest community college in America is, by and large, better than the single most prestigious school in Russia.
In the London Times’ annual global ranking of universities, 14 of the top 20 are in the U.S., as are 39 of the top 100 (only the U.K comes even close, with 4 in the top 20). Not surprisingly, world-class schools like Cal Tech, Harvard and Stanford dominate the list. The faculty at these elite universities are often the leading scholars in their fields, and not infrequently Nobel Prize winners. And students around the world compete fiercely for admission to these renowned institutions.
But not far behind in international rankings are lesser known research universities such as Georgia Tech and Penn State. They may lack the panache of the Ivy League, but they are still very significant centers of academic research, as well as for teaching tens of thousands of undergraduate and graduate students.
Not showing up in the international rankings are the more than two thousand smaller liberal arts colleges in America. These schools focus their resources on undergraduate teaching rather than the pure research which is the prime determinant of the Times’ list.
And then there are the more than a thousand more junior and community colleges, which offer both a starting point for either moving on to a 4 year baccalaureate program or receiving a 2 year associates degree in a technical or vocational subject.
The basic research conducted at the leading research universities is a prime motor for American scientific and technological innovation. It is no accident that Silicon Valley is in America. And that translates into a powerful long-term economic (and military) edge for the United States.
And thanks to all of America’s institutions, from the most humble to the most acclaimed, Americans are both better educated and more productive. Skilled workers are important for the American economy, and an informed populace is even more important for American democracy.
Russia is a good example of just why American education is so overwhelmingly superior. Like many other countries, in Russia most universities are under the direct control of the federal government. They are not only subject to direct political influence, they function as a feeding trough for government bureaucrats. In America, even state universities are by and large autonomous from government control.
But culture also matters immensely. In America education is considered a noble undertaking. In Russia it has a reputation as a “dirty business.” Corruption is rampant. Students pay off professors for good grades, and professors pay off deans to keep their jobs, and deans pay off government officials.
Adding to the corrosive atmosphere is the shocking dishonesty and laziness of everyone in the system. When I was at Dartmouth, it was taken as a given that every student attended every class unless they were sick, and that they had done all assigned reading and homework. And cheating on exams was something practically unthinkable. And students had respect for their professors and for each other.
At my two universities in Moscow, there was a rule that students had to attend only half of classes. So the first five minutes of every class was taken up with taking attendance (and keeping track of who was falling below the threshold).
They both had an unspoken rule that all students would get a passing grade. Reading assignments were openly scorned by students. Maybe one in ten students actually read what was assigned, while the rest considered it beneath them to actually do any homework.
Cheating on exams was almost universal. For example, on an exam question asking for a definition of “corporate governance,’ most answers were word-for-word copied from the Wikipedia entry on the subject. One remedy would have been to take students’ cell phones during the exam, but the administration considered that “offensive” to students’ sense of dignity.
Cheating was not limited to just students. A friend of mine was the top student in her law program. In her last semester she was told by the dean that if she wanted to graduate, she would have to take an English language certification exam posing as the assistant dean (who happened to be the dean’s mistress).
Plagiarism is also universally widespread. For example, many politicians and high level bureaucrats have advanced degrees, particularly in law or economics. And a large number of their dissertations have been proven to be outright copied from another source. (In Russia, this is considered merely clever, and not improper dishonesty).
The end results are predictable. Students fail to learn much of anything. Russian workers are far less skilled and productive than in America. And the Russian populace is easily controlled by government propaganda and outright falsehoods.
Americans should be grateful to have such an excellent system of higher education. It is truly the envy of the world. It is a source of superior economic competitiveness as well as a crucial element for the robustness of American democracy. And it is one more reason I am proud to be American, and believe America really is the most awesome country ever.