Column: Doesn’t take a genius to see that China’s catching up

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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SHANGHAI – Bill Gates has a question he likes to ask when he talks about globalization:

Twenty years ago, would you rather have been a B student in Poughkeepsie or a genius in Shanghai? And how about today?

(Texans can substitute Mesquite or Waco for Poughkeepsie, if it makes you feel more geographically comfortable.)

Twenty years ago, the B student in Poughkeepsie would have had little problem finding a good job, probably in middle management somewhere. He would have led a productive, happy existence, living in what 90 percent of the world’s population would consider luxury.

And the Shanghai genius would have been stuck in one of the poorest countries in the world, burdened by an autocratic state still recovering from Mao’s bizarre economic policies. It’s a no-brainer: The kid in Poughkeepsie would have led a better life.

But today? I just returned from 10 days in China, and I can tell you that the geniuses of Shanghai today are starting businesses, building skyscrapers and making more money than they can count.

The B students in Poughkeepsie – or, for that matter, Dallas – should be worried.

Since the early 1980s, when the “A Nation at Risk” report was released, Americans have worried about how their students compare with competitors overseas. (Of course, the concern goes back even further; witness the Sputnik-inspired emphasis on science education in the 1950s.)

As everyone knows by now, our test scores are nothing special when compared with the rest of the world. For a long time, though, that didn’t matter much; America’s other economic advantages – a free market, access to capital and relatively low levels of corruption – were big enough to keep our edge.

But the rest of the world is catching up. China’s development areas – like Shanghai’s Pudong area, and the Shenzhen area around Hong Kong – are swarming with money. New skyscrapers seem to go up every night.

(As a fellow journalist muttered when we drove into downtown Shanghai from the airport: “This place makes Manhattan look like Tulsa.” There are 2,800 buildings at least 14 stories tall in Shanghai, with plans for an additional 2,000.)

America has gotten into a lather in the last few years about offshoring – about all the good jobs we were losing to Mexico or China or India. The sunny-side-up interpretation was always that these were mostly low-skill jobs we were losing – the simpler end of manufacturing and such things as call centers.

The really good jobs, economists argued – the ones that take a college degree – were here to stay.

I’m not so sure. Want to hear some scary statistics?

In 2002, China graduated 460,000 new engineers. America graduated 73,000 – and 25,000 of those were foreign-born students attracted to the quality of American universities.

(In years past, those foreign students would have overwhelmingly stayed in the U.S. after graduation and added to the economy. But nowadays, many head back to the new opportunities available in China, India or wherever they came from.)

In 2000, only 17 percent of American college degrees were in engineering or the sciences; 52 percent of Chinese degrees were.

Which is why many American and Japanese companies are starting to open up research and development operations in China. It’s not just factories anymore: It’s the good jobs that are heading elsewhere.

I visited several university campuses during my trip, and I always asked students the same questions: How anxious are you for China to have democracy? Doesn’t it bother you that the government owns all the newspapers?

After all, college students are the traditional rabble-rousers in any country. And Tiananmen Square was only 16 years ago.

The responses were uniform: The government is doing a good job. Things are better now than they’ve ever been. Now’s not the time to rock the boat.

“I think there are plenty of opportunities here for young people who are dedicated and want to do great things,” said one of the students I spoke with at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, a young woman named Lenny Chen.

Lenny is ready to launch her career, graduate degree in hand. She’s obviously extremely bright and extroverted; it wasn’t a surprise to learn she was her school’s class president. Her English is probably better than mine. Some day soon she wants to start her own business that can compete with the big boys of the West.

Is she the sort of Shanghai genius Bill Gates was talking about?

I don’t know. But the B students of Poughkeepsie shouldn’t be surprised if they’re working for her in a few years.

Students: Dress not offensive; Some say high school’s theme days crossed racial line

By Joshua Benton, Scott Farwell, and Kristen Holland
Staff Writers

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Students at Highland Park High School dressed as gang members, rap stars, maids and yard workers this month during homecoming week – a tradition one Dallas civil-rights leader says is racially insensitive.

On senior Thug Day, students wore Afro wigs, fake gold teeth and baggy jeans. On Fiesta Day, which was to honor Hispanic heritage, one student brought a leaf blower to school.

“The scary part of something like this is you have to wonder how long these kids will continue to think this way,” said Bob Lydia, president of the Dallas chapter of the NAACP. “These kids will be leaders of this country one day.”

No students were punished, according to Highland Park High principal Patrick Cates. Fewer than a dozen students were asked to remove some of the clothing – bandanas and gold necklaces. The student with the leaf blower was asked to put the tool in his car.

Mr. Cates said the school’s leaders will monitor the student council’s selection of homecoming theme days in the future. Thug Day was not sanctioned by the school, but several students said seniors have dressed in gang-style and hip-hop attire for at least three years.

“The bottom line is that we need to maintain a healthy learning environment with no disruptions,” Mr. Cates said. “When a few students take the opportunity to dress up and use it to make an inappropriate statement, we have a problem, and we will address that problem.”

Helen Williams, the district’s communications director, said 18 students were sent to the office on Thug Day for inappropriate attire.

No students were pulled out on Fiesta Day.

Students interviewed outside the school Thursday generally thought the reaction to the theme days Oct. 3 to 7 was overblown and that the activities were not offensive to minorities.

“Thug Day’s been around as long as I can remember,” said senior Ben Paschal. “This is the first time people have gotten upset about it.”

Senior Katie Braden, who said she wore a LeBron James jersey that day, said she had heard that other high schools have a “Highland Park Day,” when students dress up to make fun of Highland Park students. She considers it all in good fun. “It’s not like we called it ‘South Dallas Day’ or anything,” she said.

Lauren Perella said she wore a “wife-beater” tanktop and tennis shoes with only one sock. “We’re just having fun,” she said.

Katie said the theme days had been a subject of conversation among students recently, and that she’d heard that some teachers were offended. She said the student who showed up with a leaf blower crossed a line.

“I thought it was funny, but that’s probably offensive,” she said.

Elizabeth Carlock, the senior class president, said there’s nothing racist about Thug Day.

“We had a ‘Country Club Day’ last year, and I don’t see any difference between dressing up in country-club style and dressing up thug,” she said. “We weren’t being racist. It’s Highland Park tradition.”

Elizabeth said she wore baggy shorts and a Portland Trailblazers jersey on Thug Day. She said a teacher demanded that she sign a form acknowledging that she was not following the expected clothing theme of the day, Western-wear. She refused and was sent to the principal’s office. “I wasn’t breaking dress code,” she said.

Some researchers say insensitivity is a direct result of the sort of racial isolation that exists in places like Highland Park.

“The reality is that they’re ignorant of the lives of nonwhites – it’s like a parallel universe,” said Charles Gallagher, a sociology professor at Georgia State University who studies white perceptions of race. He has tracked the recent rise of racially themed events, such as so-called “ghetto parties,” on university campuses.

“You have a community of adolescents who live in a complete white bubble,” Dr. Gallagher said. Many Park Cities residents refer to their community as “The Bubble.”

“If they have interactions with blacks or Hispanics, it’s typically someone serving them a soft drink or the Mexican who cuts their lawn.”Highland Park High’s student body is about 94 percent white. The school has six black, 65 Hispanic and 32 Asian students.

Dr. Gallagher said the increasing frequency of ghetto parties is linked to the emotional distance young people feel from the civil-rights movement.

“They think America is colorblind and that racism has disappeared,” he said. “Color becomes a style – if a white kid wants to put on a FUBU shirt, he can do it. They can have something like this and say, ‘I wasn’t being racist – I was just playing with these symbols.'”

Elizabeth said both controversial theme days should continue, but that administrators should be more vigilant about sending home students who dress inappropriately.

“I apologize for the few students who were dressed inappropriately,” she said. “But we were not being racist.”