Curiosity made us great, but it's waning in the West

August 8, 2003

The decline of intellectual quests and the rise of dumbing down in western universities will make the next century an eastern one, argues Charles Pasternak

By the end of this century, North America and Europe are likely to have lost their global dominance. After 500 years of western supremacy, emphasis will gradually shift back to the East: to India and China, to Southeast Asia and Japan.

My reasons for this assertion are partly economic. The European Union is stifled by bureaucracy and restrictive labour laws that make it uncompetitive even with respect to the US, which itself will not be able to vie with the burgeoning markets of Asian countries for much longer. But a major reason is educational dumbing down.

Dumbing down is as integral to human nature as smartening up. If we take a group of a thousand people, we will find some who are intellectually more curious and others who are rather indifferent to the world around them. A society that is dominated by seekers flourishes; one in which apathy rules, declines. The very essence of humanity, the key feature that distinguishes man from ape, is man's greater propensity for quest.

Of course, all animals seek food and water, shelter and a mate, and plants and microbes search for light and nutrients. Quest is as characteristic a quality of living organisms as growth and division. Where a human being differs from a chimpanzee is that the former often searches out of mere inquisitiveness as well as want. There is no need to find the source of the Nile or to explore the surface of the moon; working out why planets orbit the sun, or elucidating the structure of DNA, benefits no one (at least initially). It is curiosity that took our hominid ancestors out of Africa and into Asia and Europe a million years ago, and it is exploration of the possible that now drives scientists to tinker with the genes of plants and microbes, animals and humans.

The evidence that dumbing down in the West exceeds that in the East is stark. A few years ago, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement studied 14-year-olds in 38 countries. In science, England was ranked 9th, behind Taiwan, Singapore, Japan and (South) Korea.

The US languished in 16th place. In mathematics, England was 20th and the US 19th. Singapore, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan made up the top five.

Among European countries, those of the former Eastern Bloc and Russia itself on average outperformed western democracies: their more didactic approach to teaching produces better results. It is true that the differences in achievement were not large, but the trend is clear: the work ethic of the East is producing better educated children than the more lackadaisical approach of the West. Since the performance of today's youngsters is an indicator of their country's achievement tomorrow, the warning signs are clear.

When the thirst for knowledge declines, competitiveness soon wanes. An overall lowering of standards, coupled with an adherence to political correctness that is actually incorrectness, ensues. No one nowadays is allowed to fail an examination (it is discriminatory). University graduates are barely able to write a coherent essay. In the UK a few years ago, the number of universities was doubled overnight: had the number of qualified students and teachers competent to instruct them really suddenly soared? The politicians and bureaucrats maintained that this was so, and that a large pool of able 18-year-olds and clever lecturers had long been waiting in the wings for the opportunity to engage in academic pursuits.

When I was teaching at Oxford University 30 years ago, a group of us young "dons" was sent across Britain to search for these unfulfilled scholars who were failing to gain entry to a university. We did not find them.

Subsequently, I located them: they were not in Manchester or Hull - they were in Calcutta and Bangkok, in Accra and Baghdad, in Caracas and Mexico City. It was to enable some of them to realise their potential in the biomedical sciences that I founded the Oxford International Biomedical Centre: a charity aimed at giving scientists and doctors a leg up at the table of western knowledge.

How did the new universities of Britain fare? They flourished. The students, however, are taking courses not in philosophy or physics, but in packaging, pig enterprise management and popular music studies; their teachers hold professorships not in linguistics or law, but in leather technology and leisure management. We should not be surprised by this trend. The new universities were created largely out of existing polytechnics and technical colleges, and have merely remained true to their original calling: their leap in status was unaccompanied by one in intellectual curiosity.

This lowering of standards is not confined to the UK. It is happening in the US and in other European countries as well. To be fair, over the past hundred years, the number of young people receiving an education in the West has risen enormously. But growth is being achieved at the expense of quality. So far, dumbing down has not infiltrated pockets of genuine learning such as Harvard, Heidelberg and Oxford. Whether these will be able to resist the pressures of an intellectually declining society, I would not like to predict.

Our own government is making matters worse by creating yet more universities. The result is that resources will be spread even more thinly.

Research is already suffering, and the area that potentially brings the greatest rewards to the nation - biomedical research - is one of the hardest hit because it is one of the most expensive to maintain. The situation is exacerbated by the biasing of support towards universities that take less-qualified students on their courses.

In fairness, we should not chastise this particular government. It was John Major who turned so many polytechnics into universities in 1992, a process begun a couple of decades earlier by Harold Wilson. Successive secretaries of state for education have made matters worse by tinkering with the educational system within months of their appointment.

Of course you cannot change human nature. For every genius in our midst, there also lurks a dullard. We do not pretend that all children are equally gifted in football, tennis or swimming. Why not accept that all 18-year-olds are not equally worthy of a single type of tertiary education? We should in this instance follow our US cousins. Their system of higher education is more realistic than ours. California, for example, runs two university systems side by side. On the one hand, there are eight University of California institutions, such as Berkeley, that operate extensive PhD programmes and sustain an impressive research output. On the other hand, there are 23 California State University institutions that award no PhDs but maintain a good record of achievement as teaching establishments. Bright graduates from a CSU campus often go on to do graduate work at a UC one.

No one pretends that the two types of organisation have equivalent prestige, and everyone accepts that UC institutions receive more funds than CSU ones. Interestingly, the division between the two systems - roughly 25 per cent UC and 75 per cent CSU - is not so far off that between the UK's universities and technical institutions several decades ago. We should have left well alone. It is folly to imagine that a professor at Bristol or Cambridge has no more intellectual clout than one at Bournemouth or Coventry.

So let us stop deluding ourselves that the questing nature of man is present in all to the same degree. We should shift the attitude of those responsible for dumbing down to one of smartening up. Let us enthuse all our young with a search for knowledge. But let us also ensure that those most suited to the rigours of a university education - instruction in how to think logically, whether in regard to astrophysics or archaeology - receive it, while others learn to hone their skills in the more immediately practical subjects more suited to a polytechnic.

It is a measure of how far we have sunk that many are surprised at the way children are flocking to buy the latest Harry Potter book. Amazement not that youngsters are learning Chinese, excelling at chess or performing the works of Chopin, but that they are reading a book. And you wonder why I think that the West will be playing second fiddle to the East within a few generations?

Charles Pasternak is a biochemist and founding director of Oxford International Biomedical Centre. His book, Quest: The Essence of Humanity, was published by Wiley last month (£16.99).

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