From China to Harvard

Global competition is not just for the workplace any more. It's coming home to America's premier colleges.

So says Boston Globe reporter Tracy Jan, who wrote this weekend about a math contest in Beijing that attracted recruiters from Harvard, Stanford, and Brown.

According to the story, there are only a few dozen Chinese students in Harvard's undergraduate programs now, but the number of applicants has grown from 10 two decades ago, to nearly 500 last year.

William Fitzsimmons, Harvard's admissions dean, made clear that the university wants a world-class math program and intends to recruit the best talent in the world. That's going to put some extra pressure on young, aspiring Americans.

From the story:

Even fifth-graders in Wellesley, Newton and Brookline, who as adults will face international competition for jobs, should begin beefing up their academic résumés if they want a shot at an Ivy League education, Fitzsimmons said.

"We're trying to send a message to young people, as young as primary school, to make the most of their studies," he said, "because they'll be competing with students around the world later on."

By Michael Alison Chandler  |  November 10, 2008; 9:00 AM ET  | Category:  Math Around the World
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If I understand correctly, the Chinese system focuses a lot on the sort of drilling and memorization that I have been promoting. One of the Chinese students says of the differences:

"I want to go because it is said that schools in the United States inspire you to think, instead of just teaching you what to do."

However, if the article is to be believed, it is the young Chinese students that seem very strong in mathematics. I feel this is probably the way to go. Drill the students for the the first decade or so then teach them how to think about the mathematics after they have a strong background.

Posted by: mathlete | November 10, 2008 10:00 AM | Report abuse

It seems to me that, a country with a billion plus people is going to produce a large number of kids who are really good at math, regardless of the instruction technique. Combine that with the discipline that is instilled culturally, and the discipline that is instilled by the knowledge that technical fields are one of a limited number of ways to make a better life for yourself and your family, and I think that the comparison of Chinese vs American teaching styles is not necessarily a fair one.

Not that American math teaching methods always match up with the alternative of developing understanding, mind you.

Posted by: tomsing | November 10, 2008 1:46 PM | Report abuse


"It seems to me that, a country with a billion plus people is going to produce a large number of kids who are really good at math, regardless of the instruction technique."

You are of course completely correct.

Posted by: mathlete | November 10, 2008 11:19 PM | Report abuse

How does adding a bunch of undergraduates strong in math improve a college's math department? I would think a department's strength is based on its professors, postdocs, and grad students - the latter two already being heavily populated by Chinese students in math and physics.

Posted by: UberJason | November 10, 2008 11:48 PM | Report abuse

Sure, China is a big country and so more likely to produce a decent-size batch of mathematically talented kids. However, I wouldn't be surprised if Harvard didn't make a similar jaunt to Japan. Where they also emphasize drilling and practice. And I'm sure the Soviet Union would yield good results from such a trip. They also emphasize drilling and practice.
I think the idea is to bring these kids to Harvard and give them educations all the way up through graduate school. Have them doing research. At least some will choose to stay in the U.S. and teach or work. And they will pass on their appreciation of just those learning skills that the American students have forgotten. Let's hope.

Posted by: KathyWi | November 11, 2008 8:07 AM | Report abuse

I wish there was more communication between the different levels of education in the US. As far as I know, there is an overabundance of people with degrees in the sciences/mathematics relative to the available jobs. I don't think this is widely known.

This article, "Don't become a scientist" is a bit old and a bit over the top but sums up the nature of the disconnect.

Posted by: mathlete | November 11, 2008 1:19 PM | Report abuse

I have heard about this disconnect before. I will take a look at the article. thanks for sending, mathlete!

Posted by: Michael Alison Chandler | November 11, 2008 3:19 PM | Report abuse

No problem, Michael. I know of other articles on this so if you want more let me know. Great blog. Keep up the good work!

Posted by: mathlete | November 12, 2008 10:31 AM | Report abuse

Lovely. As if there aren't enough hardworking American kids competing for those slots without Harvard filling them with foreign nationals.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | November 12, 2008 10:19 PM | Report abuse

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