|By Daniel Mark Fogel
Chinese universities offer a wakeup call to America.
On an October day nearly a half-century
ago, Sputnik burst upon the world.
To the American people, the shock
of seeing the Soviets seize the
high ground of space was galvanizing.
The Kremlin announced the launch
on Friday, Oct. 4, 1957, as a triumph
“of the new socialist society.”
All that weekend we absorbed a strange
new vocabulary of “escape
systems” and “Earth
orbits.” That the Russians
might beat us to the deployment
of effective, nuclear-armed intercontinental
ballistic missiles was the subtext
of our terror.
I was just 9, but that time still
comes back to me with great force.
Monday morning, Oct. 7. Mrs. Davenport,
my fourth-grade teacher at Fall
Creek School in Ithaca, N.Y., planted
her straight-backed chair in front
of her desk and proceeded to lead
a serious discussion, starting with
a review of the news and the physics
of rockets and satellites.
Then she delivered an urgent message.
Our lives had changed overnight,
she said. Sputnik meant that we
would all have to buckle down, focus
and apply ourselves assiduously
to the study of math and science.
Mrs. Davenport reached that conclusion
nearly a week ahead of the nation’s
leaders of higher education, who
soon called for a response that
featured massively stepped-up efforts
in education and research.
The classroom I sat in that day
had five rows of wooden desks, six
desks in each row. That geometry—and
its accompanying lesson—came
back to me last month as I surveyed
a much larger cadre of seated students
in Beijing. I was there to explore
partnerships in environmental education
and research between Tsinghua University
and the University of Vermont.
If China is to meet the environmental
challenges of its rapid economic
expansion, Tsinghua will play a
key role as the nation’s leading
technological university. Already,
Tsinghua has two-thirds of the annual
patent activity of the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, on a campus
as impressive in its libraries,
classrooms and laboratories as the
great research universities of the
United States. And China is building
100 more institutions to the same
On a tour of Tsinghua’s main
library, I came upon one of many
crowded reading rooms, this one
so long that the side walls seemed
to converge in the distance, as
in an art school exercise in perspective.
A center aisle divided two ranks
of library tables receding down
the long vista, eight seats at each
table, almost every seat occupied
by a student deep in study, at least
400 students silently absorbed in
books, writing in notebooks.
There lay the future: focused,
determined, intense, inevitable.
Many informed observers know what
that image of the Tsinghua reading
room portends. But do the American
people? From Fall Creek School to
MIT, do our students understand
that they must work at least as
long, as hard and as smart as their
Chinese peers if we are to maintain
a viable place in the economy of
a Chinese century? Can they? Will
If only the image of that Tsinghua
reading room could be our Sputnik.
Can we respond as rapidly and as
well as we did to that earlier challenge?
How comforting it would be to know
that we can. But unease and urgency,
not comfort, are what we need most
The writer is president of
the University of Vermont. This
piece originally appeared in The