Palace of Ashes: China and the Decline of American Higher Education

By Fifolt, Matthew | College and University, Spring 2017 | Go to article overview

Palace of Ashes: China and the Decline of American Higher Education


Fifolt, Matthew, College and University


Palace of Ashes: China and the Decline of American Higher Education FERRARA, M. S. 2015. BALTIMORE, MD: JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY PRESS. 206 PP.

Reviewed by Matthew Fifolt

In Palace of Ashes, Ferrara presents a comparative analysis of the development of the modern university in the United States and China. He suggests that higher education in the United States is losing its competitive advantage because of globalization and that these forces "are helping rapidly developing Asian nations... to transform their major universities into serious contenders for the world's students, faculty, and resources within just a few generations" (1). This observation is consistent with the findings of Bok (2013), who notes that "it is likely that our [the United States] impressive standing in the world owes less to the success of our own system than it does to the weakness of foreign universities, which were long overregulated, underfunded, and neglected by their own governments" (3).

To compete for scarce resources (e.g., human resources and intellectual capital), the Chinese government has recently invested billions of dollars to build a world-class education system. Further, China is abandoning the ineffective education models of rote learning and vocational training in favor of broad-based, interdisciplinary learning models. In other words, China is adopting teaching modalities that have long characterized effective and innovative strategies in the United States at the same time that U.s. higher education is moving in the opposite direction-toward increased specialization. The author suggests that U.s. higher education has effectively jettisoned the values and norms that historically have represented its core strengths.

Ferrara enumerates many of the challenges that U.s. higher education institutions now face (e.g., administrative bloat, unsustainable tuition increases, student loan debt). However, the greatest obstacle seems to be a fundamental shift in how Americans view and operate higher education. Specifically, the author identifies the two most detrimental trends in the United States as the forfeiture of higher education as a public good and the corporatization of higher education.

According to Ferrara, higher education in the United States is now seen as a commodity "bought by an individual consumer to provide upward mobility via professional training, rather than a civic good funded by public coffers" (4). At the same time, colleges and universities have courted corporate ties and private donations in order "to offset declines in state and federal funding for higher education" (12). This is consistent with the observations of scholars who have noted that corporatization tends to focus on short-term financial targets in reaction to increasing economic pressures (Bok 2013, Parker 2011, Samuels 2013).

Historical Context

To examine the implications of global convergence (globalization) in the modern era, the author first traces the development of the earliest education models in China and the United States. Ferrara states, "The ancient Chinese and Greco-Roman traditions of higher learning developed independently from one another, and therefore their pedagogies, educational philosophies, and courses of study reveal...important cultural presuppositions and innovations passed down to later generations" (18). While a full assessment of historical events in China and the United States is beyond the scope of this review, Ferrara provides a rich narrative including key occurrences that reinforce his observations regarding differences between the two countries' higher education systems.

China

According to Ferrara, the civil service exam (originally influenced by Confucian principles of virtue and the cultivation of self through lifelong learning) was distorted over time by multiple dynasties and came to represent privilege (self-interest) over service (public good). Beginning during the Ming dynasty (13681644), the civil service examination became increasingly formalized and complex, which led to "incredible feats of memorization"-a legacy that the author suggests endures in China to this day. …

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