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  Keynote Speech
Chinese Community Center Dinner
November 10, 2005
David W. Leebron

The work of the Chinese Community Center (CCC) spans an amazing breadth, from the education of the very young to the care of senior citizens, from health care to Chinese instruction. It enriches the cultural fabric of our great and diverse city, and for this work, we all, both Chinese and non-Chinese, owe our deepest gratitude.

The work of the CCC reflects its theme for this evening: Education for All. What an important and appropriate theme! Education is the great engine of opportunity in our society. It also is, as Nelson Mandela said, "the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world." I don't know the origin of the choice of this evening's theme, or what its precise intended meaning was. Several possibilities struck me.

Education for All and Confucius

First, it is an especially appropriate theme for the Chinese Community Center gala dinner, because in many ways the idea of universal education, or at least universal educational opportunity, can be traced back to Confucius. In fact, Confucius is the very first entry in a book published three years ago, F ifty Major Thinkers on Education . As he put it, "in education, there is no class distinction." I wish I could say today that we have achieved in this country the goal Confucius set.

However, we all know that, especially in education, class distinction remains, both in racial and economic terms. The opportunities for education and schooling simply are not the same for the rich and the poor, and they are not equally available to people of all ethnic and racial groups. Indeed, at the elite Ivy League universities, the proportion of students who come from the wealthiest families has increased rather than decreased over the past decades. We can pass many laws with aspirational names, but the facts are clear: We are leaving many children behind, and we ought to be especially concerned about that here in Texas.

Confucius also saw the importance of education in building better culture and character and in contributing to the improvement of our world. Most importantly, he saw that education was connected to research and the pursuit of knowledge and not achieved by a mere cramming down of substantive learning. He put part of this thinking in the following eloquent form:

When things are investigated, knowledge is extended.
When knowledge is extended, the will becomes sincere.
When the will is sincere, the heart is set right.
When the heart is right, the personal life is cultivated.
When personal lives are cultivated, families become harmonious.
When families are harmonious, government becomes orderly.
And when government is orderly, there will be peace in the world.

And he had good advice even for today's students: "Studying without thinking," he said, "leads to confusion; thinking without studying leads to laziness."

Education for All and Higher Education

It seems that the phrase "education for all" traces its more recent origin to the 1990 World Declaration on Education for All. This declaration, building upon the "right to education" recognized in the postwar Universal Declaration of Human Rights and enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, sought to improve on a global scale access to basic education, not only for children, but also for adults. Although the goals of the declaration were lofty, it cannot be said that much progress has been made in the ensuing 15 years. Roughly a billion people remain illiterate, and two-thirds of those are women. Our commitment to education for all, while most pronounced here at home in our own city, must also extend around the globe. An uneducated world is not a productive world, and an unproductive world is increasingly a dangerous world.

In higher education, it may seem we are a bit removed from these problems, and that may appear especially so in an elite and highly selective school like Rice. In fact, we at Rice are making, and committed to continue making, great contributions toward assuring we achieve the goal of education for all in Houston. Most importantly, the education of our children begins with the education of their teachers, and Rice has extraordinary programs, especially in science and technology, for the training of teachers. We provide opportunities on campus for K-12 students, especially students from underrepresented groups. And Rice students engage in the tutoring of students. We seek through these efforts not merely to provide basic education, but also to truly raise the level of aspiration and achievement. And of course, we seek a diverse student body, opening extraordinary opportunity to young women and men from all segments of society.

Education for All and Global Education

But let me turn to another possible reading of the theme education for all, and that is the most encompassing sense-geographically speaking-of what the word "all" means: the global aspect of education. There indeed is a world market in education emerging, and it is global on both the demand and supply side. Our students expect an international dimension to their education. That is accomplished both through the internationalization of our student bodies here in the United States and the opportunities we offer for study or other experience abroad. At Rice, for example, already more than 40 percent of our students have some international component to their education, and we expect that number to grow in the coming years.

But education also is internationalizing from the supply side, in that universities are competing more than ever across continents both for faculty and students. The United States traditionally has been the overwhelmingly dominant player in this regard. By that I mean that foreign students typically desire to come to the United States for their education. But this reality is changing rapidly as a result of several factors.

First, and perhaps most important, are the barriers we place in front of foreign students and scholars and the general message of arrogance and isolation being broadly communicated about the United States today. United States consular officials across the globe are eyeing potential foreign students with suspicion, making it a risky proposition whether or not a student will obtain a visa. Arbitrary treatment upon coming to the United States often can follow even once a visa is obtained. And the difficulty of traveling back and forth once people are in the country is another daunting barrier.

As a result, applications from foreign students to American universities have declined precipitously over the last four years. Those students now are seeking other places to gain their education. For the most part, though not exclusively, such students choose other English speaking countries. Great Britain, Canada, Ireland, and Australia are among the great beneficiaries of our discouraging policies. The most dramatic drops are seen in students from Asia, who still account for more than one-half of the foreign students in the United States.

In the meantime, other nations are gearing up their education to compete with ours, most notably India and China, the two largest sources of our foreign students. In science and engineering, the threat to United States pre-eminence is particularly pronounced in light of the declining number of Americans choosing those areas for graduate study. In the last 30 years, the share of university students in the world enrolled in the United States has dropped by more than one-half. By contrast, 30 years ago, China had almost no science and engineering doctoral students. In 2003, it graduated 13,000 PhDs, 70 percent of which were in science and engineering. And from 1995 to 2003, the number of students entering PhD programs in China increased from about 8,000 to nearly 50,000. Students in the United States are making different choices than the rest of the world. In the United States, only 17 percent of undergraduate degrees are in science and engineering. The world average is 27 percent, and in China it is a whopping 52 percent.

Even within the United States, foreign students now make up nearly 60 percent of doctoral recipients in engineering, and more than one-third of such students are studying in the physical sciences. At the undergraduate level, on a global scale, the United States' share of engineering students dropped by half, from 12 percent to 6 percent.

In many ways, we ought to rejoice at such news, for it represents a measure of success at the global level of education for all-not merely the goal of basic education for all children, but also the goal of advanced education for all countries. The role of the United States in providing global educational services is important to the aspiration of both our own country and countries around the world.

We at Rice University are very happy to participate in that endeavor. With our international role, we win three times: we benefit from having outstanding students and researchers on our campus, who contribute to our research mission while they are here. We benefit from the students who graduate and stay in our country, for they contribute immensely to the vitality of our knowledge-based industries. And we benefit when they return to their countries of origin, for the vast majority take with them an appreciation of the American way of life and American values such as freedom.

We live in a shrinking world in which our natural resources are decreasing at the same time as our global interactions are increasing. From oil to arable land, it looks like we are facing great challenges in meeting our future needs. The only resource that is not shrinking is the human population, and its capacity for learning and ingenuity. If we, along with other countries around the world, commit ourselves to education for all, to making possible the full potential of every human being, then-but only then-can we go forward with the optimism that our shrinking planet will be an ever increasing source of opportunity and satisfaction for its inhabitants.