Out of China comes news of a profound change that is a signal of a new order. Students are to be admited to universities and technical schools on the basis of scholastic attainment and intellectual ability rather than for reasons of socialist origins and zeal.
The political as against the intellectual standard brought higher education in China virtually to a standstill over the past 10 years. The cultural revolution fomented by Mao Tse-tung plunged the universities into chaos. The brightest students were often sent to the rice paddies rather than to the institutions of higher learning.
This was part of the leveling process tended by Chiang Ching, Mao's wife, ensure against establishment of a class with superior intellectual attainments in government positions. She was arrested not long after Mao's death. Chiang and three of her followers have been denounced throughout China as the Gang of Four responsible for the lost years when education, particularly science and technology, faltered and deteriorated.
By a singular irony of history, signs of the West point toward a similar political-social rather than an intellectual criterion in higher education. An interesting example is the University of Uppsala, in Sweden, one of the most illustrious independent universities in the world. Uppsala has just observed its 500the anniversary. Government-decreed reforms would add nonscholars to the ruling bodies of Uppsala and Sweden's four other independent universities.
The reforms would also require the admission of a certain number of older students who have job experience but would not meet academic standards. This last is a close parallel with the non-academic rule prevailing through higher education in China during what are now called the 10-lost years.
One of the sharpest critics of the government decrees is Torgny Segerstedt, rector of Uppsala, who fears that the quality of education will be diluted. This was the feeling, too, of some of the 100 scholars and savants from around the world who received honorary degrees on the school's 500the anniversary.
Clark Kerr, chairman of the Carnegie Council on Higher Education and formerly president of the University of California, one of the recipients, talked about the California plan for higher education, which he helped to formulate. Community colleges were a first line of defense of the university. He was quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education as saying:
"Otherwise the university was going to be overwhelming with large numbers of students with lower academic attainment or attacked as trying to hold onto a monopoly over entry into higher status."
In New York, three high schools that have maintained exceptional standards with stiff entrance exams for highly qualified students are faced with an investigation by the Federal Office of Civil Rights. The inquiry, according to a notice to the schools, is to determine why girls, blacks, Hispanic and other minorities are under-represented.
The possibility of an adverse ruling has aroused a passionate protest from alumni, teachers, students and parents, according to an account in The New York Times. They are fearful not only that the standards of the three schools will be seriously impaired by the enforcement of quotas for admission but also that this will in turn accelerate the flight of middle-class families, both black and white, to the suburbs.
The Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech have graduated many leaders in science, including Harold Brown, currently Secretary of Defense and one of the two or three most noted authorities on arms control, and Joshua Lederberg, a Nobel prize winner in medicine. The schools have also produced civil-rights activists, one being Stokely Carmichael, who undertood to lead a black revolt in Maryland.
A catch in all this is the word "elite". An elitist has come to be damaging designation for an individual who presumes to put himself above others. In my opinion, that is nonsense. A dictionary definition of "elite" is :
"The choice or best of anything considered collectively, especially of a group or class of persons."
Take Harold Brown as an example. By any measure he qould be a member of the elite. If not a genius in physics and related fields of sceince, he is close to it. A leveling process that would have snt him to the rice paddles and deprived him of the development of his inherent abilities would have been a loss to the nation.
This is a discovery that the Chinese, under the prodding of the tough and practical Teng Hsiao-ping, are now making. They have a great deal of lost ground to recover.