Tag Archives: Education

Parliamentary-style debates take off in China — even if some topics are off limits

A participant in the inaugural Shanghai International Debate Open 2014. Motions ranged from whether police should bear arms to whether ransoms should be paid to terrorists for the release of hostages. (Photo: Ruth Morris)

A participant in the inaugural Shanghai International Debate Open 2014. Motions ranged from whether police should bear arms to whether ransoms should be paid to terrorists for the release of hostages. (Photo: Ruth Morris)


Here’s a guest post from Ruth Morris in Shanghai.

The inaugural Shanghai International Debate Open kicks off with 100 fidgety students in a small auditorium. Volunteers wear black t-shirts with English lettering that say: “Go back and read more.”

Then the first topic — or motion — appears on a screen. It reads: “This house regrets the ‘celebritization’ of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.”

As soon as they find out what they’re debating, a couple of the students scramble to figure out what exactly the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is. It was popularized on Facebook, which is blocked in China, although it did spread to Chinese social media. The students rush to a judge with questions and she fills them in.

Two members of a debate team discuss strategy. (Photo: Ruth Morris)

Two members of a debate team discuss strategy. (Photo: Ruth Morris)

Education experts say Chinese authorities are waking up to the notion that Chinese students need to be independent thinkers if they want to produce their own Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. And they say debate is one way to get there.

English-language British Parliamentary debate is gaining popularity here, especially among top students gunning for foreign universities.

“We want to use debate as a medium to give students education and enlightenment,” said Zheng Bo, the tournament’s chief adjudicator and a promoter of British Parliamentary debate in China. He says China’s education system is grounded in Confucian thinking, which poses a challenge.

“Teachers are given absolute authority and students just listen and recite, and remember,” Zheng Bo says. “So that created a lot of students that are really good at doing maths and physics … where there is a given answer. But when it comes to something without a standard answer … that’s creating a lot of trouble, because they are not familiar with this kind of practice.“

Debate is the perfect educational supplement, he says. It trains students to think critically.

British Parliamentary debate’s oppositional style might seem incongruous in China, since it divides teams into two sides — the government and the opposition — while China operates as a single-party state. Beijing also scrubs dissent from the Internet and constantly stresses harmony and social stability.

So motions tend not to veer into highly sensitive areas, like Tibetan independence, but they still range widely. Government policies are not off the table.

Participant Steve Chou says debate taught him to step back from political flashpoints and take a more reasoned approach. For example, China’s emotionally charged maritime dispute with Japan.

Two members of a debate team make their point. (Photo: Ruth Morris)

Two members of a debate team make their point. (Photo: Ruth Morris)

China’s primary education “taught you to love your country, to be patriotic,” Chou says. “But through debate, we see that even though you do not praise your country does not necessarily mean you are not patriotic.”

Another debater goes by the English name Sloan. She believes that British Parliamentary debates will keep growing in China.

“It kind of has this life-long influence on you,” she says. “This kind of critical thinking [is] always with you and influences the people around you.”

Participants also say they consider debating in English to be easier than in Chinese. In English-language debates, you can be simpler and more direct, they say. On the other hand, Chinese debates tend to have really abstract topics, like “Is IQ more important that EQ?”

The tournament concludes with a highly controversial motion to prosecute Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for hate crimes against Palestinians. One of the winners is from Hong Kong, where many residents are currently demanding greater democracy from Beijing. That subject didn’t come up in the debates.

Before the students leave, Zheng Bo offers a final critique. He says debaters omitted concrete examples to support their arguments.

He tells them, “Go back and read more.”


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How to make a living as a Spanish teacher in Guatemala. Hint: Skype

Marco Antonio Tabin Garcia, in Antigua, Guatemala, Skypes with a student in Chicago. (Photo: Laura Knotts)

Marco Antonio Tabin Garcia, in Antigua, Guatemala, Skypes with a student in Chicago. (Photo: Laura Knotts)

Here’s a guest post from reporter Emily Files.

When Marco Antonio Tabin Garcia was younger, he considered emigrating from Guatemala to the United States.

“Because I had heard in United States, there was gold,” he says.

He knew he’d need to travel illegally, crossing through Mexico, so he decided against the journey. Instead, he got a job teaching Spanish at a local language school, where he earned about $2 an hour. He continued teaching at local schools for more than 20 years.

Now 49, Tabin Garcia has found a way to make a much better living without leaving his own home. He teaches Spanish lessons on Skype, mostly to American and Canadian students. He makes $10 per hour, five times what he made at the local schools.

Erin O’Reilly, a veteran language teacher based in California, teaches in traditional classrooms and online. She’s seen online language lessons take off globally in the past three years. She says it co-incides with growing Internet access in developing countries.

“This is transformational for language learners who are trying to learn outside of a traditional classroom setting,” O’Reilly says.

But she doesn’t think classroom teaching will die out any time soon. She says language learners often need the structure and motivation that comes with in-person lessons.

Photo courtesy Laura Knotts

Photo courtesy Laura Knotts

For Tabin Garcia, Skype lessons have been so profitable that he quit his job at the language school last month. He’s been able to buy luxuries he and his wife could not previously afford, like a washing machine. His dog, Manchas, used to sleep on a cardboard box. Tabin Garcia recently bought him a cushy dog bed.

On a recent Thursday evening, Tabin Garcia had a one-hour Skype lesson with student Laura Knotts, who lives in Chicago. They made small talk about weather and their families and Tabin Garcia corrected her mistakes.

Knotts is one of a dozen students Tabin Garcia teaches each week. He’s brought his wife and sister into the business as well. The two women now have a few of their own students.

Tabin Garcia’s weekly income of about $150 to $200 supports not only himself and his wife, but his extended family. He says his 7-year-old niece used to be malnourished and became sick. Her parents didn’t have enough money to pay for a doctor.

“She would have died,” Tabin Garcia said. “Her condition was very, very bad.”

He used his Skype earnings to pay for her medicine and food. She’s doing better now.

There are some roadblocks to teaching via Skype. For one, an Internet connection is expensive, as is the laptop he uses. Some people don’t know how to use Skype. Tabin Garcia has trained a few friends and family. And, of course, there are always technical glitches. But Tabin Garcia has been able to keep his independent business going despite those problems.

Talking to students in different countries has made him more interested in traveling outside of Guatemala, something he’s never done before.

“I would like to visit the country where students live,” he said. “I would like to visit Chicago. I would like to visit Canada. Winter Canada, for seeing the snow.”


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Hundreds of millions of Chinese stubbornly resist speaking the ‘common tongue’

At 68, Wang Yufang says Mandarin is not necessary in her daily life. Her neighbors speak the Chongming dialect, as do the vendors at the local market, and the island's bus drivers. (photo/Ruth Morris)

At 68, Wang Yufang says Mandarin is not necessary in her daily life. Her neighbors speak the Chongming dialect, as do the vendors at the local market, and the island’s bus drivers. (photo/Ruth Morris)

Here’s a guest post from Shanghai-based reporter Ruth Morris…

It has four tones, strange ‘measure words’ and thousands of characters to memorize. So for English-speakers, Mandarin can be an especially difficult language to tackle.

But here’s some more bad news. Even if you become fluent, you may not be able to communicate with nearly a third of the people living in China.

State media recently reported that more than 400 million Chinese are unable to speak Mandarin—the national language—while millions more speak it poorly.

Instead, they rely on regional dialects—some call them separate languages—that are so far apart, they’re mutually unintelligible. Even Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, spoke with such a pronounced regional accent that many Chinese had a hard time understanding him.

A long trip, linguistically

Today, non-Mandarin speakers tend to be older Chinese from rural areas, like the island of Chongming. It’s just 45 minutes by bus from the center of Shanghai, but linguistically it’s a much longer trip.

“Like eating, eating the dinner. In Mandarin we call it ‘chi fan,’ but in Chongming language we call it ‘chibie’,” said Gu Hangyu, a student from Chongming.

Gu’s grandmother, Wang Yufang, is one of the millions of Chinese who doesn’t speak Mandarin. As a farmer, her life has been hard. Corncobs fuel her stove, and handpicked cotton fills her comforter. In winter, she heats her home with the energy from a car battery.

With her grandson translating, Wang said she doesn’t speak Mandarin, and has no need to. All her neighbors speak the Chongming dialect, and so do the vegetable vendors in the market.

But Gu is less matter-of-fact. He’s worried his native dialect might fade. He also noted that some city dwellers look down on new arrivals if they speak with thick regional accents.

“I have a special feeling towards my native language,” he said. “I’m proud of Chongming. It’s a beautiful town. The people are friendly… the air is fresh, the water is clean.”

Dialects or Languages?

You Ruijie, a linguist at Fudan University, said dialects spoken widely in commercial hubs like Shanghai will likely survive for generations. Others are on their way out.

“I think some dialects, especially the small dialects, could disappear in the near future,” he said.

It’s a testament to today’s mobility and migration in China that You’s family speaks four dialects. Yet his son and his parents don’t have a single dialect in common. It’s a linguistic leap that’s not uncommon here.

You says for all intents and purposes, China’s 10 or so dialect groups should be treated as completely separate languages. He says: think of the difference between Italian and Spanish. At the same time, many Chinese minorities have their own languages, like Uyghur, Mongolian and Tibetan.

This adds another degree of complexity, especially for visitors. If you want to buy a necklace in Xinjiang in the west, or a cellphone in parts of Southern China, you might get further in English than in Mandarin.

Gu Hangyu and his grandmother Wang Yufang (photo/Ruth Morris)

Gu Hangyu and his grandmother Wang Yufang (photo/Ruth Morris)

Wang Yufang and her grandson, Gu Hangyu, at her home on Chongming Island, near Shanghai. Gu says when he has a family, he'd like his son or daughter to speak his native Chongming dialect. Many young Chinese do not speak their grandparents' dialects.

On Chongming Island, Gu’s grandmother says she has no plans to take up Mandarin herself.

“She says it’s hard for older people like her to study Mandarin. It’s useless for them. But it’s useful for young people like me,” Gu said.

At 68, she added, she’s confident the Chongming dialect will outlast her. And if it is lost and she’s still alive, at that time, she said, “I will leave the world.”

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Straight outta ESL class: learning English by learning slang

Jiu Hua Zhang of China and Donald Chung of Taiwan are studying conversational English at UCLA's Extension School (Photo: Josie Huang)

Jiu Hua Zhang of China and Donald Chung of Taiwan are studying conversational English at UCLA’s Extension School (Photo: Josie Huang)

Here’s a guest post from Los Angeles-based reporter Josie Huang

Donald Chung stood in front of his classmates at the UCLA Extension school and started to throw a fit — well, as much as the mild–mannered student from Taiwan could muster.

“I don’t know what he’s trying to pull,” Chung said. “The guy’s a total flake!”

His friend Jiu Hua Zhang chimed in: “You said it!”

The students had spent a good portion of the class practicing these expressions as part of their “street talk” course. In many foreign countries, English classes start as early as pre-school. But thousands of students still come to the US to get what they can’t get back home: the idioms, the catchphrases — the slang.

“My conversation is more academic, or more like an essay,” Zhang said. “I need to be more, like, American.”

She and Chung enrolled less than half a year ago at UCLA Extension’s American Language Center, one of multiple schools throughout California offering street talk classes. Zhang wants to get all of the jokes on her favorite American sitcom, “The Big Bang Theory.”

Chung would like to catch what commentators are saying during NBA games.

“I think it’s very difficult to understand what they’re talking about because they use some vocabulary I can’t understand,” he said, sounding frustrated.

Hip-hop as a second language

There’s a lot to learn. But because slang is constantly evolving, there aren’t many teaching materials devoted to it. Texts get dated faster than you can say YOLO.

So teachers are often left to find their own method of teaching American lingo, in ways creative and resourceful.

English as a Second Language teacher Stephen Mayeux enjoys hip-hop. So he figured his students at UC-Davis might, too.

He crafted lesson plans around 1990s hip-hop. N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” has come in handy teaching reductions in English — for example, how “out of” gets shortened.

“They’re saying ‘straight out of Compton,’” Mayeux said. “But I think a lot of people, especially Americans, we pronounce it ‘outta.’”

Mayex shares his lessons with students outside of his Hip-hop as a Second Language class through his website eslhiphop.com.

He said some educators might frown on what he’s teaching. But, as someone who’s studied linguistics, he believes “you have to treat every form or variety of the language as if it’s equally complex and valid.”

“So the English that a rapper or hip-hop artist uses is no better or worse than what a university professor is using,” Mayeux said.

Fitting in

Mayeux also uses the music to take the opportunity to teach about hip-hop culture, and give the students some context for what it is like to grow up in America.

He said that he has many close friends from other countries, and a lack of understanding about pop culture can leave them feeling left out.

“They do experience a little bit of alienation,” Mayeux said. “They feel like they can’t be fully part of the group because they’re not speaking the same lingo.”

Judy Tanka, who teaches English at the American Language Center, agreed.

”You may understand every word of the lecture,” Tanka said. “But when you have to go to your study group or you have to call a classmate, slang is going to be necessary.”

Tanka tries to incorporate slang into her everyday conversation with her students. She stays on top of the latest lingo with the help of a daughter in her 20s, but she finds a surprising number of phrases have stayed popular through the decades.

When her students tried to make up an excuse for not doing homework, she told them, “I don’t buy that.”

“And they looked at me. ‘Buy what, teacher?’ And then I explained and they loved it. Now they’re telling each other, ‘I don’t buy that.’”

For the latest slang, go to the source

As a young man, David Burke had a knack for picking up slang.

His ears pricked up whenever he heard interesting phrases. He’d write them down on his arms, later switching to a tape recorder.

Burke went on to make a name for himself as “Slangman” and published a whole series of self-titled books in which he teaches slang not just in English, but in foreign languages.

He got the idea to teach American slang after hanging out with a French friend more than 10 years ago.

“Somebody ran up to him and said, ‘Hey, Pascal, what’s up?’” Burke said. “And he froze for a second and looked up and started checking the ceiling.”

Now, at age 56, Burke gets the scoop on the newest slang by striking up conversations with young people.

“I saw a kid at the gym working out with a friend of his,” Burke said, “and I said, ‘Can I ask you guys a question, what word would I not know?’”

Recently, Burke brought his compendium of slang to UCLA’s American Language Center for a special presentation before English language learners. To complicate matters, Burke told students, slang isn’t just about words.

”Americans use a lot of grunts — I’ll show you,” Burke said.

“For example, ‘I don’t know’ becomes ‘I dunno.’ ‘I dunno’ becomes the shoulders-up grunt, ‘uh-uhh-uh.’”

Burke got students to try out the “uh-uhh-uh.”

“How many cars on the freeway right now?”

“Uh-uhh-uh.”

ESL students at UCLA's Extension School (Photo: Josie Huang)

ESL students at UCLA’s Extension School (Photo: Josie Huang)

Like a cow

In the audience was Donald Chung and Jiu Hua Zhang. They hung on Burke’s every word.

In their short time in the US, they’ve managed to incorporate slang into their everyday conversations.

Chung is a fan of “what’s up!” Zhang says she no longer enters a room saying ”Good morning, everyone.”

“We just say, ‘hi, guys!’” she said brightly.

Zhang is feeling pretty awesome about this. Or as kids in China say: “hĕn niú” which translates into “very cow-like.”

But Chinese slang — that’s a whole other lesson for another day.


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Easter Island’s Rapa Nui Language Attempts a Comeback

Gabriel Milatuke (left) with friend Vicente Matahiti, Easter Island. (Photo: Katie Manning)

Gabriel Milatuke (left) with friend Vicente Matahiti, Easter Island. (Photo: Katie Manning)

Ever since Chile annexed Easter Island more than a century ago, Spanish has been chipping away at the Polynesian-based language called Rapa Nui.

The South Pacific island’s towering stone Moai figures now lure in 60,000 visitors a year. Islanders smile, sing and dance in polyester costumes to cater to the mostly Spanish-speaking spenders.

But these tourists, fuelling the island’s economy, are also diluting the culture they came to see. Now, with only a couple thousand speakers left, the islanders are upping their effort to revive the Rapa Nui language.

Until the late 1990s, the Chilean government effectively outlawed the islanders from speaking in Rapa Nui. Any public sector job or office required Spanish. Anything involving the schools, police or property rights was in Spanish too.

Even the great, great granddaughter of a Rapa Nui King, Alicia Makohe, grew up speaking Spanish. She taught herself Rapa Nui at 14.

“There were many Chilean rules here,” she said. “Everybody in the school [spoke] Spanish. [Rapa Nui] was always forbidden. Also the places for the laws, the police… everything was ruled by the Chilean people.”

Chile changed its tune about ten years ago –– many say to protect the culture of one of its top moneymaking destinations. Chile stopped requiring Spanish in public institutions. It now funds new school programs, reading materials and music to reverse the decline of Rapa Nui.

Thanks to these funds, every school on the island has at least one class in Rapa Nui.

Virginia Haoa teaches language class to second graders at the Lorenzo Baeza Vega School, where all classes from science to history is taught in Rapa Nui.

She said in a class of 30 incoming students, four speak Rapa Nui fluently. Six months in, most students handle the language well.

“This program is the only space where kids learn Rapa Nui, and it’s important for any people to maintain their language because it is their identity, their worldview, their spirit. It’s their soul,” said Haoa.

But away from the classroom it’s a different story. Nine-year-old Gabriel Milatuke, for example, is happy to chatter away in Rapa Nui indoors. But once he’s on the basketball court or in the playground, he switches to Spanish.

At home, Rapa Nui families usually speak Spanish. Alicia Makohe’s brothers raise their children only in Spanish.

“They decided it’s better for them to speak Spanish because they’re going to go to school in Chile. They are going to be professionals there, and the Rapa Nui language is not going to help them. They think like that,” said Makohe.

But Makohe sings to her six-month-old son in Rapa Nui.

“I think the opposite because if you learn Rapa Nui then you have another language.”

Haoa said the employment situation on Easter Island needs to change.

“We need government policies—something that promises children speaking Rapa Nui they’ll get a job tomorrow. Jobs need to demand that they speak Rapa Nui, not just Spanish,” she said.

But the chances are slim. For one, the language was only recently written down. It had a strictly oral tradition. But now that’s changing.

The first ever Rapa Nui newspaper, Tāpura Reꞌo, hit the streets in 2010. Makohe’s husband Marcus Edensky publishes the paper.

“I tried to sell the first issue, though it didn’t work very well, and people mentioned to me in the street, you know, ‘I can’t read it because it’s hard,’” said Edensky.

Circulation jumped after the Rapa Nui adapted their reading style.

“Some commented to me that they came up with the idea of reading it out loud to themselves, then they would understand.”

A first dictionary is also in the works. One editor is linguist and Christian missionary, Robert Weber. He and his wife Nancy Weber have dedicated over 30 years to preserving Rapa Nui.

Robert Weber called Rapa Nui a complex language, full of expressions that can be tricky to define.

One example is hippi tiriti manaba, “which would literally mean a tucking or a tightening of the stomach,” Weber said. “That would to me mean that you’re feeling nostalgia or anxiety.”

In all likelihood, tourists will continue to flock to the island whether or not Rapa Nui survives. But without the language, the islanders’ music and dance routines would turn into pure nostalgia.

Despite Rapa Nui’s shaky future, Makohe clings to her optimism. Makohe does her part by writing new songs with Rapa Nui lyrics and creating educational videos for school programs. She said that she’s heard young islanders singing her songs in the streets of the island’s only town, Hanga Roa.

“Sometimes I speak to the little children, and they’re Chilean, but they speak Rapa Nui. It’s growing. It was going down, but now it’s coming up,” she said.

It’s difficult to imagine Rapa Nui coming back as a native tongue after its near-eradication. But it stands a better chance than it did a decade ago, now that young people speak it, and the Chilean government is backing the effort to save it.


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Hamas Puts Hebrew in the Curriculum

Hamas-run schools in the Gaza Strip are offering Hebrew language classes to some 9th graders for the first time in nearly 20 years. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

Hamas-run schools in the Gaza Strip are offering Hebrew language classes to some 9th graders for the first time in nearly 20 years. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

Here’s a guest post from my Big Show pal Matthew Bell

One place that was not on President Obama’s Middle East itinerary this week was the Gaza Strip. Back in 1998, President Bill Clinton was the first sitting US president to visit Gaza. He even brought the first lady along. But with the Islamic militant group Hamas in firm control of the Palestinian territory, it’s tough to imagine a sitting US president setting foot there.

Hamas rejects Israel’s right to exist. So, it might come as a surprise to hear that Hamas-run schools in Gaza have started offering Hebrew language classes. Government-run schools in Gaza put the main language of the Jewish State on the curriculum at the start of the school year.

In a spartan classroom of ninth-grade girls at the Hassan Salma co-ed school in Gaza City, teacher and students begin what feels like a scripted routine for some visitors.

“What’s the capital of Palestine,” the teacher asks in Hebrew?

“Jerusalem,” the students respond in unison.

Thess are some of the first Gaza public school students to study Hebrew in nearly 20 years. Nadine al-Ashy is a 14 year-old with a knack for languages. She say Hebrew is, “easier than English.” And of course, “it’s the language of our enemy.”

“We must know how they think, how they talk about us.”

Almost everyone I speak with in Gaza gives me some version of a common Arabic expression that goes like this: learn to speak the language of your enemy, so you can protect yourself from his evil deeds.

Nadine’s Hebrew teacher, Maysam Sayyid il-Khatib says there was a lot of interest in signing up for Hebrew class. So, I ask, is there any chance this could somehow lead to better relations between Israelis and Palestinians?

“No,” she responds matter-of-factly. “We are not looking for developing things with the Israelis. We are learning Hebrew to protect ourselves and to defend our country from the Israeli occupation.”

On the streets of Gaza City, it’s easy to find people who speak good Hebrew.

Like most middle-aged men in Gaza, a 44 year-old taxi driver who gives his name as Saber speaks Hebrew fluently. He worked in Israel for 12 years, back in the days when tens of thousands of Palestinians from Gaza had jobs there. He says more young people in Gaza should be learning Hebrew.

Many older Palestinians in Gaza speak Hebrew well, because they spent years working inside Israel. Now, they say Hebrew is useful for watching Israeli TV. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

Many older Palestinians in Gaza speak Hebrew well, because they spent years working inside Israel. Now, they say Hebrew is useful for watching Israeli TV. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

“At home, I watch Israeli TV every day. Not just the news, but movies too and I read Israeli newspapers,” Saber says.

These sources in Hebrew offer insight and perspective that is missing from the Arabic language media. Saber says his kids don’t really understand Hebrew. But he wants them to start. Never mind the fact that few Palestinians from Gaza are allowed into Israel. Saber suggests that it is especially important to hear what Israelis are saying about the Gaza Strip during times of war.

There are 400 government-run schools in Gaza. Only 20 of them offer Hebrew as an elective for 9th graders. But Hamas officials want to expand the program. Mohamed Abu Shuqair is deputy minister of education.

“Why Hebrew,” the minister asks? “Even if we don’t agree with the Israelis on many things,” he says during an inteview at his office, “we are still living in the same region. Israel is more developed than Gaza. Palestinians can learn from Israeli TV and websites.”

There is another reason for putting Hebrew on the high school curriculum, Abu Shuqair says. “Many people say Hamas in Gaza is close-minded,” he says. “We are so open-minded, that we even teach the language of our enemy here.”

That might be debatable. But there does seems to be a tacit acknowledgement in this decision on teaching Hebrew. The Hamas leadership appears to be looking toward Israel, with its stronger economy – rather than Egypt, with its new Islamist-dominated government – for the sake of Gaza’s future.



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America’s Woes From the Outside In

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Ryback surveys the collapsed portion of I-35W Mississippi River bridge. (Photo: Kevin Rofidal, United States Coast Guard)

Two people following the US elections especially closely are Lionel Shriver and Edward Luce. Both are writers.

Shriver is an American who lives in London. Luce is a Brit who lives in Washington DC. Both have one foot in and one foot out of America. They are each insiders and outsiders.

Lionel Shriver is author of We Need To Talk About Kevin and ten other novels. She has lived much of her life outside the United States—in Kenya, Thailand, and now, Britain.

Her annual trips home to New York have become a way of measuring America’s decline. When she drives the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, she sees what was once a serviceable highway now “completely rusted out.” The repairs “look as if they’re made with plywood.”

“You see this all over the United States,” says Shriver. “For visitors it’s quite a shock. Since I only go back every summer, I see this in juddering increments.”

Over time, Shriver has come to a stark conclusion about her homeland: “The United States is failing—and failing big time.”

There’s plenty of evidence to support that. The Pentagon recently commissioned a report on the nation’s defense-industrial preparedness—essentially, a compendium of the companies manufacturing key materials for the military.

Of the nineteen most critical industries servicing the US military, American companies led in all categories in the early 1990s. It now leads in just four of those categories.

That damning statistic was cited by Edward Luce, a Washington-based columnist with Financial Times, in his book called Time To Start Thinking: America and the Specter of Decline. (The US version subs the softer Descent for Decline.)

Luce spent time at the National Defence University, quizzing the kind of military people who he believes will be running the Pentagon a decade from now. He describes them as “panicked” about the disappearance of America’s manufacturing strength.

“They completely depart from Republican Party orthodoxy by saying that the first thing we must do is withdraw from the world,” says Luce. These officer-scholars believe that military strength “is based on economic strength.”

And so they have concluded that the Pentagon needs to slash its budget, freeing up public money for the domestic economy—primarily, education and infrastructure.

That may or may not be a solution. But will it see the light of day in the current political climate? Could such fundamental rethinking be adopted in today’s Washington? Luce doesn’t think so—and nor does Lionel Shriver. They think the country is too polarized.

For someone like Shriver who lives abroad, the gradual tribalization of political America into red and blue appears anything but gradual. It seems not just sudden but difficult to reverse.

Shriver recalls going to a party outside New York on one her recent trips back from Britain.

“Everyone agreed with everyone,” says Shriver.

“I had a conversation or two in which I indicated that I supported the Conservative Party in the UK, that was of course the wrong word.”

She says that made her a pariah. She calls this new-found tribalism, “political apartheid.”

“If you go to a party in the New York area you know that they’re all going to be Democrats. And if you open your mouth and say something that seems faintly Republican or even mildly pleasant about the other side, you’ll shock everyone,” says Shriver. “They will physically pull away from you.”

Writ large, that isn’t a great recipe for solving the country’s problems.

There’s plenty of despair in Shriver’s words—Luce’s too. It may be that they are chroniclers of America’s decline. But they are also passionate chroniclers, who believe that the country can yet learn from its missteps.



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