The fruits of education spread quickly

So here I am driving Mississippi Route 310 from Como to Crenshaw, at 85 MPH, through what can best be described as Kudzu Valley.

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So here I am driving Mississippi Route 310 from Como to Crenshaw, at 85 MPH, through what can best be described as Kudzu Valley. I’m on this rural two-lane road, barreling through what appears to be a Mid-South Jurassic park, because I missed a connecting highway to Tunica, Mississippi, 25 miles ago.

Why Tunica you ask? Well my nephew PJ, more properly Commander Maguire, is participating in a Coast Guard Change of Command Ceremony, at the Tunica River Park Museum, where he will assume command of the Lower Mississippi River sector, which includes Oklahoma and Arkansas and parts of Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana. It’s a big, important job and I don’t want to miss the ceremony, so this recommended shortcut should get me there in time. And it does, sort of, because the invited key speaker, a U.S. Congressman, is 20 minutes late also.

A word about kudzu for those who have never encountered it while traveling in the South. It’s a vine brought into the U.S. in the 1800s for its fragrant flowers, then imported from China in the 1920s as a foraging crop, which the Agricultural Department said, at the time, was difficult to get started and might become invasive. Invasive is a key word because the vine has spread throughout the Deep South, resisting all forms of destruction, including flame throwers. As you can see from the photo at the left, it envelops everything not moving, turning the landscape into surreal shapes. And the worst part is that it marches on, a foot a day, resisting even cold weather frosts.

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Later, sitting on the Museum’s balcony overlooking the Mississippi River, I speculate on kudzu as an analogy for the spread of Chinese business into the U.S. And, in the bigger picture, what is the U.S. doing to control penetration into its markets and more importantly, what is being done to maintain our competitive position in the global marketplace. It’s a very deep question, one fraught with all kinds of technical, financial, diplomatic, and political booby-traps. So deep that I decide to forego any more serious thinking on this subject, and like an old Southern plantation owner, I decide to slow down and watch the barges slowly ply the placid river.

Back at my desk the next week, perusing the July 25th issue of Fortune magazine, which contains an eye-opening article on the value of education (highly recommended reading) that describes the U.S. as a 97-pound weakling, asking “Can America Compete,” I think about what I have seen in China’s universities; waves of graduate students learning how to use lasers in manufacturing operations. Fortune says that this year China will graduate 600,000 engineers compared to 70,000 in the U.S. At Beijing University of Technology last April I met with several dozen graduate and post-doctoral students studying laser material processing who are preparing to bring the advantages of this technology to Chinese manufacturers to make them more competitive in the global market. I can’t find a comparison in the U.S., and this really bothers me.

At that meeting I may have driven a little wedge into the apparent Chinese grand plan to dominate America. Asked by the students for the equivalent U.S. wage for a graduate with their qualifications, I provoked a blizzard of questions when I speculated that it was at least five times that in China. I created such a buzz that I tried to calm things down by mentioning that the cost of living in the U.S was also five times higher, but this fell on deaf ears. Fortunately I was able to quickly exit the hall as a line of students formed ready to ask me to sponsor their visa to the U.S.

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Note to Chinese officials: the power of the dollar cuts two ways.

David A. Belforte
belforte@pennwell.com

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