I was inspired . . .


. . . to write my book Hard America, Soft America by my longtime observation that American 18-year-olds are incompetent or far less competent than 18-year-olds in other advanced countries, while American 30-year-olds are the most competent 30-year-olds in the world. Now Fareed Zakaria looks at the same phenomenon in Newsweek, noting that Singaporean 18-year-olds have the best test scores in the world, while 30-year-old Singaporeans produce much less creativity and accomplishment than Americans of the same age. It's an interesting and thoughtful article, well worth reading. It's roughly congruent with my argument that American 18-year-olds do poorly because from ages 6 to 18 they live mostly in Soft America, the part of our society with little competition and accountability, and that American 30-year-olds do well because from ages 18 to 30 they live mostly in Hard America, the part of our society with lots of competition and accountability.

In contrast, as Zakaria points out, 18-year-old Singaporeans, whose success in life depends heavily on test performance, for that reason are subject to competition and accountability. But he makes a further point that I perhaps have not considered seriously enough. Singaporeans after age 18 are presumably still subject to competition and accountability in one of the world's premier capitalist economies. But they do not perform as well as Americans, Zakaria says, because they don't have the creativity, venturesomeness, and willingness to challenge authority that talented Americans have. And that's because, his Singaporan source says, learning to do well on tests does not cultivate those traits.

I argued in Hard America that we would be better off as a country if we subjected Americans between 6 and 18 to more competition and accountability. And in fact the political process has been moving us in that direction, through education accountability programs in the states (pioneered by Republican governors like George W. Bush of Texas and Jeb Bush of Florida and Democratic governors like Jim Hunt of North Carolina) and through the No Child Left Behind Act passed by Congress in 2001 and signed by Bush in 2002. Such programs—and here Zakaria agrees—provide children from educationally or economically impoverished backgrounds a better chance to get ahead in life. But another implication of Zakaria's piece is that too much teaching-to-test might stifle the creativity and bumptiousness that is a vital reason for the competence of American 30-year-olds. There may be trade-offs here that I haven't thought about enough. It's something worth thinking about.