"The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountains" is a Chinese fable about an old man who is constantly digging to tear down a towering mountain for eventual farmland. When others ridicule him over the impossibility of the task, he replies that "When I die, my sons will carry on; when they die, there will be my grandsons, and then their sons and grandsons, and so on to infinity. High as they are, these mountains cannot grow any higher. And with every bit we dig, they will be that much lower. Why can't we clear them away?"
The moral of this story: take the "long view." Here, there is an ancestor-descendent consciousness. Families do not want to disappoint long-dead ancestors. And they plan for the future of their great great grandchildren they will never live to see.
Here I can ride on a high-speed train, the fastest in the world, that runs on track built 50 feet above the rice and wheat fields so it does not take up farmland. The cost of this system cannot be paid back in one or even two decades. Along with an interstate system bigger than that in the U.S., but built in just the last 20 years, these investments make no sense in terms of cost-benefit analysis, unless extended far into the next century.
And that is exactly what they are doing, planning not for tomorrow, but for the next generations. What we took two centuries to develop, they will surpass in the next two decades.
Last year, Yale President Richard C. Levin was interviewed on Chinese television concerning the future of higher education. He described the massive expansion of Chinese universities as obviously an overreach. China is producing far more Chinese college graduates than there are jobs that need those skills today. His education-follows-today’s-marketplace perspective was classic "American-think."
The second portion of that program was a separately-recorded interview with the President of Hong Kong City Polytechnic. He very clearly described how, in order to become a fully developed country, China would need a much higher percentage of college graduates. 42 percent of all 25-64 year-old Americans have a higher education. China is at half that number, but coming up fast. You do not wait until the market demand is there in order to begin producing them.
This plays out not just at the higher governmental level of centralized plans for high-speed rails and university cities, but also in nearly every family's life choices.
"When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left, I buy food and clothes" is a famous saying by Erasmus. The Chinese equivalent is "When I get a little money I save it for my child’s education and schoolbooks; and if any is left, I buy food and clothes."
On the nightly news here, when a flood or fire destroys a home, or a serious illness drains family resources, the adults grieve not over the material things that they have lost, but over how they will ever be able to pay the tuition for their child or grandchild.
Their eyes are focused way down the road. And they will sacrifice today for that far distant future.
Our early settlers had this same philosophy when they worked to build up a farmstead to leave to their children and grandchildren. And you can still hear some Kansans express this value today, especially among the less than one percent of the U.S. who still live on farms.
But what do the remaining 99 percent of us value? On the far right are the self-made greedy who feel that every cent spent on building long-lasting community infrastructure is a cent taken from the pocket of private enterprise. And on the liberal side are proponents of electric vehicles who resist taxing the electricity used without regard for how we will pay for the roads that currently are maintained by fuel taxes. On all sides, the short-term payoff in dividends to shareholders appears more important than building infrastructure to benefit a generation not yet born. And schools are the most important infrastructure of all.
For us foolish old teachers, whose job is to work forever on cutting away at that mountain of ignorance, it can be more rewarding to work where you often hear the words "sacrifice" and "future" than where you hear "I deserve" and "I want it now."