Several weeks ago, this writer noted the unique timing of several events involving Kansas University and the possibility of good things resulting from the situation.
Chancellor Robert Hemenway was due to travel abroad, stopping in England before heading to Davos, Switzerland, for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. This gathering of world leaders in business, banking, education, government and many other fields likely would expose the chancellor to the diverse thinking of many senior authorities in many fields.
At about the time the chancellor was due to return to Lawrence, a team of university officials from research universities around the country was scheduled to arrive in Lawrence to assess the job KU and its officials are doing in carrying out the school's mission statement.
Almost at the same time, various news media seemed to focus added attention on China, the likelihood that China would assume world leadership in commerce and industry in the relatively near future and that the United States no longer would be "king of the mountain" in most economic categories or measurements, as it has been in the past century.
The following week, the chancellor addressed a group of media representatives from across the country and reported that the Davos meeting had made it very clear to him that KU must do an even better job of making sure its students are prepared to face the intense competition from China and other nations.
The same day, Gerald Seib, the recipient of this year's William Allen White Citation, told several audiences that the university faces a major task in exposing students to challenges they will face in the 21st century including the need to be well educated in foreign languages, cultures, history and religion. Seib, a distinguished editor of the Wall Street Journal, has worked abroad in a number of countries, and his ideas and concerns should carry a great deal of weight.
One of those attending the William Allen White gathering told this reporter about his efforts over a 17-year period to develop businesses in Asia. He told of one very successful venture in South Korea but added that he believed he was handicapped in his efforts by a factor of at least 40 percent by the fact that he couldn't speak the Korean language.
All of these situations -- the chancellor's trip to Davos, the accreditation team's visit to KU (which, by the way, received a good report), Seib's visit and his thoughts about the importance of students being prepared for the challenges of the 21st century, the growing media interest in China and comments from a successful American businessman about being handicapped by his inability to speak Korean -- all within a week or two, focused attention on the question of whether KU's mission statement should be updated. What can KU do to be a true national leader in preparing students to meet the demands of the 21st century?
All of this is taking place while state legislators are meeting in Topeka and when education -- both K-12 and post-secondary -- takes the biggest single bite out of the state budget. How much importance do these lawmakers place on adequate funding for the state's schools, and are these legislators sufficiently aware of or concerned about the quality of schooling being provided at all levels.
The point this writer was trying to make several weeks ago was to raise the question of just how serious are chancellors, presidents, the Kansas Board of Regents, lawmakers, faculty, taxpayers, parents and students about the state providing a challenging educational experience that meets the needs of the 21st century. It's a very serious question, and there is little doubt that the Chinese, for example, are giving massive attention to education and English is the No. 1 foreign language being taught in Chinese schools.
What foreign languages are Kansas high school students learning today?
According to a senior state education official, Chinese is being taught in only one school district, Shawnee Mission. Olathe is reported to have looked into offering Chinese but still does not. Topeka used to have Chinese, but the teacher left and wasn't replaced. Japanese is taught in Wichita, Topeka and Shawnee Mission. The Southeast Kansas Education Service Center at Greenbush has an interactive video program in Japanese that is used by schools in Maize, Goddard and Leavenworth. Arabic is taught in Shawnee Mission.
Why don't Lawrence schools offer any of these languages? Granted, Spanish is highly popular, and French and German are traditional offerings, but why not offer Chinese, Japanese or Arabic?
China has the world's largest population, and Arabic is the language of most Northern African nations as well as the Mideast and the Quran.
There is no easy solution or single way of meeting the educational needs of the 21st century or making sure KU is a true national leader in providing its students a superior educational experience designed for today's needs, not those of 50 or 100 years ago. What is the Board of Regents doing to make sure the missions of state universities are distinct and that costly duplication of offerings is reduced to a bare minimum?
Far more knowledge about foreign languages, cultures, religion and history would seem to be essential.