From Dim Sum to Plain Sums: Are Most Countries Serious About Educational Soft Power?

An absolutely sumptuous recent meal in a moderately upscale London Chinese restaurant set our Creative Director & CSO pondering the eternal mystery of why some nations and cultures have managed to create massively popular and highly exportable cuisines, while others – which ostensibly share similar family structures, geographies and attitudes – have engendered food products which are scarcely known outside a given region.

On a global level, Italy and Spain – two (post-)Catholic Meditteranean countries with kindred languages and the shared national obsession that is football – are almost indistinguishable, yet at least some of the staple dishes of the former have managed to permeate kitchens and thoroughfares the world over; Spanish cuisine remains a mystery by comparison. Russian cuisine has simply not yet registered in global consciousness beyond hazy notions of soup and spirits; food from fellow Eurasian emerging market Turkey defines supermarkets, bakeries and take-away restaurants throughout the EU and beyond. Entire continents – think South America and Africa – are notable by their absence from the world dining mainstream.

It then struck us that this remains the case – yes, in 2015 – with something as simple and universal as food. With education, it is simply amazing how on a popular level (and even many specialised ones) almost nothing is known about knowledge systems in much of the world. Lazy and perhaps even racialised stereotypes of diligent East Asian students completing a rote learning task – images that are rehashed ad infinitum whenever the results of an international survey such as PISA are announced – are pushing the limits of mass sophistication.

Meanwhile, the physical manifestation of education – institutions such as schools and universities – is only just beginning to gather momentum in a post-colonial, cross-border context. Full cognisance of the effects of phenomena such as branch campuses will have to wait until many years into the future. The day may yet come when possessing a full, global menu of educational choices within one’s local big city seems normal; most people are not even close to being truly prepared for this development and its consequences.

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