“Oh, you’re from Michigan? Which Great Lake do you live closest to: Erie, Huron, Michigan, Ontario or Superior?” Alex asked me.

Normally, this question wouldn’t be especially odd if it were asked by a Midwesterner or perhaps a particularly inquisitive American. Instead, I was asked this question by an 8-year-old boy who had never left the city of Hangzhou, China.

I spent a month of this past summer teaching English in Hangzhou, a city about an hour away from Shanghai. Part of my job was hosting “English hours” in local libraries, where I would help locals practice their English.

It was during one of these “English hours” that I met Alex — which isn’t actually his given name; it was the English name he chose at the beginning of his studies.

After Alex asked me the Great Lakes question, I felt two equally powerful emotions. The first one was sheer amazement at how impressive it was that this boy knew where Michigan was in the United States, let alone the fact that he could name all of the Great Lakes. The second emotion was embarrassment. I’m from New Jersey and, unfortunately, I never paid attention to the Great Lakes and I certainly don’t know which one Ann Arbor is closest too. (Admittedly, I had to double-check the names of the Great Lakes when I wrote this column).

I asked Alex if he was the smartest kid in his class. He informed me — in perfect English, mind you — that in his class of 100 children, he fell somewhere in the middle — not much more than an average student at his local elementary school. Just an average 8-year-old Chinese boy — with a better understanding of U.S. geography than a 21-year-old American.

China, like many other countries, is currently investing huge amounts of resources toward improving their primary and secondary education systems. Although China certainly has some catching up to do with developed Western countries, its test scores, literacy rates and the number of students gaining a secondary education are all rapidly growing at a rate that may soon match the best.

While China realizes that investing in education is a great way to ensure future economic and societal growth, America continues to slash funding for schools and fire teachers. Not surprisingly, our test scores have begun to show it. According to a recent study by Harvard University, “… students in Shanghai who recently took international exams for the first time outscored every other school system in the world. In the same test, American students ranked 25th in math, 17th in science and 14th in reading.”

America once dominated the global student test score ratings. Unfortunately, we now have things that our government finds more vital than education. For example, an NPR study found that, up until the end of 2011, the United States was paying an annual $20.2 billion for costs associated with providing air conditioning to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Let China worry about tomorrow’s problems, we need to focus on keeping cool. For the record, I’m not advocating that U.S. soldiers should be forced to suffer in 125-degree heat. Instead, I’m just shedding light on what some of the money spent on our multi-trillion dollar wars may have done if it were used more effectively. Also, I use the phrase “multi-trillion dollar wars” because no one really knows how much our conflicts in the Middle East will end up costing this country, though estimates range anywhere between $1.2 and $3.6 trillion.

So what can America do to reignite its education system other than going back in time and investing money spent on war on schools and teachers instead? Among many things, we have to expand our education system to include pre-kindergarten schooling for all American children. As President Barack Obama pointed out in his State of the Union address, study after study shows that the earlier a child begins school, the better prepared he or she is for either gaining a higher education or learning a technical skillset suitable for a career.

As deficit reduction talks continue and the financial sequester looms, funding for education is likely to continue to stagnate, if not decline. If America does not repair its education system soon, we may be in for a dark future. Yes, investing in our education system will be expensive. Yes, we are at a point when fiscal responsibility is crucial. But remember, an investment toward a child’s education is one that never stops paying dividends not only to that child, but to society as a whole.

We need to invest in our future and revamp the American education system. After all, our society can’t depend on a generation that needs to seek advice from Wikipedia to find out the names of the Great Lakes.

Patrick Maillet can be reached at maillet@umich.edu.

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