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The education we deserve

I’m always mystified by pundits who urge Americans to adopt a school system devised in a country with a very different culture from ours. They’ll look at a place like, say, Singapore and tell us, “Hey, their test scores are high. We should use their educational system.”

But you can’t just peel the educational system off a culture and transplant it. Singapore boasts high test scores, yes, but it is also a straight-laced police state where teenagers caught doing graffiti are punished with public floggings.

Yes, I’m sure plenty of Americans would say that perhaps we should have public floggings, too, but we all know it’s not going to happen. An educational system, just like every other aspect of our state, grows from our culture. Our institutions change as we change. That’s why our nineteenth century schools were likely to feature a teacher standing in front of rows of students reciting from memory, but our twenty-first century schools look nothing like that. We’ve changed; our schools have changed.

American culture is not homogeneous, but we have certain strong cultural trends that are clear in our schooling. One is that we value individual liberty. Although we get mini-trends when schools start to adopt dress codes and try to crack down on student activities, overall our students feel free to express who they are. Another is that we value freedom of speech. Although our courts continually try to tell us that our kids or their teachers shouldn’t be free to say what they want in school, for the most part we are free to disagree and stand up for what we believe in.

Other parts of American culture that have been very evident in our schooling have been our drive for creativity and innovation, our belief in the power of hard work to raise our prospects in life, and our denial of old traditions that endorsed class privilege and favoritism.

But here’s what I think when I hear people saying we should try to make our educational system more like Singapore’s: There’s a very wide gulf between what a politician says and the messages that come across much more clearly and forcefully from our popular culture. Our talking heads still spout American tradition: School is for creating a vital workforce, for creating opportunity no matter who your parents are, for creating citizens who can vote responsibly. But what does our popular culture say? Here are some messages that our kids are hearing every day:

Learning is uncool. Cool people don’t care about grades. They only go to school because they have to.

School is all about doing time. You do your time and the certificate you get is just your key to freedom.

Real life is what happens when you aren’t learning. Real life doesn’t depend on anything you learn in school.

Successful people get there simply by virtue of who they are. They are stars. They didn’t have to work for it.

You should only learn what you have to in order to achieve your immediate goals. Learning for its own sake doesn’t exist.

There’s no point in working hard when there’s nothing to work hard for. Give up on work and live to party.

Our culture isn’t homogeneous, and not all kids are being bombarded with these messages, but most of them certainly are. And when you have a country full of kids who are given these messages, is it any wonder that our school system “doesn’t work”? But of course, it does work—it works exactly as our popular culture sets it up to work. It works to contain our kids. To stress them out. To keep them from having fun.

How could our educational system possibly fight successfully against messages like this? Yes, of course, we have plenty of great teachers who inspire kids who have never been inspired before. We have lots of kids who are self-motivated and willing to swim against our cultural currents. But in a larger sense, our schools are what we are. We have houses full of TVs and video games. We have parents who talk more to their cell phones than to their kids. We have huge cults of celebrity but ignore real achievement that’s right in front of us.

Perhaps, before we go adopting another culture’s school system, our culture needs a little bit of public flogging. Until then, we’re getting exactly the sort of education we deserve.

Posted in Parenting.

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