Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Education and Americans

Lately (well, more like for the past 10-20 years), American parents, politicians, etc. have spoken of a crisis in the American educational system. Indeed, American kids are woefully behind in academics (especially math and science) compared to children from other nations (e.g. Asia and Europe). Much time and money has been spent on improving K-12 education - with what appears to be only limited success.

One has to ask oneself whether it is really the educational system that needs fixing? Are our teachers really that much worse than teachers in other countries? Are our kids just dumber than those of other countries? I have experience with both the European and American school systems (I went to German schools from K through 7th grade and to American schools from 8th grade through graduate school; my daughter is currently in 4th grade in a US elementary school) and I feel comfortable saying the answer to both questions is NO.

So, what is the problem then?

I think the answer lies in a sense of entitlement that has been growing in Americans since the early days of the country. The US has always been a country rich in natural resources. With the industrial revolution, exploiting those natural resources became inreasingly easy and, as a result, people didn't have to work quite so hard at succeeding. Even without working too hard, there was enough wealth being created that some of it could be passed from generation to generation. Parents not only passed their wealth on to their children, but they also became less demanding of their children: after all, why demand so much from your children when you no longer depend on them to take care of you in your old age? So each successive generation became a little "softer" than the preceding one.

This was fine in the more-or-less closed system that was the US market place. If your fellow American was just as "soft" as you were, you could compete with each other on an even footing. But in the late 80s and early 90s, we increasingly began to live in a global economy. Suddenly, Americans who, for generations, have grown to believe that their education, work ethic, and way of live were the best began to face competitors who grew up in truly cut-throat environments (e.g. Chinese university graduates - who grew up tough because the parents demanded excellence and competition from a billion others did as well).

Americans are simply not equipped to compete. Sure, we can try to improve our schools. We can equip them with the latest tech toys. But the problem is the mindset of the student as well as the parent. American parents don't know how to demand more of their children. And American children have not been taught to be emotionally strong and, thus, can't deal with the tough road ahead of them.

The sad truth is that most Americans don't even realize how weak they have become. It is endemic in American society to blame others. Nobody wants to take responsibility. Not even for their own children.

The only way for this to change is for the next generation of American kids to realize that their standard of living has become less than that of their peers in other countries, and they will then teach their children to be more competitive.

3 comments:

Joy said...

Tom, Very intriguing article.
Being educated in India (which is similar to China), I know and understand the competition faced by students. Though I did only my Masters in US, I really enjoyed this education system. Please read the following interesting article on how an Indian feels about the same issue. I am sure it could be applicable to any country which faces severe educational competetion.
http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/Opinion/Columnists/Chidanand_Rajghatta/Banking_on_memory/articleshow/2752015.cms

Joy said...

I think the url got cut in the prev comment.

http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/Opinion/Columnists
/Chidanand_Rajghatta
/Banking_on_memory
/articleshow/2752015.cms

Tom Wolf said...

Interesting article. Growing up in Germany, I don't remember so much rote memorization as my wife (who is Chinese) endured. But what we both had in common during our school years, and which is lacking in the U.S., is a discipline for learning and a deep respect for our teachers. Both come, in part at least, from the teachings of our parents.