Tuesday, October 29, 2013

America Needs Some Honest Educational Self Reflection

"How did this happen? Who's to blame? ...if you're looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror." ~ V


I was listening to one of our state senators recently, bemoaning our "broken" educational system.  Broken, as if there were some faulty piece in the machinery... and if we could just replace it, or screw it in tighter, the educational machine of our nation would merrily hum along.

That is how we have been approaching education for the past 30 years. We try to "fix" "broken" facilities, or tax structures, or curriculum.  For the past decade, we have been trying to "fix" broken teachers.  As an educator, let me tell you that that process has been a barrel of fun.

All of this has been an adventure in avoiding the obvious. We see ourselves trailing behind other nations of the world and we are ever looking for someone to blame. However, like a poor marksman, we keep missing the target.  The missing piece is there for all to see. Let me show it to you:

What you are looking at is the hallway from the pool deck to one of the dining areas of the Carnival ship Inspiration.  I acted like I was getting a picture of the hallway, but I really wanted a picture of this family.  Each morning, these parents sat with their son at the table, while he worked on what appeared to be Calculus problems.  Here we are, on a cruise ship dedicated to glorious hedonism, and this kid is taking time out every day to study.

Did I mention this was an Asian family?  Are you surprised?

We hosted two Asian students for a few weeks over the summer. They were great kids.  One thing I noticed about them was that, amidst their busy schedule with their group, they took time out each day to study.

I live in the southern end of the Salt Lake Valley. Outside of Utah Valley, we are probably one of the whitest areas of the country.  Yet if I go over to the local academic enrichment businesses such as Kumon, the vast majority of their clients are Asian or Indian.

What are all the other American kids up to around here? They are mostly in soccer or football, some are in dance or music, others are just hanging with friends.

Now I don't see anything wrong with what the majority of our American kids are up to... but at some point we have to acknowledge the different ways in which cultures invest their time and money.

Typical American culture puts a lot of time and money into sports and entertainment. We regularly see American parents grooming their kids to be athletes, musicians, or beauty contestants; but we rarely see such grooming investment going toward making them scientists, linguists, or mathematicians.

I recently saw this graphic on Facebook. It shows the highest publicly paid position in each state. Notice what dominates:

If you want to know what is really important to someone, regardless of their declarations, look at where they spend their time and their money.

In the movie The Matrix, the character Cypher wants to be put back into the Matrix with no memory of who he was.  Instead, he says:

"I want to be rich. You know, someone important.... like an actor."

Cypher summed up the heartbeat of our culture. We do not honor and invest in those who heal us, who move us forward scientifically, who advance us intellectually. No, those we make most rich and important are those who entertain us.

Our education system is not broken.  It is a reflection of our culture. We can try any myriad of ways to "fix" it, but if you don't like what you see in a mirror, no amount of mirror adjustments will change the reality.

Now, I don't necessarily WANT those other cultures either. Do I really want to go on a cruise and spend my time doing calculus? Do I want to be visiting another country and stay inside studying? Not at all. I think America just needs to be more honest with why we are where we are. If you want to be better than someone at something, you usually have to be willing to commit more time and money to that thing than they are.

I remember, back in an economics class in college, seeing a documentary about KFC coming to Japan. The amount of training the Japanese received to cook chicken and run the register was simply bizarre. It was weeks and weeks of class work, where each training session started with the new employees in full KFC uniforms standing and saying a pledge to KFC in unison. This was in the 1980s, when Japanese auto companies were kicking America's hind-quarters, and I remember thinking, "If that is what it takes to be first... I'll be a happy second".

Sometimes being first at something isn't worth the investment. It takes a single mindedness and dedication that may not be worthy of the loss of time required. We are only here for a brief span.

America is a leisure culture that values entertainment.... perhaps we need to own that.

1 comment:

Dead Poet said...

I completely agree with this! At first I thought you were going to start talking about how we need to change our focus to be more like the Asians, but I don't want to raise my daughter like that! If we could just get over the "We're number 1 in everything!" mentality Americans as a culture have, I think we would be able to accept the fact that we value entertainment over pretty much anything else. And that's okay. Someone needs to be good at entertainment, too.

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