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Sunday, November 21, 2010

America's education "culture" needs to change

By Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times, November 20, 2010
Tony Wagner, the Harvard-based education expert and author of “The Global Achievement Gap,” explains it this way. There are three basic skills that students need if they want to thrive in a knowledge economy: the ability to do critical thinking and problem-solving; the ability to communicate effectively; and the ability to collaborate.

If you look at the countries leading the pack in the tests that measure these skills (like Finland and Denmark), one thing stands out: they insist that their teachers come from the top one-third of their college graduating classes. As Wagner put it, “They took teaching from an assembly-line job to a knowledge-worker’s job. They have invested massively in how they recruit, train and support teachers, to attract and retain the best.”
And, Mr Friedman, let's not reduce those countries' dedication to excellence in education to "taking teaching from an assembly-line job to a knowledge worker's job." That is, however, true.
What is also true, is that the human being in those countries is not reduced to a "consumer" for political purposes. They have generic value, and the social policy in those countries reflects that generic value, not based exclusively on their "accumulated dollars and investments" nor on their academic achievements, nor on their genetic code, nor on their standing in the community historically. People in these countries do not inherit "social value"; they do not have their social value stored in their Swiss bank accounts; they do not have their social value pasted on their office walls in the form of diplomas; they do not have their social value hanging in their trophy cabinets, from their athletic achievements.
Theirs is not a society dedicated to the "production" of an elite by the elite for the elite so that the top 1% of earners will earn 25% of the nations' wealth, as has become the case in the United States. Their national income distribution is far more equitable.
It will also be very difficult  for the U.S. to marry the generation, support and sustainment of excellent teachers with a long cultural tradition of "independent" "solo fliers" who carry their desire, even their addiction to their own personal freedom so far as to "rack" their guns in the window of their pick-ups and stamp their rear bumpers with stickers reading "this vehicle is insured by Smith and Wesson".
Let's face it, Mr. Friedman, your country is not only sceptical of all learning, and of all real learners, it is downright contemptuous of both the process of learning and those who dedicate themselves to that learning.
Witness the recent rise from both obscurity and from intellectual vacuity, of the Tea Party, whose primary aim is to render one of the most brilliant minds in the history of your country to have become president both a eunuch for the next two years, and a one-term 'phenom' because he is "out of touch" with the American people.
Oh, let's agree that there is a large segment of your population who can be "externally motivated" by dollars to attend school and pass their grades and even perhaps graduate from college. But a "learn to earn" approach, without a fundamental change in the attitudes of the whole society to the enterprise of learning, is a reductionism that will generate a few new and perhaps excellent teachers, and a few more doctoral candidates, but it will not compete with those countries whose commitment to their own long-term health and wellnes, of themselves individually and of their families and communities is part of their DNA.
Just look at the American consumer and consumerism for a moment. Black Friday, later this week, will generate literal stampedes into consumer outlets, that could, once again, result in "death" by stampede, as they clamber for more and more "goods". And just look at the sizes of the American butts that attempt to walk down Mainstreet in most towns and cities and to crowd through the doors of those boxstores. These "butts" are not ready to learn; they are already too tired just trying to move their bodies from one place to another to have any energy left over to learn.
And then, look at your "star" culture, as embodied in your entertainment and sports "stars" and the multiple adolescent magazines and television programs and computer games that support that "star" system.
People who seek to learn, and who commit themselves to learn and who inspire others to commit themselves to learn do not do it for the extrinsic "bobbles" it will generate. They do it because of their commitment to the issue, to themselves and to the learning process.
It cannot and must not be reduced to another "production" equation, generating more PhD's and more consumer revenue and more tax revenue. It must be seen to be a uniquely valuable and valued enterprise, not in the corporate "for-profit" sense.
And unless and until your country changes from the adolescent culture it is, to a far more complex and far more integrous and a far more "collaborative" society, even the skills necessary for the last of the three educational goals will escape achievement, sadly.
And the rest of the world is certainly watching!

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