Monday, April 23, 2012
A Response to TWO MILLION MINUTES
The documentary film Two Million Minutes, Chapter 1: A Global Examination is a film whose premise I cannot, with any honesty, support or agree with in any way, shape, or form. Its bias is blatantly self-evident and the logic it employs is a classic case of flawed deductive logic and can only be accepted by those employing a confirmation bias fallacy. It purports to present a realistic picture of Indian, Chinese, and American schooling, but cherry-picks the students it utilizes to represent the three nations in question, leading viewers to erroneously conclude that American schools and American students are disastrously behind in global educational standards.
The reality is that, although rapidly and catastrophically shrinking over the past fifty or sixty years, emphasis on the humanities and associated skills of critical thinking, problem solving, analysis, synthesis, dialectic, and liberal, creative thought and experimentation is a standard foundational pillar of American (and indeed Western) education that is largely absent from non-Western schooling. The tragedy of American schools and, indeed, the greatest failure of American schools, is the shrinking support for and inept instruction of the humanities coupled with our insistence on being more like Asian educational institutions. Indeed, I would strongly argue that it is because of the perception that Asian schooling is superior to that of the West that we are abandoning the humanities that have generated the liberal political models, freedoms, philosophies, and reasoned, rational critique that have been hallmarks of Western thought since the Athenian agora. Indeed, Albert Einstein, who had difficulty with mathematics but could visualize the immense complexities of space-time, would never have succeeded in these Asian school systems.
My own experience with Asian schooling and my numerous colleagues in the ESL field abroad who have worked in China can attest to the dismal lifestyles and stunted intellectual, emotional, and analytical development of Asian students. In those countries, equality of education is not guaranteed nor is it even remotely encouraged. In the United States, educational equality may not be a reality for some geographic and demographic sectors of society, but it is still the ideal for which we strive. In countries like Korea, China, and Japan, students brutally compete for percentile ranks in their schools, since higher test scores can secure seats in better middle schools and high schools, which in turn can help students get into more prestigious universities. Once in university, a student no longer needs to study as hard and most of their activity at that level is geared toward creating connections and building a network that will help them in a workplace environment that is most assuredly not a meritocracy. The West still has the lion’s share of the best and most rigorous universities in the world.
The actual lives of the students are completely consumed with school work. In Korea I have seen some students study themselves into illness and others become dependent on drugs to the point of severe abuse in order to stay awake and study. About half of students at my Korean middle school had resigned themselves to menial-labor jobs because they had fallen too far behind the most advanced students in their grades. They felt they could never catch up fast enough to make a difference and so studied only enough to scrape by without getting into trouble. After school, the students would attend cram schools into the night. Few got any decent amount of sleep. None of them ever had the opportunity to have a real childhood and develop the imaginative, creative lifestyles that American students could enjoy during their off-hours. Students rarely had time to play in organized sports, develop hobbies, or engage in activities that fostered self-esteem or gave the students a sense that life was worth living. I would strongly suggest the viewer watch this documentary (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z5GvkcjszLk) which is in the works. Although South Korea is not part of the documentary, many of the characteristics of Korean education are identical to Chinese education (as well as Japanese education) from the evidence I have gathered from the other expat English teachers I had met during my sojourn in Korea.
The problem with the American students is not that we are falling behind in math and science. That we are falling behind in those fields is a product of a sickness that has developed in American culture since the end of the Second World War. The prosperity of the 1950s decade created a generation that was used to getting what it wanted—the Baby Boomers who referred to themselves as the “Me Generation.” The birth of the adolescent in society and culture heralded a shift in what constituted as adulthood in the United States. Ever since, the ability of Americans to become adjusted adults has become more and more tenuous. For one who is curious as to the socio-historical roots of this phenomenon, I would advice the reader to watch the BBC documentary Century of the Self by Adam Curtis (it can be found on youtube for free).
The illness in our educational system is cultural and not entirely academic. Yes, poor teachers, low funding, oversized classes, and other elements come into play in American schools (just watch Waiting for “Superman” and ask yourself why all those kids want lottery tickets to go to charter schools). However, the real culprit is culture. American culture is decadent. Our television, movies, and video games celebrate stupidity and mindlessness. People who are intellectual are shunned in American schools and the butt of jokes in American television (just watch Big Bang Theory on TBS and you’ll see what I mean).
If this documentary had approached me when I was in high school (1994-1997), they would have traced a student who graduated 9th in his class, scored a 1300 on the SAT without studying, took honors and AP classes, did concert band and concert choir, read John Locke and Plato in his own free time, memorized and recited Shakespeare for fun, studied chess competitively, participated in the school musical, played drums in a rock band, did community service with the National Honors Society, took karate classes twice a week, had a part-time job delivering pizzas, and still managed to paint models and play miniature wargames on odd weekends. However, this documentary chose to focus on two mediocre American high school students that I (when I was 16) would have thought were complete idiots (yes, even the boy who got a full ride to Purdue). My parents pushed me relentlessly. If I got an A, my father would ask me, “Why isn’t it an A+?”
My parents also taught me how to change brakes, oil, fluids, lights, filters, spark plugs, shocks, and various engine components on a car, do laundry, repair home appliances, cook, fix household plumbing, balance a checkbook, use MS DOS, and maintain and care for a home and lawn—lessons absolutely unheard of in East Asia. Students over there are far, far too busy studying to actually acquire any practical, real-world experience in maintenance, repair, or even an appreciation for the value of money. None of them have time for part-time work because of their devotion to study—study which, for far too many of them, given the competitive nature of their schooling, results in many students going to mediocre universities despite how much effort they put into their studies.
What these students have in East Asia that American students do not is an appreciation for education. And that, again, is cultural. Americans view education as simply a means to an end. High school is boring and a drag. University classes are, too, but at least they are job training and you get a pretty piece of paper that says you can get a job making $90,000 a year. Americans disdain intelligence and intellectualism, celebrate self-interest and ostentatious consumerism, and are loath to take responsibility for their own actions. Many professors in the liberal arts to whom I have spoken feel that these cultural traits of Americans today are products of our dwindling emphasis on the humanities in school, university, and society as a whole—disciplines that encourage introspection, self-criticism and analysis, free and creative thought, and inculcate a desire to be free tempered with a sense of civic duty and appreciation for order. A philosophy professor here at Eastern once commented to me on an article he read in Rolling Stone about the Dartmouth fraternity scene, saying, “These guys were beasts. They were going to end up at Goldman Sachs. They were completely self-interested, barely liberal, beasts. And the university didn’t much care. They were going to be good donors.”
A better comparison would be with German and perhaps Dutch education systems. The Germans also track students and based on performance assign them to different high schools which, in turn, determine if the students go on to university or vocational/technical training academies. However, they also emphasize the humanities and many of their modern cultural heroes are philosophers and intellectuals such as Jurgen Habermas and Michel Foucault. American cultural heroes are brash, arrogant athletes that couldn’t reason their way out of a wet paper bag.
However, the film completely ignores the European educational scene entirely, playing off of our fear of the “Yellow Peril,” as if Sax Rohmer’s worst nightmares for the Western world could be summed up by Chinese high school education. The makers of Two Million Minutes started off with an assumption—that Asian schools are beating us—an assumption that they fail to prove yet attempt to work backwards, cherry-picking the students they wish to examine and track as if that sort of post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning will suffice.
It does not suffice. Indeed, the premise is entirely wrong. The Indians and Chinese are not beating us because of our education system. They are beating us because of culture. Their citizens value education and learning. Ours once valued frugality, industriousness, creativity, risk-taking, and hard work. Americans have come to value stupidity and self-interest. That is why we have fallen behind. It is not because we do not push science and math in our schools but because in our decadence we have abandoned those principles which made us unique and strong in the first place.