Friday, May 11, 2012

Educational Failures?

America is not exactly on the up and up in the science/math department. From what I hear (I'm too lazy to look up statistics) it's quite a bleak scenario. We, the among the wealthiest of the wealthy nations, cannot compete on an international level in quantitative fields. Why? Who do we blame?

It's hard to say it's a poverty thing. It's absurd to call it racial as we are a heterogeneous melting pot. It's not for lack of trying, we have a great deal of money put into our school systems, and tons of - but probably never enough -  overqualified teachers. Just maybe it's for lack of caring. What I'm going to say it is, is our culture.

Please note, this really is a commentary on the AMERICAN educational system, but many first world countries are experiencing the same slumps in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics - STEM. Perhaps some of these points could be translated, but not knowing enough, I won't go there.

So, what about our culture is not breeding scientists? For one thing, we are a glamour driven society. We see pro athletes and movie stars and Xtina parading around in a sparkly diaper, and we go ga-ga. Does anyone even know who has won a Nobel prize in chemistry, ever? Marie Curie, she might have...right? Still, that was a different time. One could make the argument that science isn't as exciting as it used to be period, but that might just be because no one is in an arms/space race. The point is, who we support through media coverage is important to what our youth want to be, and for that matter, who they think they can be: if a child has never heard of neuroscience, its pretty hard to aspire to studying it.

On another level, science is unemotional, and our culture is very emotionally developed. Sure maybe you got mad at your 6th grade science partner when he branded you with a Bunsen burner, but it's hard to imagine getting the same feeling from delivering water from of a truck in Somalia as proving Fermat's last theorem. To be perfectly honest, I have my opinion on which one is more emotionally stimulating, but I can't push that too far. For most, the visceral reaction of interacting with other people is more powerful than interacting with a piece of paper and a pen by yourself. This is a problem for those pushing STEM fields, but a problem that can be improved and potentially overcome by encouraging collaboration and a Googley work environment. Nevertheless, great effort has been put into making science seem fun and exciting, and it's strange to see other countries not have to do this at all, but still kick our asses in national merit exams.

Still though, the largest problem to me is not so blate (see #3). It comes from within, from a culture that does not encourage our youth to succeed, but rather tries to make them feel good about themselves. In short one that coddles. Many of us who were lucky enough to go to good schools know how important it was to teachers for students to be happy, and to feel like they were succeeding. Well. Ok. Confidence building can really be great. It helps a student believe she can solve problems and succeed in the future. BUT. What if he can't? What if all the problems students were faced with were solved by others or given enough aid that the problems practically solved themselves. Then is this success? Or are we building facades of capability on top of uberhuman ego? This is drastic, but its scary. Warning -- blanket statement -- It's how George Bush could possibly sleep at night thinking he was qualified to be the fucking PRESIDENT of America after getting C's. When building confidence and empowering youth becomes more important than actually teaching youth skills, we see failures on a massive scale. That's a cold hard fact. Suck it Coors. I'm not even confident that the failures are only happening in STEM fields, but these have quantitative results that cannot be inflated the same way subjective tests can be. So the rest of the argument should be taken as an attempt to refine what is wrong with American scholastic achievements broadly.

An additional problem with coddling the youth is the creation of indifference and a lack of self responsibility.  Most people are not given everything in their lives, but it seems more and more are taught that what is important is self belief for no other reason than individual human uniqueness as opposed to self belief arising from true previous accomplishment. This leads to a sort of nihilism that actually seems a reasonable response to never having any positive feedback for actual success vs. self confidence building. Indifference edifies itself due to a lack of failure and subsequent detriment -- a classic case of losing appreciation for lack of comparison. To the point then what we really need to do is champion true success wherever it arises and basically just be real. Real as in honest. Honest so that children do believe and appreciate accomplishment over failure, because one seems less likely and therefore valuable. It is of course important to keep things in perspective and part of reality is the existence of failure.

Do let's have a discussion about it. I have concocted two horrendously named Greek characters to be me and you. Try to guess who is whom.

Scepticus: "Doesn't what you say imply not everyone will succeed? Isn't that anti-American?"

Optimus: "Well. Yes and no. Things done changed... just ask Dre. America is still the land of opportunity, but it got a lot harder to gain social strata compared to 100 years ago. This is statistics, more people, more competition, there are deeper issues here, but would require a whole 'nother post. Forget the royalty who don't need to work hard to succeed. For most people, sitting around will not get you a job. Being a good applicant, and applying for a job will give you the best chance. That is, actually being capable, not simply believing in it is the crux. Of course again I have to give merit to talking the talk in America as an objectively useful technique, but true performance is more important in most positions that aren't held by Don Draper."

"And here's another thing; expectations are unfair. There are many students out there who do not like school. Why are they there? Probably because someone told them that was the best way to make money/get ahead/advance themselves. For the most part going to school is a good idea. But, it should not be forced on everyone. The idea that every person in the US should go to college is silly. We should work toward expanding what 'success' is, and stop forcing teenagers who would be much happier and more successful in trade school than cramming for a sociology test in a library. This also requires a conscientious effort to provide the true path for different career choices. Positive and negative. That especially means showing the admirability and skill set of many types of workers, not just astronauts, governors, and bank executives."

Scepticus: "Isn't this building fake confidence again?"

Optimus: "Not to me. It seems like building true confidence, by giving people tasks they can and want to complete. If we are talking about a hard working person, I think most would agree that it is much more stimulating and exciting to have a job that is possible, but challenging."

Scepticus: "And what if the student doesn't know or can't predict the merits of higher education at the time?"

Optimus: "This to me seems like a failure of lower education. As above, it should be understood throughout school that learning and the skills you gain from class ARE going to be valuable to you as an adult. At which point this stops being true is up to each person. As a fairly mature teenager, these decisions should be possible. In Europe 17 yearolds applying to college have to already know their major, educational flexibility is a wonderful thing, and I'm not arguing against that side of the US system, but asserting that at this age if school has worked so far, you should be able to make decisions for yourself."

Scepticus: "What about the people who aren't coddled?"

Optimus: "They have it harder. I don't really know how to answer this one. It's a damn shame that every school district in America doesn't have the same standards and capabilities and funding to give every child a fair and square opportunity."

The conversation trails off...

In summary, the problem I see is that we are setting people up for failure by not actually forcing them to gain the skills that the non-coddling real world will test. This even leaves many college graduates floundering. How do we fix it? Answer: Parenting.

Parents are the ones who can actually discipline their children from a young age. This means enforcing that the world is not a piece of cake, but that with hard work, is edible. Furthermore, it means giving children enough fall back help that when they don't succeed at everything, it is not the end of the world. This includes the admission that success in every direction is not guaranteed. Failure however should not be enjoyed, just accepted as a truth of a life filled with attempts. Teachers can sort of work on this, but the real responsibility is on the parents. If it is not backed from that direction, school will never succeed as it will seem like a place where the rules are different and harsher, and most normal children will react to that negatively.

So, a solution seems to be not treating the symptoms; a troubled youth, but instead focusing on the cause; uneducated parents and a broken society. Sidenote: if parents did not have children before they were ready to be good parents, this could be mended. Treating the cause requires redefining what we consider success to be a broader range of activities. This requires a giant priority adjustment to work in practice. Particularly in America, we must confront the challenge of separating happiness and money. Hard work should be put into revitalizing the philosophy of having as much as you need and being aware of your advantages. With this finally accomplished -- on the unrealistic scale I'm practically touching Uranus right now -- we can then be real with our youth and give them the best possibilities to succeed given hard work and a solid safety net. To return to the STEM quandry it requires refurbishing the image of a scientist to be a desirable mate in an exciting and emotionally engaging field of work. That's on top of the other challenges.

It will be interesting to see if the US really does continue the way of Rome, in a landslide of laziness, impossible bureaucracy, and spread thin over countless war fronts. The parallels are surely adding up. Escaping the educational crisis does seem like a good way to fix ourselves up a bit, and if there's anything we can do it will come from a successful youth.

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