I recently distributed a link to a NYTimes article about two private, extremely rigorous, Korean schools and their learning methods. See the article, here: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/27/world/asia/27seoul.html?scp=1&sq=korean+schools&st=nyt
The responses that I received back were all extremely thoughtful. While some were humorous and others seemed distraught at the tactics of the schools, only one caught me off guard, at first. One person, a friend I respect tremendously and who I have known for a very long time, pointed out an interesting trend: “so, to what extent do American writers go to protect our schools from criticism? In every article I read like this, foreign students are characterized as maniacal, insanely-driven students with no goals. Yet, American schools fall behind in every measurable statistic. What are we trying to say in these articles? That other national will try to keep us but they’ll never succeed? Is this a way for us to claim superiority while our economic and social status continues to fall in the world? I’m confused by this article. Students from overseas are consistently smarter and more determined than their American counterparts—why do we vilify and mock them?”
Although I do not believe that the schools mentioned in this article- and any like them, domestic or international- are healthy models, there is an idea of achievement that they are pursuing, which, in relation to many low-performing American schools and in light of the competitive atmosphere for college admissions, is admirable. However, setting unsustainable examples for young people to try and live up to (also, see a more recent article, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/24/nyregion/24lunch.html) and giving them few reasons to achieve, never explaining what the purpose- or road- to achievement can provide for them, is borderline abusive.
In other words, let us think about the idea of education as the end, achievement as the byproduct of a healthy education. Perhaps I’m being obscure. What I mean to say is that no one can guarantee achievement- based on education, social class, physical prowess, etc . . . However, the one element that is universally understood as an indication of success is what a student can do in a discussion, in a free-thinking environment . . . in a classroom. Granted, not every family can provide the luxury of allowing their son or daughter the opportunity to pursue academics without the thought of earning potential. In fact, even if they could, many families insist from early on that their child(ren) begin to exhaust themselves in order to have a “better life”. But, just imagine if we could afford every student the opportunity to pursue whatever interested him or her, academically and vocationally. That it were somehow financially beneficial to pursue the study of philosophy just for the sake of ideas used to be something that people did. It seems like this is an antiquated idea of the American dream. No longer is it feasible. Somewhere, somehow, there has to be a happy-medium between the students in the articles above and the typical, disinterested, unmotivated, purposeless American high schooler. I believe that this can be overcome, one book, one student, one mentor, one step at a time.