Friday, June 02, 2006


Education and Culture - Part 2

My earlier page on the subject produced some adverse reaction, not only on comments posted but also on e-mail I received directly. To start with, I did not mean that immigrants are better students on the average. I did say that immigrants are over-represented amongst the best students but I have also encountered immigrants who were very weak students. So I was not making any general comparison between the two groups. I should have made that point clear.

My main point was that the American educational system is not as bad as is often claimed to be because some people from different cultures seems to learn a lot in American schools. It was pointed that my evidence was anecdotal and I admit it was, although it was not limited to a few examples but to observations over 30 years of teaching.

Clearly what a person learns in a school depends on several factors: on the individual's motivation and preparation, on the effect of classmates, on the individual teacher, on the school atmosphere, and probably others. Over the years of my teaching I observed three types of students: those who would learn no matter what, those who would learn depending on the school and the teacher (usually the larger group), and those who would not learn under any circumstances. When I taught I was trying to peg my teaching to the middle group and I would judge my own effectiveness on how well they did. I enjoyed interacting with the top group of students (and I would take them sometimes as research students) but I would not take credit for their achievements. These were the people who would have done well no matter what. Some of them acknowledged later my influence but I do not think it was critical.

I have noticed that the public debate often ignores the complex interactions of these factors and usually focuses on one of them. Now and then one hears variations of the statement "students do not fail; teachers fail." It often comes from the political left but sometimes comes from the political right if they want to bash the teachers union. Sorry folks, some people are not amenable to education and it is probably not a good idea to force it upon them. The Greek multimillionaire Onassis was a high school drop-out. I had a distant relative who emigrate to the U.S. in his early teens with his father (that was around 1900-1910), the father went back and he stayed on his own. He had no schooling but he ended up as a very successful businessman owning several restaurants. I met him about 50 years ago and he made a point that his lack of education was not a problem for him. "I can hire a secretary for $50 a week" he said " and she can write all the letters I want. I have to spend my time on far important things, dealing with my customers, my suppliers, my employees."

Part of the problem of our schools is the "one side fits all approach", often peddled under the guise of "equal opportunity." In several other countries high schools are specialized, that is a rarity in the United States. Consider five 14 year olds who are destined (if one can guess the future) to become each a great success in different fields of endeavor: retail business, law, theater, medical science, computer technology. Why should all five of them spend four years in the same curriculum?

More to come ...
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