Education, Economics, and Kurma the Turtle

Forbes magazine ran an article 6 May 2012 alluding to “creating innovators.” Tony Wagner is an Education Fellow at Harvard, and author of The Global Achievement Gap. His research on identification of skills necessary for people to compete in the 21st century global workplace is outlined. More interesting is his web site, TonyWagner.com. I am not familiar with Dr. Wagner’s work, though I apparently will need to find a copy of his book. He and I seem to be on the same page, at first blush.

If you are involved in Education, Homeschooling, even parenting, the “HomeschoolingMiddleEast” blog cannot be missed. I am humbled being followed by HSME, indebted by HSME’s patronage, and after having whole pieces of a recent post used as fodder for a HSME post, I feel undeserving of the attention.

HSME raises so many valid points related to my comments I am compelled to clarify. To communicate my current sentiments about Education in the U.S. I’m going to borrow from Hindu mythology. Kurma the Turtle is the reptile upon which the world rests. In homage to Stephen Hawking, its “turtles all the way down,” but the crux of my perspective remains unchanged regardless of the number or type of turtles.

Education is the U.S.’s Kurma, the turtle upon which all else rests. Our social fabric, the lens through which personal, local, state, and federal decisions are made, and the economic basis of our individual livelihoods are all founded upon Education. And, Experience; I can’t omit experience. Together, Education and Experience are the elemental components of our economy. In lieu of experience, people attend colleges and universities to develop essential tools and earn BA/BS degrees which really indicate a unitary trait: how “trainable” a person is. I cannot express the importance of Education enough. But, I still haven’t answered, “why?”

To show all of my cards, I am worried about the slipping position of U.S. Education vis-a-vis Japan, Germany, South Korea, Taiwan, and China, and India. 50 years ago, the U.S. was THE PLACE to be educated. For 5 decades, the U.S. enjoyed unparalleled success in being the go-to place to receive a college education. In fact, Thomas Friedman and Fareed Zakaria have both stated the U.S. Higher Education System is the most important U.S. industry, employing more people, responsible for more innovation, driving the evolving knowledge economy, and educating unprecedented numbers of international students. The U.S. has, and continues to, educate the world.

Over the last 12 years, give or take, politicians and well-meaning and purportedly educated adults have been diligently working to undermine K-12 education in the United States as well as weaken Higher Education across all 50 states. “No Child Left Behind” is only a single example of policy meant to hold adults accountable, yet in attempting to do so neglected to consider the downstream deleterious effects, the creative stifling and restraint imposed, and the fudging of standardized tests by teachers.

Next consider the statistics of incoming freshman students needing remedial courses prior to even enrolling in college. In 2010, the Fairbanks, AK Sun-Star reported “50% of incoming freshmen entering the UA system require at least one remedial course.” In 2011, the Columbus, OH Business Journal wrote, “the share of students under 20 needing remedial help has grown to 39 percent from 36 percent in the past five years, while that same measure for older students has grown to 46 percent from 40 percent.”

I have my own anecdotes. A rough napkin calculation performed one afternoon, I estimated around 2,500 students have passed through my courses. Most of the writing is horrible. No punctuation, no capitalization, little attempt at sentence structure, or developing a thought or argument. Writing assignments look like they were typed as a text message, all lower case, missing vowels. In my syllabus I state, “do not write to me as if I am your mee-maw, mee-mee, grannie, or whatever you call your grandmother.” Doesn’t matter, though; I still get poor writing. A friend of mine who has taught in Missouri schools attributes poor writing skills to the lack of writing evaluation in K-12. Journals are written without regards to grammar, spelling, punctuation, or organization.

When I was a parent, I attended Parent-Teacher Organization workshops. Every seminar or workshop I attended. I also was a parent-volunteer, coming in at my appointed time to read, or center work, or help in the lunch room. The elementary school had one of the highest parent volunteer participation rates in the state. I cannot find the data to support my next comment, but I would swear the participation rate was ~23%. Less than 1 in 4 parents volunteered at their kids school, and according to school officials, we were in the “high” range. I have no trouble believing them. Parents, painting with a broad brush, place a huge amount of faith in a few people. Parents in Japan, South Korea, China, India, Germany, you name the country and pretty much the parents in said country emphasize education more than U.S. parents. I would guess a child from Vietnam, Thailand, or Ghana would adore a U.S. education.

A new freshman I am familiar with graduated from a local high school with honors. She felt very good about her abilities, as she had been groomed throughout her K-12 academic career, told how “smart she is,” and apparently never hearing much in the way of constructive criticism. After her first semester of university, she enrolled in the local community college. Her opinion of herself shattered, her high school education an elaborate collection of lies, and feelings of betrayal. How could I be the valedictorian of my high school class and almost fail-out of university? I was totally unprepared for the rigors of university writing, math, and biology.

Some people have taken the education of their children upon themselves. Many of these parents are doing amazing work with their children. Some of these children will be progeny, the new Creative Class of Innovators, of Critical Thinkers who will carry forward their parent’s intellect and will be remarkable among their peers. I follow some of these parents on Twitter and read their accounts. Not only are these parents giving their children an education but they are also helping encourage a Global Child who will become a Global Adult who will see the world in new and brilliant ways. The wife of a friend of mine homeschools their five children. Recently, the entire family had the fortune to spend a few months in Spain. By the time of their return to the states, their eldest was almost conversational in Catalan and the family had toured and explored Spain, and indulged in Spain’s cuisine. How great of an experience for a 14-yo boy?!

On the other hand, a friend of mine related her experience. When two homeschooled graduates enrolled in the local community college they met with little success. Their lack of success was not due to a deficit of knowledge, their issues revolved around the fact none of their professors were as “good as their mom.”

Everything is an ecosystem. Its not the homework assignment which is solely important, not in-and-of itself. No, I submit the homework assignment is also a testament to patience, perseverance, of being able to work through a problem set, to build patience and intellectual endurance. We encourage these behaviors not merely because we want our children to do well in school, but also because these traits will help them be successful as adults. Being able to focus, be single-minded, patient, to assemble skills to problem-solve are traits to be used not just to get through our 5th Grade math homework, but as a future college student, or future chemist, the child will need many traits to be both happy and successful. While the surface appears simple, complexity lies in the composition.

I’m not especially angry about being a witness to the U.S. government’s critical neglect of Education; I am dismayed, saddened, chagrined, stymied, and incredulous, and usually all of these simultaneously. I can completely appreciate homeschooling of children by smart educated parents, technologically savvy and with more than a mere wit Socratic exuberance themselves who see the world as a laboratory, and have a thirst for learning.

I see our economic foundation fracturing as politicians, policy-makers, and parents tilt at windmills, chasing the spectres of school prayer, standardized tests, same-sex marriage, spreading the myths of “you’re unique and special” when the World cares not one iota. Yes, Mom and Dad cares, and grandparents, and a teacher or two; the World, in general, does not.

China is closing the Education Gap. India is closing the Education Gap. The U.S. imports willing international students and exports educated chemists, physicists, engineers, financiers, and computer programmers. The Knowledge Export closes the education gap abroad as the Educated in turn educate. As these societies become more educated, their industry and technology will compete with ours. By allowing ourselves to be distracted by Same-Sex Marriage, Oil, and terrorism the U.S. economic infrastructure is undermined by our belligerence towards education.

The lethargic adoption of educational, social, and economic reforms collude to stagnate our society, a stagnation perpetuated by backward-focused, parochial, calcified, entrenched and dogmatic conservatives who fear The New and The Different. Without renewed and energetic focus on Education, the U.S. will find itself fighting not simply for economic stability and growth but merely to remain relevant in the face of China, India, and Brazil.

Thanks, again, to HomeschoolingMiddleEast for inspired thoughts and comments, for commenting, for revealing the weakness in my writing, and in doing so, helping to strengthen my rhetoric. Yes, due to the diligence of parents like you, “saviours” will no doubt erupt from future generations.

PAX

One thought on “Education, Economics, and Kurma the Turtle

  1. I feel (almost) speechless 😉 ! Wow! I had no idea you were returning the compliment, times 10, with this post! I just clicked on it, as usual for some bedtime intellectual stimulation in an area I’m passionate about (although you don’t always post specifically about education, I’m always still riveted!).

    Your support of me ‘almost almost’ made me cry but what (single!) almost made me cry was your statistics; the low number of parents interested in their children’s education and your stories of how shockingly badly your students write. I felt almost sick and I’m not being confronted by that on a daily basis.

    I worry myself into premature grey hairs because my 7 year old doesn’t want to write, won’t be able to spell etc… But after reading your post, I thought, there is no way, with two articulate, caring adults leading his educational adventure that he’s not going to leave home not only being able to write, but write really well, to compliment his supreme verbal communication skills. He may only be interested in learning how to write well when he’s in his teens, until then I’ll have to sweat, but it WILL happen! At the moment, he’s learning how to be a bit of a maverick in a pretty conservative society and our main job is to support his self esteem, his sense of identity right now. Everything will have its time (I wonder if Plato said anything alone those lines too? My memory is rusty!)

    Great, great post. Can’t wait to read more. Thanks for being so positive about my comments 🙂

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