The Role of Education in Different Cultures

This is not an empirical study about education around the world. Rather, it is an observation and impressions of how different countries regard the purpose of schooling. Given my own background working in education (international and postsecondary, as well as a little bit in primary), Master’s degree in higher and postsecondary education, as well as my undergraduate degree in anthropology, I am always fascinated by how people learn around the world. I have worked with students from a wide range of cultures, and have also traveled to a number of countries.

What I have observed from Asian cultures is that education is of primary importance, that it trumps almost all other core values. Many of these countries have civilizations that are thousands of years old, and great scholars are revered–Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu is still read around the world today, despite the fact that he wrote in the 6th century BC. Being educated and intelligent means being highly respected.

Education is also, nowadays, a tool for betterment in society. Education is the competitive edge, the social currency in which people trade. If you do not study hard, you will not do well in school. If you do not do well in school, this will have dire consequences upon your career. To a certain degree, this is true all over the world. However, the way in which families and individuals place importance in this belief is probably higher in Asia and elsewhere. This leads to another important point–parents are very involved in their children’s education. Beyond the “tiger mother” archetype written about by Amy Chua, parental involvement and simply caring about one’s child’s learning makes for better learners and fewer behavior problems. Statistics from countless studies prove this point.

One key explanation for the competitive, even “dog-eat-dog” climate is a high population. China and India lead the world (and then add in the other former Indian countries of Pakistan and Bangladesh), Indonesia is number four, and then the highly developed Japan and Korea which are also ranked highly in terms of population. Therefore, doing well in school is, at the bottom of it all, a survival strategy. When there is so much competition, and often not enough resources, one has to outdo one’s peers. Anything that is concrete and measurable is the best way to determine this when there are so many students to evaluate; therefore, anything that detract from this is seen as “fluffy” and useless. A great emphasis is placed on completion, jumping through hoops, and where one studies. India has, sadly unbeknownst to many Americans and Westerners, a system of universities in technology and management (Indian Institutes of Technology, or IIT, and Indian Institutes of Management, or IIM). These schools are directly pipelines into graduate programs at Ivy League and other top-ranked schools.

Critics of Asian education complained that it is rote and does not value critical thinking and creativity. These are certainly fair criticisms, especially when compared to education in America and other Western countries. Looking at Asian philosophies of education from a non-relative (read: American) point of view, and having worked with many Asian students, I have to say I concur that there is less flexibility and originality. But advocates say it works for them, and their booming economies are proof.

But there is a dark side to all of this: This pressure on students can sometimes lead to dire consequences: depression, low self-esteem, and at its worst, suicide. Parents can be unrelenting and unyielding, have unrealistic expectations of their children and push their own unfulfilled dreams on their offspring. The extreme emphasis on education, frankly, is a two-edged sword.

Europe is a fascinating area to analyze, because it is not homogenous. Continental Europe differs within itself, and then it also differs from Scandinavia which differs from the United Kingdom. What strikes me most is that Europe often tracks or separates students from a young age. This is positive as well as negative. There is a recognition in many European countries like Germany that a “bookish” education that stresses academic and intellectual learning is not always suitable for everyone, and vice versa. Vocational education is not frowned upon, and often those with such educations do quite well financially and in their careers. Critics of American education often lament that our one-size-fits-all system does not help many students, who are really wasting their time as well as our resources on education that will not help them in the future. Many European countries, such as Italy, therefore can make academic schools more relevant to the students who are qualified enough to attend: they can attend a high school for classics, sciences, etc. Finland, which was recently featured in Michael Moore’s film “Where to Invade Next,” does not believe in cramming students with information and homework, giving them a chance to develop as whole people and as equals. Various folk schools in the Nordic countries and Germany and Austria provide lifelong learning opportunities for adult learners. In the United Kingdom, there is a mix of private schools (ironically known as “public” schools) favored by the upper classes and international elite in addition to state schools. There are universities funded by the state, but like in the United States, ranking is more of an issue. A university like Oxford or Cambridge is world-class, but then there are numerous universities both public and private that provide higher education to a large number of people.

There are many criticisms to be made here. Tracking students early on seems, to an American educator, extremely detrimental, especially if in a country where there is very little opportunity later for career mobility or changes. Many students do not bloom till later, do not find their calling our passion till they have left secondary school. This favors a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” philosophy where the best students are earmarked quite early and therefore university education is not accessible to anyone but the top few percent. In Belgium, however, higher education is open to everyone (with the exception of a few fields), but we must remember that Belgium’s population is nearly 11.2 million people–far behind the larger countries of Germany, the United Kingdom, and France. Same for the Finnish system – a holistic, less-competitive education can work when there is little competition. England’s education system is still, like the country itself, very class-based and becoming costly. Loans are often necessary, as in the United States, to go to university.

The United States is much maligned for this reason, and for many others. The quality of one’s education depends on the wealth of one’s neighborhood. Standardized testing has killed a teacher’s intuition as to what will work best for his or her classroom, leaving it in the hands of authorities. Teachers have to serve as students’ psychologists and babysitters, due to poor parenting. Many educators and curricula emphasize touchy-feely, “Mickey Mouse,” boost-your-self-esteem models that make our students embarrassingly behind in global rankings such as PISA. Sports and prom are high priorities in some schools, as opposed to new lab equipment and music programs. Violence and drugs threaten schools in lower SES areas. On the flip side, there are children who are under pressure, overcommitted to extracurricular activities and punished when their report cards do not show all A’s. These are children–yes, children–and more and more of them are on medications to deal with their anxiety. Their parents call the admissions offices of Ivy League universities did not admit their children. Each year does not go by without hearing of at least a handful of suicides by children who did not get into their top choice of college. And this is for the people who can actually afford to go to college. Each new generation bears more and more debt, and one wonders if these students will ever be able to become debt-free. Is there anything good about the American education system?

Despite all these significant shortcomings, I would argue yes. Despite the fact that America desperately needs K-12 school reform, as well as radical changes in college tuition and loans, there are a number of things to admire. The American system is fundamentally based on openness and positivity. Students are encouraged to try. They are encouraged to challenge ideas, to assert their own opinions, and to be creative. Having a well-rounded education in academics as well as extracurriculars such as music, sports, debate, etc. is considered ideal. Our education system also wishes to address diversity, both in the classroom as well as in the curriculum. Children are taught from an early age that everyone is equal, and to treat all people and races as equal. Different educational needs, from gifted children to special education, are acknowledged. The can-do spirit allows for exceptional individuals who want to return at the age of 60 to finish high school diploma. It allows for students to change their mind from being a statistics major to becoming a premed and eventually a psychiatrist. The best universities in the world are in America, and there is fierce competition worldwide to attend them. Great innovators, scholars, dissident writers–there is a place for them in American academia. Our task is to bring that dynamism into K-12 education to make it accessible to everybody, where a high quality American education is as vital as liberty and justice for all.

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Face the Face: The Lost Art of Beauty

I recently finished reading Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext. The last section deals with the near-extinction of the description of characters’ appearances in literature. Baxter points out, astutely, that part of the reason for this is due to our long history of racial and disability discrimination. These are ugly and shameful behaviors that have been institutionalized and ingrained in American society. But why throw out the baby with the bathwater? Why neglect The Aesthetic?

One of our best cultural critics and public intellectuals, Camille Paglia, has frequently pointed this out in the context of feminism. A chief complaint of Paglia’s is that American feminists have dismissed and even destroyed the presence of art in their quest for female equality and empowerment. As an artist, I cannot help but agree that this is often the case. One such example from my undergraduate days was in an English literature class, where the professor presented an image of a Victorian-era painting in a round shape of a mother holding her baby, sitting next to a window. The professor asked for our comments. Moved by the tenderness and delicacy of the painting, I responded, “It’s beautiful.” However, what followed from my other classmates was a slew of answers that only commented on the repression of women, etc. Certainly women have been repressed and perceived solely as baby-making machines throughout the centuries. But this does not invalidate the sheer beauty of a beautiful image.

This is but a symptom of the lack of a genuine appreciation of art and beauty in American education. It was not until studying abroad at Oxford University that I was able to see that literature was an art, much to my delight. Oscar Wilde himself had lived, literally, across the street! Wilde is a perfect example of the English tradition of the dandy, something that does not exist in American culture, whose roots are in Puritanism and hard-line Protestantism. For a straight male in our culture to dress himself well would subject him to suspicion that he is homosexual or a metrosexual. But our modern metrosexual feels disingenuous: it revolves around a collection of products, usually appeals to men of a high SES, and is, as the name indicates, metropolitan/urban. Perhaps our only sincere dandy cultures exist within lower SES Latino and black cultures, where many men revel in decorating themselves and it is not socially shunned.

The problem is that beauty is highly commoditized in America, and therefore we lack a true sense of the aesthetic, the attractive, the beautiful. Countless magazines (usually based in New York) promote a Madison Avenue image of women each season, as does the billion-dollar fashion industry with a token “overweight” woman (read: the truly normal American-size woman) here or there. The cosmetics industry, also a billion-dollar industry, develops myriad products to make women look and feel young and “better.” And therein lies the legitimate criticism by feminists against the beauty industry and why many of them reject beauty: the American beauty aesthetic relies on perfectionism. It is too normative, based on white Barbie doll or socialite standards. That said, it is hard to resist a gorgeous spread shot on a desert island in a fashion magazine with beautiful lighting, flowing dresses, and glorious colors on the model’s face. It is a natural impulse to admire that which is beautiful. But like everything in America, things go to extremes.

We do not have deep roots in a folk art culture, as do many countries in the world. A Central American woman would have beautiful embroidery on her dress, a South Indian woman would wear a sari with stunning contrasting colors, an Eastern European would have a handpainted floral motif on a piece of furniture. Nor do we have a Scandinavian democratic philosophy of “form and function,” with everyday objects that look appealing. Nor do we have an aristocracy; though this is a very undemocratic institution, if we were to evaluate it strictly from an artistic perspective, it is something that leads to the development of a profound arts culture in any country. There is a reason why English Royalty has such great appeal to the practical Yankees. America is too practical. It thrives on business, efficiency, speed. We do not waste time with our words; those who have spent time in Britain will notice a more flowery prose than ours here across the pond. Our books do not describe people, how they look, what they are wearing – an opening like “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich…” does not belong to an American writer, although this may not be a fair comparison, given that Jane Austen wrote this line a couple of centuries ago.

Arts education is always in danger in America, be it in primary schooling or in academia, where it is considered “impractical” to major in anything creative or art history. Decision-makers and policymakers should be aware of this, and how ironic it is that our best innovators such as Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs were tremendously creative people. The late Maxine Greene, a philosophy professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, was one wonderful example of the sort of educator we need more of. Jacqueline Kennedy was also a seminal figure in promoting and developing arts in America, and we need more high profile women like her. But we also need parents who tell their kids to put down their electronic toys and pick up a sketchpad and simply draw–draw a bird, draw a tree, draw themselves. We need more of those coffeehouse folkies who write songs to their girlfriend’s beautiful hair. In short–we need more art and beauty.