Western education

The state of education across the world

Western education

Postby Elliott » 05 Jan 2013, 18:47

Elliott writes, in relation to the dumbing down of children...

I'm sorry that I haven't contributed to this thread before, Gavin. It is undoubtedly a topic that deserves much contemplation!

For now I will just quote this comment which I found on the Guardian website, regarding comprehensive and grammar schooling:

Wet Drip wrote:Please, let us not denigrate the ideologically correct and Utopian comprehensive system! Let us instead beware of the danger represented by grammar schools.

There is one statistic (courtesy of the ever dangerous NGSA) that says it all: 164 grammar schools achieve roughly the same number of higher grades at A level in serious academic subjects (such as sciences, languages, and mathematics) than nearly ten times more Comprehensives in England put together. I don't think there is any other single figure that so clearly illustrates for us the grave danger that Grammar Schools pose to the education system. As one memorable Labour politician also rightly said of the Free Schools (I forget his name): "there is a danger that these schools will be successful". This is precisely the threat that we must guard against: if there are more and more of these Grammars and Free schools there is every danger that more and more young people will be ever more highly successful (will become "winners" as someone grotesquely put it) and thus increase the already abysmal gap between high and low achievers (thus also creating more high achievers for the rest to rightly feel envious of and want to bring down a peg or two). This is to say nothing of the ruinous effects on existing schools and teachers who will be under unbearable pressure to improve their performance and make their education more appropriate to the individuals they are teaching. But most of all the psychological effects of this on those who turn out not to be academic high flyers will be absolutely disastrous.

First of all, as I think we all realize, no morally sensitive caring young person who witnesses another person being successful at anything at all could possibly help being overcome by thoughts of murderous rage, jealousy, and resentment towards them, thus giving rise to likely social division, chaos and havoc (unlike the social peace, harmony, and contentment we have in society at present thanks in large measure to the work of the Comprehensives).

Second, the unendurably painful sight of other people being selected, or having success of any kind, will naturally crush the delicate flower-like self-esteem of our hardy young milksops who will almost certainly want to give up on life altogether. I personally have been told about hundreds of cases where children have simply given up doing maths, or playing football, as soon as they realized that someone else was better at it than they were. Apparently one child threatened to commit suicide after losing a game of tiddlywinks - the inevitable evil result of competitive activity of any kind (as we already knew) and precisely the sort of calamity we can expect to be faced with if we listened to the Grammar School-loving Loonies and their irrational assumption that human beings are robust creatures capable of dealing with failure, risk, or pain.

Above all though, let us ask ourselves this: can we really contemplate introducing more Grammars when society is already awash with cut-throat elitism of every kind? Almost everywhere you look there are elites of every description prospering: elite sportsmen, artists, doctors, brain surgeons, elite cosmologists and biologists (criminally knowing more than other people) and so on. Almost at every turn one sees the noble and sacred Egalitarian Ideal brutally trampled underfoot by a savagely competitive and selective society. Surely the last thing we need to do is morally corrupt our children by preparing them for such a wicked world?

More Grammar Schools and the like could only mean that we would have even more people striving after excellence of every kind, thereby opening up and increasing the gaping chasms and divisions within society. That is why we have little option but to stifle this tendency as far as possible by the imposition of uniform mediocrity, and teaching philosophy centred around the needs of the least able and dumbing down. Indeed, I do not see what other policy we can realistically adopt if we are to attain the ultimate goal and purpose of education itself - namely, to try and maintain the proper pretence and correct illusion of equality amongst human beings.
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Re: Western education

Postby Paul » 05 Jan 2013, 20:58

Great comment. It did take me a paragraph to work it out and calm down.

Here's another good comment:

As someone who trains 16-19 engineering apprentices I get quite tired of this stereotype that 'non-academic' students will excel in practical work. I does occur, but it is quite rare.

By and large, if a student performs poorly in the classroom, chances are that they will also perform poorly in the workshop. Conversely, those who perform well in the classroom, generally do well in practical work.

It's less to do with talent, or intelligence, and more to do with the attitudes that students bring into the classroom/ workshop. A student who cannot be bothered to put the effort into maths generally will not put the effort into installing an electrical circuit.

The idea that 'working with their hands' will enthrall an otherwise unwilling student is, by and large, a myth. And that's not even addressing the need for theoretical knowledge before they start 'working with their hands'.


That is quite true indeed. I know this from direct experience and a large factor is also definitely the matter the last sentence of the comment highlights. I can pretty confidently say that the overwhelming majority of school-leavers can't even read a tape measure, let alone a dual gauge (metric & imperial). As for conversion between the two - no chance!
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Re: Western education

Postby Podori » 06 Jan 2013, 02:43

Paul wrote:Great comment. It did take me a paragraph to work it out and calm down.


Calm down? You must have manageable nerves. I still haven't calmed down after learning about the elite state schools that exist in South Korea. It wouldn't be quite correct to call them grammar schools, because they are more specialised than their English counterparts. Two of my students last year were accepted into an elite art school and two others passed the exam for the foreign language school (by now they are already well into advanced studies in English and another foreign language, on top of their standard curriculum).

Every year we receive brochures from the elite schools encouraging able students to apply. Our province is special in that we are home to the main training base for the South Korean air force; for interested students there is an aviation science high school open to the best and brightest pupils who want to pursue military careers. How amazing is that?

I am told that the elite science schools are the most difficult to get into. A teacher gave me this figure: a student must be in the top six percent of exam finalists before he is even considered for interview.

Whatever subject elite schools specialise in, they are united in the ethos that they must take the best pupils and develop their talents to a level of excellence. Students from these schools typically advance to the best universities in Korea and abroad, often on substantial scholarships.

I see the opportunities that Korean students get - in an education system that is cheaper to run on the whole that the UK or US - and it tears at me deeply. Even the normal schools for average students have higher academic standards than my Canadian high school.

We in the West have shamefully dedicated ourselves to mediocrity

Comment from a South African teacher whom I met in my first year in Korea: "I don't like how education in this country focuses on the smart kids."

Ladies and gentlemen, weep. Our education system is little better than child abuse.
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Re: Western education

Postby Heather » 06 Jan 2013, 18:44

I graduated from an American public school less than 8 years ago. I'd hardly call my experience "little better than child abuse." There are lots of problems with education systems in the West, and that's why I'll be giving my children a classical education, by myself. I just think that using imprecise terms and wild hyperbole doesn't exactly help our cause, if I may respectfully say so.
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Re: Western education

Postby Gavin » 06 Jan 2013, 19:42

I don't think anyone will be doing any weeping and I agree with Heather; that was a totally inappropriate term. What concerns me, further, is it belittles actual child abuse. I nearly pulled the comment.

Furthermore I would say the teachers should focus on all the children, just not expect the same performance from all.
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Re: Western education

Postby Gavin » 06 Jan 2013, 20:12

I'd like to also express my admiration, on a separate note, for you planning to home school your child, Heather. You're not only there as a mother but helping them learn too. I think my wife and I would do the same thing.

It should be quite interesting. I assume you have to get all the right syllabus information and the relevant books, do you, and then check in with authorities periodically for evaluation? Perhaps you haven't had a chance to look into it to that level yet.
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Re: Western education

Postby Heather » 06 Jan 2013, 21:46

Thanks for your interest in homeschooling, Gavin. Homeschooling laws in America vary by state; some are lax and others strict. My state seems fairly middle-of-the-road (and perhaps slightly lax), requiring the parent to register the school with the state, keep records, operate for at least 9 months of the year, and show reasonable achievement in grammar, spelling, reading, and mathematics via yearly standardized tests. Obviously I plan to go above and beyond those few required areas. Off the top of my head, we'll also do science, Latin, history, writing, basic drawing, and piano (this will be outsourced, as my playing is terrible), as well as one or two other extra-curriculars of each child's choice.

We'll use the trivium syllabus outlined in The Well-Trained Mind by Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer, a book that I think I've seen mentioned on this forum. There are many different books and curricula to choose from (and I'm lucky to live in an area where homeschooling is popular enough that entire stores are devoted to selling books and supplies), but I'll research the specifics later, as my son is only beginning to learn the alphabet right now!
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Re: Western education

Postby Gavin » 06 Jan 2013, 22:48

That sounds great! Might chat with you some more off-forum about this some time.
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Re: Western education

Postby Podori » 09 Jan 2013, 12:57

In view of the reaction to my comments on our educational system, I have taken a few days to gather some thoughts and facts. First, I should admit that I was wrong to call education child abuse without an explanation. It must have looked like a cheap attempt to shock. It was not intended as such and I hope that you will accept my regrets.

However, although it was a mistake to omit an explanation at the time, I have found after some reflection that the merits of my conclusion are worth notice. In selecting my facts, I have put a focus on the American education system, as it is there that we find the consequences of progressive education run to their fullest. Necessarily, this post is a little bit lengthy.

The economist Thomas Sowell documents in his book Inside American Education that the consistent lag in eduational achievement by American youngsters is traceable to the flawed pedagogical methods that gained currency in the 1960s. Self-esteem, student-centred learning, teaching the whole person: these and other practices came into use in that decade and have continued to this day. They replaced traditional methods of teaching facts and thinking. The consequences have been disastrous for American students, whose scores on standardised tests have fallen and whose level of general knowledge and critical thought has markedly declined. Egoistic indoctrination has taken over where humility and knowledge were once the norm.

Does this qualify as abuse? As a teacher, I think it does. Education is the key to cultivating a child's mind. Not only is it a process of intellectual enrichment, it prepares children for life as employable adults. At least it should. But at the time Sowell was writing his book, he commented that US engineering firms were hiring Chinese and Russian graduates, not for their superior technical skills but because they spoke English better than American public school graduates. In the decades since the 60s, Sowell and other observers have found that American students, in particular in poor areas, being failed by adults who neglected their duty to pass on knowledge to the next generation. The damage to their life chances has lasted, in too many cases, for life (the persistent poverty of the black underclass, for example, is only perpetuated by this deplorably poor system). What would we call the neglect of a child's mind by responsible adults except abuse?

In the meantime, politically interested schools of education and teachers' unions have prevented reform. The book Bad Teachers by former school principal Guy Strickland goes into great detail on the evasion tactics that unions and self-styled educators use to prevent their poor practice from being exposed. This is another factor in the abuse of public school students.

But there's one more thing, and a very important one. The abuse that I claim is a feature of American education does not stop in grade 12. No, it goes right through university.

Students are told today, as predictably as the tides, that they need degrees to advance in their careers. As students pass through higher education, however, something goes wrong. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa have written in Academically Adrift that the results of a long-term study of university graduates found that their workload had decreased and their critical thinking skills had barely changed since high school. Therefore, their education had been largely superfluous, but certainly not the debt they accrued in the process of obtained a degree of dubious value. Last year, US student loan debt grew to over one trillion dollars. Much of that money was wasted on degrees that neither improved students' minds nor their employability, and they'll be carrying debts for years into the future. I would call that a particularly severe form of abuse - dumbing down with the highest price tag it has ever carried.

Charles Murray summarised the higher education situation best in his essay "Down With the Four-Year College Degree!":

First, we will set up a single goal to represent educational success, which will take four years to achieve no matter what is being taught. We will attach an economic reward to it that often has nothing to do with what has been learned. We will urge large numbers of people who do not possess adequate ability to try to achieve the goal, wait until they have spent a lot of time and money, and then deny it to them. We will stigmatize everyone who doesn't meet the goal. We will call the goal a "BA."

Murray does not use the word abuse to describe this situation, but I will.

I have provided these facts to prove that I am not attempting to indulge in hyperbole or belittlement. On the contrary, I am motivated by the need for robust evidence-based arguments against the prevailing system of education to be made clearly.

We recoil from child abuse because it damages children, sometimes irreparably. If I were to tell you that there was a place where adults were paid by the government to take children from their families by force of law and poison their minds with indoctrination, what would you think? It happens in schools across the United States. Use your own judgement to decide which specific adjective you prefer to apply to this state of things; I will continue to call it abuse.
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Re: Western education

Postby Rachel » 09 Jan 2013, 17:07

To be honest, I am against the 11 plus grammer school system in the way it existed in England. I see arguments for it both in this thread and also in other threads like the one Robert is writing about his Grammer school education and I should properly argue and discuss it but I have been a bit lazy about it. It's been argued to death a million times before on the web and in newspapers. I am also getting over a bug at the moment which makes my cognitive thinking and writing more sloppy than usual.

FWIW The reasons I am against the Grammer School system is:

1) The number of Grammer School places were too small. In some regions, like where I grew up, it was made that only 1 child in a whole class could go to Grammer school. So even if there happened to be more than one bright child that passed the exam, the teachers could only pick one to go to Grammer School. The rest were failures. I think that is awful.

2)The Secondary Moderns were often rubbish.
In my own Secondary school, one of the teachers said "I liked it better when we were a Secondary Modern because we didn't have to teach O-Levels or GSCSE's or A-Levels and we didn't have to work so hard. I just did what I liked with the class."
She actually said that. I am paraphrasing her but she was honest and really said it.

3)I think that even if someone is not a complete genius or even not particularly bright, they should be allowed to get an academic education over a practical one if both they and their parents really truly want it. I think the average person pays enough taxes for state education to have their choice catered to - within reason of course.

The percentage of children receiving a Grammer elite education was very small but even if it they expanded the number to 40% or even 70% of children I would only support Grammer Schools if the Secondary Moderns and Technical school were top notch. I need a plumber, baker or carpenter even more than I need a professor.

Yes, I know the current model of one size fits all is terrible but I don't like the old model the way it was.
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Re: Western education

Postby Andreas » 09 Jan 2013, 19:07

Podori,

Your remarks are thoughtful and I agree with their spirit. I am a product of the American educational system and so feel qualified to make a few remarks. I wouldn’t go so far as to describe the system as child abuse; “frequent and widespread neglect” might be a better phrase.

In many ways the system as a whole, from kindergarten through graduate school, is broken. Based on my own experience, I feel I was shortchanged in some things. I never had a good science teacher, for example, and to this day I feel deficient in this area. Much of my best learning has occurred outside school or university.

Whatever system we labor under, good or bad, I think that the qualities of individual teachers, their abilities, enthusiasm, and personalities are crucial in engaging students and forming their minds and outlook. The high school I attended was not outstanding, but there were a few good teachers, and if one made a point of taking their courses one could learn something. We had an excellent teacher of German and Latin. She was a good teacher and a kind, warm person, and many students who would otherwise never have studied German or Latin took classes with her.

One of the problems in the U.S. is that the best and brightest do not choose teaching as a career. Teachers are not respected here as they are in other cultures and the pay is often not good (although this varies). There may be many reasons for this attitude. One cause is a pervasive anti-intellectualism in American life, which predates the changes of the 1960s (Richard Hofstadter wrote a perceptive but rather dry book about this).

There has certainly been a decline in quality and outcomes since the 1960s and a general loss of rigor. Certainly, emphasizing “self-esteem” to the detriment of real achievement does not help. On the other hand, students need to be encouraged. At one university I was attached to for a year I knew a graduate student from Germany. We discussed just these questions, and he said that a year he had spent at an American high school had been a positive experience; schools in Germany did not do much to encourage students positively, and as a result middling or underperforming students, who might otherwise have improved their performance, gave up trying. There must be a happy medium or middle path in this.

The problems with the American educational system are so overwhelming one can’t imagine where to begin to try to solve them, and of course the problems get worse the further one goes down the income ladder. Every attempt to improve the situation by institutional or political means seems to fail or produce more problems.

I have a few utopian (?) ideas. If money or resources were no object, I would make it a requirement that every young American spend a year living abroad (not in an American enclave!), working or studying, and thoroughly master a foreign language. Art and music classes would be required, not a luxury as they are now. To offset the virtual reality we spend so much time in, students would all learn some hand skill (carpentry, bookbinding, etc.), an idea I have not experienced myself but read about, part of the Rudolf Steiner school curriculum.
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Re: Western education

Postby Caleb » 10 Jan 2013, 02:52

I agree that there are really deep flaws in most public education systems (and this includes outside of the West). Yet I think the word "abuse" should be narrowly defined to refer to things such as sexual, physical or psychological abuse as most people understand them. Otherwise, it can quickly come to mean whatever anyone wants it to mean, even being contradictory in certain cases. For example, some could argue having religion in schools is abusive and others could argue that not having religion in schools is abusive. All this does is politicise every single issue, and ironically, lead to even more difficulty in addressing root problems (be they actual abuse, or the different issue of a poor education system).

Interestingly, people will often point to the fact that upon entering PISA, Shanghai instantly went straight to the top. They then use this, or the number of Chinese scientists or engineers as an argument against the U.S. The U.S. is flawed. Its education system is flawed. Yet several factors are ignored in trumpeting Shanghai, for instance. Firstly, as with anything coming out of China, I'd be extremely sceptical about its integrity. Would the Chinese bus smart kids in and dumb kids out to massage the results? You betcha! Secondly, what about the education system in the rest of the country? How well educated are those kids, and what life opportunites do they have? The entrance requirements for getting into good universities in China are brutal. Those kids who go and study abroad often come from extremely elite families. It would be like taking kids from the top ten U.S. zip codes and extrapolating that the U.S. education system is fine.

So then we end up looking at smaller countries, such as Hong Kong or South Korea, that perform well, and theorise that we need education systems more like those. Yet there's a really good, much more humane counter example to those systems: Finland's education system. The thing that is missed in looking at either South Korea or Finland though is that they have extremely homogenous populations who fully agree on a particular social contract.

This is where we get to the demographic issues in America. Broadly speaking, without tackling such issues as welfare, it's a lost cause. The problems of the black underclass (actually a completely different culture to that of the white middle class) in America are completely intractable because realistically, no one is ever going to really tackle welfare reform, and even if they did, they'd then need to tackle even deeper issues in black, underclass culture. If South Korea, Singapore or anyone else had that situation tacked onto their education systems, they'd grossly underperform also. I think we really need to look at the white middle class (and certain groups of immigrants). There are worrying trends there, but I still don't think they're abuse. I personally think the cramming approach to education prevalent in East Asia is abusive if we're going to widen the term. Finland doesn't need to eat its own to be successful.

As for American universities, for all of their flaws, they're still the best in the world. No one is rushing to study at South Korean, Chinese or Taiwanese universities. America, for all of its flaws, still drives innovation in the world.
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Re: Western education

Postby Podori » 10 Jan 2013, 04:21

I would be less willing to call American education (and other progressive education systems in other countries) a form of child abuse if the costs were not so high or the consequences so devastating. But, alas, the social and economic costs of that system are increasing. "Frequent and widespread neglect" is one way of describing the general situation - and a very legitimate description - but my reply would be, just how bad does it need to get before we use stronger language? I think we crossed the threshold into abusive education long ago and simply became inured to it.

It is a simple matter to describe the indoctrination of children in public schools as a form of psychological abuse. They are required to attend, after all, on the false pretense that they are learning something, but whatever actual learning occurs is less and less in evidence. The result that high school students graduate with inflated egos but no intellectual skills or achievements is abusive: it only sets them up for painful clashes with reality. It lulls them into basing their identities not on actions or ideas but on the mind-rotting notion that they are special and wonderful just because they exist. I cannot think of a crueller lie, let alone a lie that I would tell someone for 12 years and have taxpayers work to fund.

Or maybe I can think of something worse. If I wanted to enrol more students in universities, I could say this: go to university and you will become more employable. How many times have we heard that from educators? But we also hear from employers that university degrees are no longer a reliable measure of someone's knowledge or intelligence, because university grades are inflated. That's another callous lie - and especially so in American universities that take advantage of federally subsidised loans to raise tuition to absurd levels. The university pockets the money and the new graduate is left with the debt, but certainly no guarantee of a job to match whatever skills he has (just as the high rate of youth unemployment demonstrates). So much for better employability. Abuse doesn't often get so flagrant. Most of the time the abuser has enough shame to do it in private.

I'll be the first to concede that "abuse" is a provocative word. Other members of the forum have given different analyses. It's good to read other perspectives, if only to check myself once in a while. But on this issue I insist: progressive education is abuse. What would you call it if government employees took children to institutions and taught them doctrinaire nonsense? What would you call it if thousands of young people were fooled into earning paper qualifications, at great expense, under the false impression, created by educators, that it would improve their economic prospects? What would you call it if this whole con game were paid for by the forcible taxation of working people who were interested in having their children educated, not used as raw material for social engineering experiments? These are rhetorical questions, and I am pleased to read the variety of answers. But I do hope that my conclusion - abuse - has some resonance.
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Re: Western education

Postby Mike » 10 Jan 2013, 09:33

Caleb wrote:I agree that there are really deep flaws in most public education systems (and this includes outside of the West). Yet I think the word "abuse" should be narrowly defined to refer to things such as sexual, physical or psychological abuse as most people understand them. Otherwise, it can quickly come to mean whatever anyone wants it to mean, even being contradictory in certain cases.


Heartily agreed. I find it deeply offensive (even as a non-believer) hearing the likes of Richard Dawkins referring to any form of religious education as child abuse, and even an education system that is intellectually debased and in the grip of political correctness (as many in the West seem to be) cannot reasonably be described in such terms, in my view.

Caleb wrote:The thing that is missed in looking at either South Korea or Finland though is that they have extremely homogenous populations who fully agree on a particular social contract.


I routinely point this out to people (and there are plenty of them) who obsessively extol Finland as some kind of educational utopia whose system we should uncritically adopt. When you have an ethnically and culturally homogeneous population with a strong Lutheran work ethic to back them up, there are obviously pre-existing advantages. Which is not to say that there isn't much to admire about the Finnish system.

Caleb wrote:As for American universities, for all of their flaws, they're still the best in the world. No one is rushing to study at South Korean, Chinese or Taiwanese universities. America, for all of its flaws, still drives innovation in the world.


The dominance of the English language is a massive factor here too, though. And in some disciplines, I think (going mostly on anecdotal evidence here, although not entirely) that the sort of grade inflation that exists at primary and secondary level these days has affected American academia a fair bit.
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Re: Western education

Postby Gavin » 10 Jan 2013, 14:22

Personally I would still stop short of the word "abuse" for the kinds of reasons I gave and that Caleb gave. I think you have put your case on that now though, Podori.

Regarding Richard Dawkins, though, to represent him fairly, I thought he was referring more to the eyes blazing religious zealot who tells his or her children that they will burn in hell unless they believe [such and such unlikely story]? Actually I would call that a lot closer to child abuse.

I'm quite uncomfortable with the telling of beliefs to children as if they were facts - for example that Mohammed was a great prophet or that Jesus walked on water. They are often drummed into them too. I can see where Dawkins was coming from with this, even if it's not too bad in moderately religious families who just quietly defer to some notion of a deity and follow the moral guidance of a religion.

(I have split these posts off into a new topic because the other was intended to be about the dumbing down of children in popular culture, on television, and so on.)
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