Thomas Friedman’s most recent column, on the state of education in the United States, is simultaneously true and another tiresome example of his bad habit of disparaging the United States in favor of one Asian country or another. In this case, it’s South Korea:
“In 2009, President Obama met with President Lee of South Korea and asked him about his biggest challenge in education. President Lee answered without hesitation: parents in South Korea were ‘too demanding.’ Even his poorest parents demanded a world-class education for their children, and he was having to spend millions of dollars each year to teach English to students in first grade, because his parents won’t let him wait until second grade. … I [wish] our biggest challenge here in the U.S. was too many parents demanding excellent schools.
“I want to pose one simple question to you: Does a child in South Korea deserve a better education than your child?” Duncan continued. “If your answer is no … then your work is cut out for you. Because right now, South Korea — and quite a few other countries — are offering students more, and demanding more, than many American districts and schools do. And the results are showing, in our kids’ learning and in their opportunities to succeed, and in staggeringly large achievement gaps in this country. Doing something about our underperformance will mean raising your voice — and encouraging parents who aren’t as engaged as you to speak up. Parents have the power to challenge educational complacency here at home. Parents have the power to ask more of their leaders — and to ask more of their kids.”
His underlying point is that there’s nothing wrong with the U. S. educational system that better students wouldn’t cure. That’s probably true. It’s notable that in any given year there are three quarters of a million international students studying at American institutions of higher learning of whom about 80,000 are South Koreans. My guess is that South Koreans studying in the U. S. outnumber American students studying in South Korea by about 10 to 1. That’s what hegemony means.
There are two questions I would ask Mr. Friedman: why and how? The problem to which he draws attention, American students’ disinterest in education, is not one that can be addressed by spending more money. In real terms we spend about three times as much now on education as we did twenty years ago. There is little evidence that we’re getting more from all that money and considerable evidence that our educational system has reached the point at which it is capable of sucking up every resource we could conceivably throw at it without producing more in the way of actual measurable outputs.
I suspect that the disinterest he reports on the part of American students is real and it’s the product of a combination of litigiousness and the presumption of parental control of children. Gone are the days of in loco parentis. Today too many students do not succeed or fail based on their own efforts but are guaranteed “success” by a system that passes students through it without their gaining a noticeable education.
Although the problems of which Mr. Friedman takes note may be characteristic of our educational system, they aren’t unique to it. The other evening my wife and I had dinner with some college chums of mine and their wives. One of them, who’s worked for many years for a large insurance company, mentioned that his company gives a workshop to managers on dealing with Millennials. The gist is that many of the young folks coming up have out-sized estimates of their own worth, expect to be compensated without performance, and are incapable of working or unwilling to work without close supervision.
Welcome to the new age, to the new age.