Sunday, August 25, 2013


Even though I couldn't get past the title, I read the review with an open mind.  Then I read it again; a close reading just to make sure I understood the premise and the process.  With a title like The Smartest Kids in the World And How They Got That Way, I knew I was in for a treat.  At the outset, let me confess that I detest the word smart.  There is something aloof about it.  It's nose in the air snooty.  It seems to imply that I know something you don't know.  I much prefer intelligent.  In face I strongly prefer intelligences.  There are at least 8 kinds, you know.  But it doesn't matter what I think, what matters here is that this new book with this publisher's dream title by Amanda Ripley, will spark a good deal of conversation.

"Smartest Kids" will take its place with all those comparison studies between the education offered and the education systems of the U.S. and, in this case, South Korea, Finland, and Poland.  If you want to find the education of American kids lacking, those are three good places to go.  In fact, as Amanda Ripley did, you can go all the way and embed American students into those systems and collected all the data that's fit to print.  She did that too.
It is hardly surprising that the U.S. doesn't measure up so well.  We know that we don't attract "the best and the brightest" (I detest that phrase too) to the teaching profession, but when contrasted with the highly respected teachers of Finland, or the 6 and 7 figure salaries of some South Koreans who profess to be teachers, we are really on another planet.
As you may know, it doesn't matter that the rigor these systems impose on their young is often mind numbing, if not inhumane, the author argues that this is what we want and need for our culture.  Is it?  As far as ethnographic studies go, the U.S. with its increasingly multicultural demographic doesn't compare too well with mono cultural societies.  One fascinating quote that comes from the NY Times review of this book quotes a British politician suggesting,"If you want the American dream, go to Finland."  Really?  I shutter to think what his definition of the American Dream might be.
When I think of the "Dream," I think of possibility, opportunity, an the consequences of working hard and valuing the achievement that results.  Sure, that's alive and well in Finland and South Korea, but is it really the same kind of accomplishment there as it is here?  Does immigration have something to do with it? Or the burdens of history that, when uncovered, are splattered with racism, xenophobia, and all too often all out violent terror?
If what it means to educate a child, or a person for that matter, involves data collecting, scores on tests, the kind of rigor that can cause rigor mortis then count me out.  It just isn't smart to treat people that way.  They might be the smartest kids in the world, but they probably are the most stressed out as well.

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