A Game-Changer

When the topics “competing with China” and “our kids” find themselves in the same conversation, things get vaguely uncomfortable. Maybe it’s that our hackles have become slightly raised. We suspect (or have already conceded) that our kids aren’t on the winning team in this particular matchup. But when did we opt into being sideline parents in this math and science Superbowl? Who or what is sponsoring the game? And, maybe most importantly, what’s the analogue to the Vince Lombardi Trophy?

Most American parents aren’t asking these questions as much as duly playing their parts rooting for the home team. We want our kids to win, to be better at math and science than the other team’s kids. But this competition is about something more than math and science, or even academics in general. This competition is a convenient cover-up for something that makes us deeply uncomfortable. Something that is also much less xenophobic. What we really fear is that our kids won’t realize their full potential, a fear that conflicts with parents’ number one categorical imperative. Even worse, the suspicion that our kids are on the losing math and science team extends to their education overall. In other words, we suspect that the entity we’ve largely tasked with developing our kids’ potential isn’t developing much of anything except an aversion to learning.

A desire for our kids to reach their full potential in encoded into parents’ DNA. It’s almost superfluous to express it explicitly, so it’s most often expressed implicitly–through lessons, afterschool activities, and outings. We know instinctively that as long as our kids realize their potential, everything else is going to fall into place just fine. The opposite situation is too sad to contemplate. And so we encourage our kids to realize their potential, to seek out and pursue interests, winnow them down, master one or two, and then do it all over again. This is the process that builds up a framework that’ll inform, among other things, their career choices. We know that the sooner kids get cracking on this, the better. If those economic forecasts are correct, making it is going to take everything they’ve got. So we really want to assume that the educational system is not only on board with this program but spearheading the efforts, but we also have our doubts.

The facts are that the educational system isn’t nourishing students’ potential. In fact, it’s running interference. My experience has revealed the existence of vast and hidden reserves of potential that are being actively denies or even worse, stifled, by the system. This isn’t the fault of the teachers. Let’s be clear about that. The system’s structure has tied their hands.

Believe it or not, one hundred years ago business leaders had a lot of input designing the U.S. educational system. They had factories and mills in the East and Mid-West, and they needed workers acquainted with the three R’s to fill those posts. The by-design skills that the students were taught primed them for those jobs. Nowadays, well-paying and ubiquitous factory jobs are long gone, but the educational system is still serving up the same old thing. This may be reductive, but it seems that China’s educational system fits China’s job market. They have a lot of factory jobs to fill. Their educational style appears to be like ours was in the 1950s, which was harsh, but theirs is a lot harsher. Meanwhile in the U.S., reforms are being implemented, but at its most basic level the system is still training people for factory work. Individuality, creativity, and talent were (and are still) stifled by design. The reality is that reforms aren’t going to cut it. We have to restructure the entire system if the goal is to develop each child’s potential. This goal won’t only go a long way towards our children leading lives that are satisfying, challenging, and financially stable. Realizing every child’s potential is going to benefit–greatly–our society as a whole.

But it looks like restructuring isn’t on the table for the public educational system even though oodles of experts in the field are calling for it. There’ve been lots of books written on the subject, one example of which is David Shenk’s The Genius in All of Us(Public Library). In Professor of Education Dr. Lori Desautels’ reviewof the book, she quotes Shenk: “‘Limitations in achievement are not due to inadequate genetic assets, but in our ability to tap into what we already have.'” Desautels adds that schools “desperately need to recognize and tap the creative genius of every student.” In other words, schools are leaving a lot of potential untapped. Desautels adds her own suggestions such as grouping students by interests and having them create plans of study that combine research with work experience. It’s possible that her suggestions will at some point be implemented, as Desautels is in the business of teaching teachers how to teach. On the other hand, the #1 most-watched TED Talk, “How Schools Kill Creativity,” has been viewed more than 20 million times over the past eight years with little aftermath. Actually, that may not be true. Homeschooling and its variants keep increasing in popularity. The onus has fallen to parents and kids. They are going to have to be the agents of change; the educational system won’t or can’t do it.

Secondary and post-secondary education has been pulled into the fray as well, which is as it should it be considering the dismal benefit-cost ratios of many types of college degrees. Author and independent learning activist Kio Stark throws her hat into the ring with Don’t Go Back to School. Per Stark: “Here’s a radical truth: school doesn’t have a monopoly on learning. More and more people are declining traditional education and college degrees. Instead they’re getting the knowledge, training, and inspiration they need outside of the classroom.” Not only do schools not have a monopoly on learning, they aren’t much of a free-market competitor either. Stark’s book was reviewed by Maria Popova on brainpickings.org, a site Popova built “in large part out of frustration and disappointment with my trampling experience of our culturally fetishized ‘Ivy League education.'” In her review, Popova notes Stark’s proposed remediation: “‘A radical project, the opposite of reform … not about fixing school [but] about transforming learning — and making traditional school one among many options rather than the only option.'”

Given the clarity and insight on the subject that’s coming from every corner, the blockbuster success of Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother somewhat puzzles, but not really. It speaks to the sense of overwhelming resignation most parents feel towards an educational system they feel powerless to change. At best, tiger moms deny the problem. At worst, they are championing an obsolete, mass production-style dinosaur of an educational system. In her book, Chua reviews data from a study of Chinese immigrant mothers, presumably to shore up her own anecdotal advice on being a traditional Chinese mother. Regarding education, Chua reports that these mothers felt academic achievement came from successful parenting. They also felt that not excelling academically meant that the parents weren’t doing their jobs. In other words, it comes down to the parent if the child does or doesn’t excel academically.

Other than coming across as some sort of hive-mind sorcery, tiger moms are side-stepping the issue. Changing the system so that it fosters individuated learning, a system that’s a tool for assisting each student in realizing his or her potential, that’s the place we need to be. While most people seem to understand that Battle Hymn of the Tiger Motheris, as Salon’s Prachi Gupta put it, “a great step-by-step manual for parents who want to systematically weed out any genuine interest or passion for life that their children might innately have,” its blockbuster status highlights the denial (and frustration and not knowing how else to deal with it) many parents are feeling about their kids’ education. Some believe in strong-arming students through the system (It’ll build character! And discipline!) while others feel that realizing potential, which is by definition sans any strong-arming, is the way to go. Opposing views notwithstanding, all of us are able to admit that the educational system is bleeding potential. We need to get out of the game and help our kids realize our kids’ potential. That means getting out of the real game, the public educational system, not the math and science competition we’ve supposedly got going with Asia.