Coddled millennials?

whatAs universities in the US have started up a new academic year, there continues to be a good deal of discussion about the degree to which college students need to be protected from speech and actions which may offend. A recent article in the NY Times, “Campuses Cautiously Train Freshmen Against Subtle Insults,” outlines the efforts at a number of US universities to provide orientation to new students, with concepts such as “microaggressions,” comments which unintentionally express prejudicial views or stereotype others. Examples given from the article, taken from an orientation at Clark University, include: “Don’t ask an Asian student you don’t know for help on your math homework or randomly ask a black student if he plays basketball. Both questions make assumptions based on stereotypes. And don’t say ‘you guys.’ It could be interpreted as leaving out women.” The orientation at Clark mentions as well “environmental microaggressions” with the example given: all pictures of professors in the Chemistry Department lecture hall are of white men, causing non-whites and women to feel marginalized. The article continues:

A nonverbal microaggression could be when a white woman clutches her purse as a black or Latino person approaches. Another subset of microaggression is known as the microinvalidation, which includes comments suggesting that race plays a minor role in life’s outcomes, like “Everyone can succeed in this society if they work hard enough.”

Also discussed in the article are other terms frequently heard in this context, namely “safe spaces”, where marginalized students can come together on campus, and “trigger warnings”, advance notice given to students of a topic about to be raised in a class which might upset some students. The orientations follow a series of incidents of racist speech and behavior at campuses last year, including the University of Missouri and the University of Wisconsin.

The Dean of Students at the University of Chicago provided a quite different perspective from Clark and other universities striving to limit students’ exposure to potentially harmful speech. In a letter to incoming students, he wrote: “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” This is a view which has been aired by others as well, particularly alumni and conservative commentators, some of whom are cited in the article. They view the idea of safe spaces and trigger warnings as coddling students, ill-preparing them for the real world, and cutting off free speech on campus.

A compelling counter-argument has been supplied by a Black graduate of the University of Chicago, writing on Vox, “I’m a black U Chicago graduate. Safe spaces got me through college,” in which he describes how important the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs was throughout his college career, providing a respite from the frequent discrimination he encountered. He wrote that he used this safe space “not to ‘hide from ideas and perspectives at odds with my own,’ but to heal from relentless hate and ignorance, to hear and be heard. My ideas were always challenged, but never my humanity. I mattered.” There is an interesting interview with him on NPR’s On the Media. Recently 150 U of Chicago professors signed an open letter in opposition to the welcoming letter from the Dean of Students.

3 miles apart and worlds away

hallwayThe current story in the radio show This American Life illustrates through an individual experience the reality of the gap between rich and poor in the United States as played out in education. It tells the story of New York city high school students participating in an exchange in which they visited each other’s schools. Both schools were in the Bronx and just 3 miles apart, but as put in the story, it took the equivalent of a foreign exchange program to bring them together. One school, University Heights High School, is a public school and is 97% black and Hispanic. The other, Fieldston, is one of New York City’s elite private schools, 70% white with an annual tuition rate of $43,000. The story follows several students who participated in the exchange visits and in particular one girl, Melanie, from University Heights, who reacted to the visit to Fieldston with shock and dismay. She was a bright student who seemed sure to go on to college and be successful in whatever career she would take up. But after managing to track Melanie down 10 years after the exchange between the schools, Chana Joffe-Walt, the producer of the episode, discovered that she had in fact not followed that path. In conversations with Melanie, we learn of the dream she had to attend a prestigious university and her struggles to get by working in a grocery store and her profound shame over her situation. Melanie had been close to winning a scholarship to attend an elite college (Middlebury) but was not selected. A student who did win a scholarship through that same program is also followed in the episode. The young man, Jonathan, attended Wheaton College, but dropped out. Although he had a full scholarship, he had no money to buy his textbooks, and felt out of place among the other students. Their stories demonstrate in poignant ways how difficult is to cross socio-economic boundaries, even with the support both students received from teacher-mentors.

In interviewing Melanie, Joffe-Walt went back to that initial visit to Fieldston and her shock at seeing the radically different environment:

It was just like, OK, this is private. So everything kind of is a fucking lie that you see your whole life growing up on TV shows or movies. It’s like, OK, this is not free. This is not available for kids of color. This is something that only privileged or the elite can have. I know I looked at it and I said, well, I know that we’re only being taught to flip burgers in Burger King or McDonald’s or to hold doors for students like them that will probably live in those buildings on Madison Avenue, and we’ll be wearing the uniform, servicing these people.

Joffe-Walt comments:

So that’s what she found so upsetting. It seemed that the people around her must believe that this was the natural order of things. Melanie knew there was no innate difference between her and a kid born into wealth. She could see that this division we’re all so inured to was not a reflection of her inferior worth or ability, she just didn’t know what to do with the idea that she might be alone in seeing that.

Fewer things better

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Kim Ki-hoon, the Korean English teacher making millions a year

Are we trying too hard to educate our children?  Yes, we’re trying to do too many things and most are not helping. That’s in part the conclusion of Amanda Ripley who wrote a book on education throughout the world entitled, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way., whose work was profiled today on NPR.  As is often the case when comparing educational systems, schools in Korea and Finland draw much of the attention, given the higher scores school children there achieve on standardized tests. As I’ve written in a previous post, the schools in Finland are a riddle for American educators who go to visit and learn – how can they do so well without all the solutions being advocated in the U.S. : school choice (more private and charter schools), rewards for the best teachers and schools, high-stakes testing to identify success and failure. Instead, Finland focuses on turning out excellent teachers, paying them well, offering a lot of local support, and encouraging the best college students to go into teaching:  a few important things done well.

South Korea is quite different, with a heavy emphasis by all stakeholders on children focusing on high achievement, even if that means long hours after school and on weekends in private tutoring sessions.  Earlier this month there was a profile in the Wall Street Journal of an English teacher in South Korea who makes millions of dollars a year through his subscription video service and after-school tutoring sessions.  The Korean educational system could hardly serve as a model for the U.S., but American foreign language teachers would be happy to see that kind of pay. In the end, we all know it comes down to the quality and commitment of teachers – the trick is to figure out how we become more successful in filling our schools with dedicated and competent teachers and in ensuring they receive reasonable pay, support, and respect.

Real equality

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Finnish school (From Smithsonian)

Americans like to think of themselves as valuing personal freedom and equality of opportunity, but also praise individual initiative and personal success.  Individualism and entrepreneurism, core American ideals, foster competitiveness. In the ongoing efforts to improve American schools, these values tend to rise to the surface in the measures most often advocated – school choice (more private and charter schools), rewards for the best teachers and schools, high-stakes testing to identify success and failure.  So far, the results have not been impressive.  In international rankings, including the PISA surveys, US students tend to be at best in the middle of the pack. It may be that marketplace competition which works in the business world doesn’t translate well to schools.

A country that perennially ranks near the top in PISA tests, Finland, like the US an individualist culture, has a quite different approach to education. The small Scandinavian country is an outlier among the countries at the top, which are mostly from collectivistic cultures in Asia (South Korea, Singapore, China). The Finnish approach does not feature school choice — there are no private or charter schools — standardized testing, or teacher accountability.  A recent article in the Atlantic on Finnish schools cites one of the leading Finnish authorities on education reform, Pasi Sahlberg, on the current buzzword in US education, accountability: “There’s no word for accountability in Finnish… Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.”  Teacher performance is monitored by individual schools, mostly by the school principal.  Teachers are given a great deal of individual responsibility and design their own testing.  All students go to public schools at no cost and all schools have essentially the same financial resources.  Ironically, the talk by Sahlberg that is the main source of information in the article was given at Dwight School, a private, for profit secondary school in New York that costs $35,000 a year to attend.  Teachers in Finland, as in many cultures, enjoy relatively high pay as well as considerable prestige.  That seems to make a difference in the quality of teachers.  The irony of the Finnish success story is that in their school reform efforts they did not set out to achieve excellence, but rather wanted to provide an equal education for all students, regardless of socio-economic backgrounds or family educational levels. There may be a lesson there for US education reformers: real equity rather than more differentiation.