Higher Standards

I was talking to my son David yesterday who is completing a PhD at Columbia with the goal of being a physics professor.  He was telling me about the controversy surrounding the on-going debate on establishing Federal guidelines for education standards.  This is a complicated topic, with many pros and many cons.  It begins with Federal jurisdiction versus State jurisdiction and continues with which State’s present standards get lowered and which State’s standards get raised.  Then there’s the issue of focus–math and science (for sure) versus literature and the arts.  Does the USA follow the standards imposed in high test scoring countries like Singapore and Japan?   Interestingly, at grade 4, the USA ranks in the top three; by grade 12, we fall to nineteen–well below France, Slovenia, Australia/New Zealand and all of Scandinavia. What happens in American middle and high schools?

Critics of Federal standards claim that they only promote the creation of good corporate employees and de-emphasize innovation and creativity skills.  One Federal provision recommends that middle school students should predominantly read non-fiction to prepare for analyzing science texts in high school. This is based on the belief that literature is a pleasurable past-time, not a route to increasing future test scores.  (Google would very likely agree. Its hiring criteria is entirely based on “the data.”  Even a 50 year old with outstanding work experience has to produce her high school SAT scores. And by the way, 50 year olds are an extraordinary exception to the rule.)

My own background, and educational preference, is strongly liberal arts.  I was an English major at Bowdoin and then got a masters degree in Anglo-Irish literature at Trinity College, Dublin. Talk about an un-marketable eduction!  But it was a wonderful, life enhancing education that gave me skills and never ending passions I could not have achieved otherwise. That said, I did have to earn an MBA to begin the hike up the corporate ladder.

Early in my career I hired a young man who had graduated top of his class at Williams as an English major.  His senior thesis was writing a novel in the style of Nathaniel Hawthorne (Bowdoin 1825.)  Unfortunately, everything this fellow wrote was in the style of Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Our P&G client did not appreciate a 19th century approach!   To his dismay, he had to be sent to remedial writing classes to learn how to write a simple business recommendation. He would have been better off copying Ernest Hemingway.

Email takes us even further down the road of less than literary.  I even heard the other day that typos in emails are now seen as a sign of speed and efficiency–a good thing.

So how can education standards address all the needs required to be both a civilized human being and an effective business person?  They used to be the same.  In the MBA classes I teach at the University of San Francisco, if I reference a writer or artist, in a legitimate comparison to something we’re talking about, I get 100% blank stares.  Frankly, if I reference a famous company from the 1970’s/80’s, I get 100% blank stares. I often wonder if this matters.  If you’re founding the latest tech start-up, does it really matter whether you’ve ever heard of Digital Equipment Corp, much less Wallace Stevens?  On the former, a lesson in corporate hubris might be useful.  I won’t even argue for Wallace Stevens, although it’s interesting to note that one of the greatest American poets was also a successful insurance executive in Hartford, CT.

Parents play a huge role in establishing learning goals for their children, for filling in the gaps the system, whether Federal or State, inevitably create.  My own sons are pursuing degrees in science eduction, law and medicine. They also love Haruki Murakami, play classical piano and jazz saxophone, happily go to summer Shakespeare festivals, and don’t complain too much being dragged through every art museum in Europe.  I admit that my former wife and I may not be typical (whatever that may be)  American parents, and that children from less well educated families are at a disadvantage.  This is a gap the Federal standards are meant to address.

I wish there was an easy answer to this.

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