Part 1—Three different worlds: “Three different worlds/We live in three different worlds...”
If Jerry Vale or Don Rondo were active today, they’d have to rewrite their classic hit song.
Back in 1956, Rondo had a fairly large hit with the claim that we live in two different worlds. Today, Amanda Ripley’s ballyhooed book, The Smartest Kids in the World, helps us spot at least three.
Ripley’s book is often extremely weak; often, it seems a bit scam-ridden. That said, the book is often quite interesting as it explores educational cultures around the world.
At one point, Ripley jets to South Korea to show us why that nation’s students score so well on international tests. There seems to be no great mystery there. In his review of Ripley’s book for the Washington Post Outlook section, Jay Mathews describes the world of Korean high school students:
MATHEWS (9/22/13): One of the more intriguing moments in Amanda Ripley’s fine book is the introduction of a Minnesota teenager named Eric to the South Korean public school system. That country has some of the highest average test scores in the world. Eric assumed that every high school class would be flying high, all eyes on the teacher, no nonsense. Instead, during his first day in sociology class, attention was minimal. About a third of the students were asleep.South Korea has gone over the top in pursuit of academic success. According to Ripley, the Korean government is cracking down on the hagwons, the demanding academies which swing into action after the school day is over.
They were recovering from their evening tutoring academies called “hagwons.” South Korea’s glittering international reputation for academics began to look to Eric more corrosive than inspiring.
“The kids had acted like they lived in the classroom because they essentially did,” Ripley writes. “They spent more than twelve hours there every weekday—and they already went to school almost two months longer than kids back in Minnesota. His classmates slept in their classes for one primal reason: because they were exhausted.”
The Korean government is trying to enforce a ten o’clock curfew on the hagwons! Korea’s educational culture is very different from ours.
For good or for ill, those South Korean kids live in a different world. In terms of its educational culture, Ripley refers to Korea as a “hamster wheel country.”
Finland is another high-scoring country, but it doesn’t have a hamster wheel culture. In Ripley’s telling, its educational culture is much more laid back than the one she found in Korea. Indeed, according to Ripley, Finnish kids have more spare time than kids do over here!
How then does Finland achieve such high test scores? When the horrific Annie Murphy Paul reviewed Ripley’s book for the New York Times, she stressed two parts of Finnish educational culture which Ripley describes in her book.
On the one hand, Paul writes, Finland “ensure[s] high-quality teaching from the beginning, allowing only top students to enroll in teacher-training programs, which are themselves far more demanding than such programs in America.”
In Finland, only high-achieving high school students can hope to become teachers. Persistently, Ripley suggests and claims that this accounts for Finland’s educational success, although she never presents any real evidence that this is the case.
According to Ripley, Finland’s teachers are different from ours. But in a rather peculiar passage, Paul says that Finland’s students are different too.
According to Ripley’s book, Finnish kids care more about school than American students do. On balance, that’s almost surely the case. But in our view, the following account from Paul’s review is odd in several respects.
“Kim” is a 15-year-old Oklahoman who spent a year in Finland as an exchange student:
PAUL (8/25/13): Kim soon notices something else that’s different about her school in Pietarsaari, and one day she works up the courage to ask her classmates about it. “Why do you guys care so much?” Kim inquires of two Finnish girls. “I mean, what makes you work hard in school?” The students look baffled by her question. “It’s school,” one of them says. “How else will I graduate and go to university and get a good job?” It’s the only sensible answer, of course, but its irrefutable logic still eludes many American students, a quarter of whom fail to graduate from high school. Ripley explains why: Historically, Americans “hadn’t needed a very rigorous education, and they hadn’t gotten it. Wealth had made rigor optional.” But now, she points out, “everything had changed. In an automated, global economy, kids needed to be driven; they need to know how to adapt, since they would be doing it all their lives. They needed a culture of rigor.”Finland’s students are conscientious about school; American students are not. In Paul’s account of Ripley’s book, American kids drop out of school because “wealth had made rigor optional” here in the U.S.
Does Ripley say that the American students drop out of school because “wealth had made rigor optional in America?” That quote comes from page 192 of her book, but she isn’t talking about drop-out rates at the time. She is talking about the (alleged) lack of academic rigor in American high schools.
On the other hand, Ripley does say this about wealth and drop-out rates at an earlier point (page 49): “Korea had one of the highest high-school graduation rates in the world, far higher than the United States, despite having dramatically less wealth.”
Perhaps that remark, and a few others like it, led Paul to craft that strange account, in which Americans kids drop out of school because they’ve been spoiled, made indolent by their nation’s wealth.
Can we talk? Surely Ripley understands that there are many American students whose attitudes about high school and college match those expressed by that Finnish girl. There are lots of kids in American high schools who are striving to do the best they can on their way to a college career.
It’s also true that many American students don’t have attitudes like that by the time they reach high school. We think those kids are largely invisible in Ripley’s slippery book.
Alas! Here in the United States, we live in quite a few different worlds. In our view, Ripley tries hard in most of her book to avoid this obvious fact.
Finland is a small, middle-class nation with few minorities and very few immigrants. The country is full of middle-class kids with middle-class educational values.
The United States has lots of kids like that too. But the U.S. is a much more complex society, with a brutal, destructive racial history and a lot of immigration from low-literacy points of origin.
Kids in Scarsdale are eager to “go to university” too, just like that student in Pietarsaari. On average, it may well be that middle-class Finnish kids are more serious about school than middle-class American kids—on average.
Relentlessly, Ripley says and implies that this is true, and she may well be right—on average.
On average, middle-class Finnish kids may be more serious about school than their middle-class American peers. That said, the biggest shortfalls in American schooling take place in other American worlds. Those worlds are almost completely avoided in Ripley’s slippery, well-scripted book.
Ralph Ellison was an invisible man. Black kids are largely invisible in Ripley’s book. Issues of poverty are lightly glossed. Race is completely avoided.
Finland is a small, middle-class world—a largely unicultural world. (We don’t mean that as a criticism.) By way of contrast, the United States contains multitudes. For better or worse, American students live in quite a few different worlds.
All week, we’ll discuss the world of the American kids Ripley prefers to disappear. We’ll discuss the role our different worlds play in the educational data which have Ripley mouthing standard claims about the need for certain types of education reform.
American kids live in several different worlds. Shouldn’t this book have discussed that?
Tomorrow: What is Finland actually like? Also, a puzzling claim
Treat yourselves: Back in 1956, we only lived in two different worlds. To hear Don Rondo work his magic, you can just click here.
For Jerry Vale, click this. Mr. Vale appears as himself in Goodfellas and in Casino.