In Ripley’s book, not so much: We’ve spent the past two weeks discussing Amanda Ripley’s new book, The Smartest Kids in the World.
It’s one of the most fascinating texts we’ve encountered in fifteen years at the Howler. We don’t offer that as a compliment, although the book has its obvious merits.
This week and next, we expect to do shorter posts about more of the book’s many fascinating components. This week, let’s consider the way Ripley’s book ignores the situations and needs of our nation’s low-income kids.
In part, Ripley’s book is fascinating because of the things it omits. One example: It spends little time on elementary or preschool education. It focuses almost entirely on high school.
It also tends to overlook low-income and minority kids. Early in her book, Ripley introduces us to the trio of American exchange students on whom she will often focus:
RIPLEY (page 8): During the 2010-11 school year, I followed three remarkable American teenagers as they experienced smarter countries in real life. These kids volunteered to be part of this project as they headed off for year-long foreign-exchange adventures, far from their families. I visited them in foreign ports, and we kept in close touch.Minor point: the term “smarter countries” is cloying in the context of this book, where it is really means “countries with higher test scores.” But in the case of Poland, the phrase is especially absurd, since Poland doesn’t have higher test scores than the United States does.
Their names were Kim, Eric and Tom, and they served as my escorts through borrowed homes and adopted cafeterias, volunteer fixers in a foreign land. Kim traveled from Oklahoma to Finland, Eric from Minnesota to South Korea, and Tom from Pennsylvania to Poland. They came from different parts of America, and they left for different reasons. I met Kim, Eric and Tom with the help of AFS, Youth for Understanding, and the Rotary Clubs, outfits that run exchange programs around the world.
I chose these Americans as advisers, but they turned out to be straight-up protagonists. They did not stand for all American kids, and their experiences could not reflect the millions of realities in their host countries. But, in their stories, I found the life that was missing from the policy briefings.
Ripley is pushing a standard elite narrative about our public schools. Over and over in her ballyhooed book, she seems to be willing to stretch in service to this narrative. This is true when she tells readers, early on, that Poland is a “smarter country” than our own U.S.
(Sadly, reviewers have tended to understand how this embellishment system works. In the case of Poland, they have often embellished Ripley's initial embellishment, describing Poland as one of the world's highest-scoring countries. That isn't true on any international test. Embellishment is a giant part of our modern pseudo-journalism.)
Back to those three exchange students:
In her book, Ripley spends a lot of time describing the experiences of these three American teenagers, both in their American homes and schools and in their lives abroad. These stories are very interesting, but there is an obvious problem with this small sample of student experience.
Kim, Eric and Tom do “come from different parts of America” in one obvious respect. They come from three different states in three different parts of the country.
In another way, though, these interesting, vibrant students come from the same part of the country. All three of these terrific kids come from the white middle-class.
To state the obvious, there’s nothing wrong with being a white middle-class high school kid! From 1961 through 1965, we were white middle-class high school kids ourselves.
Many of our best friends in life spent three or four years at one time as white middle-class high school kids. Ripley’s subjects all seem to be admirable young people. But our society is heavily stratified, in various ways which don’t seem to interest Ripley a great deal.
There’s nothing wrong with writing a book about high school education. There’s nothing wrong with writing a book about middle-class education.
But lots of wonderful kids in our country come from backgrounds which are substantially different from the backgrounds of Ripley’s students. To our ear, Ripley doesn’t seem to see how many kids her book is leaving behind.
In our view, Ripley doesn’t display strong instincts about the role of income in our society, especially where issues of income blend with our brutal racial history. Unfortunately, different groups of American kids live in substantially different worlds, in ways that don’t seem to be true in Korea, Finland or Poland.
We’ll poke around with this topic all week. Tomorrow:
Norway as an excuse!