Showing posts with label Education. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Education. Show all posts

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

It’s Come to This

I’ve passed through Baltimore more times than I care to count but never toured the city.  I know the Baltimore portrayed by Anne Tyler, a place of comfy familiarity. She must be appalled about what’s happening in Baltimore, although it is not surprising. Racial riots and tensions are not new in America.  It is reminiscent of the 1992 Rodney King riots in L.A. which followed the acquittal of police officers after a police brutality incident was caught on video tape.  But that was a “one off” capture of an incident.

What is new is the widespread use of cell phone, surveillance, and dash board cameras that reveal the everyday nature of the problem.  Twitter and YouTube deliver the message to a nation crazed for user-generated content.  The more we see, the more inured we become to the root of the problem, racial and economic division. 

Meanwhile media firms are pouring endless money into creating “shows” designed to be watched on ubiquitous mobile devices, the holy grail of streaming Internet firms such as Netflix.  We’ve become a nation of somnambulists, cynical about the political process (ironically revealed by Netflix’s House of Cards – does life imitate art or vice versa?). According to a study done two years ago, “by 2015 Americans are expected to consume media for more than 1.7 trillion hours, or an average15.5 hours per person per day, again not counting workplace time. 

2015 is now. My wife recently boarded an aircraft from Atlanta and most people were watching videos on their laptops or iPods or even cell phones and although anecdotal evidence at best, many were of interactive games or slam-bang explosive Hollywood films.   Imagine, most of your waking hours consuming media of this nature?

What happened to reading?  Same answer as to what has happened to education.  As long as we put a premium on consuming video content while minimizing education, there really is no answer to the racial and economic tensions that will play out in the future.  Along with rebuilding our infrastructure, and our inner cities, education must be this nation’s highest priority to provide opportunity where people feel there is none. Better police tactics are needed, and research and education is required there as well.   No wonder there is such despondency.

Easier said than done naturally, and having a dysfunctional government is not helping. As presidential electioneering gets underway the failings of the whole process will become even more apparent, thanks to Supreme Court sanctioned unlimited campaign contributions by corporations and individuals: its a few mega billionaires and corporations vs. the rest of us. 

And it’s come to this in Baltimore today: the Baltimore Orioles will play the Chicago White Sox in an empty stadium -- our National Pastime with no spectators allowed because of safety concerns. Eerie symbolism of things to come? Is that how we want to live our lives? 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Connecting the Notes

One of the things I get to do in this blog is editorialize about, well, almost anything.  Things that catch my eye sometimes have a rumination period.  Such is the case with two fairly recent articles in the Wall Street Journal and thoughts I’ve expressed about American popular culture and the state of American education.  Perhaps the reason I still subscribe to the Wall Street Journal is that in spite of its now Rupert Murdochian slant, one I lamented when Sarah Palin became associated with his empire (yikes, that was almost four years ago!), is that it has expanded its “life and culture” coverage, delivering consistent high quality. 

First, to set the stage I quote from Philip Roth – from an interview earlier in the year with a Swedish journalist (not the WSJ). He so eloquently described the losing battle that teachers and parents are having with “the moronic amusement park” of popular culture, omnipresent in our traditional media and the Internet: The power in any society is with those who get to impose the fantasy....Now the fantasy that prevails is the all-consuming, voraciously consumed popular culture, seemingly spawned by, of all things, freedom. The young especially live according to beliefs that are thought up for them by the society’s most unthinking people and by the businesses least impeded by innocent ends. Ingeniously as their parents and teachers may attempt to protect the young from being drawn, to their detriment, into the moronic amusement park that is now universal, the preponderance of the power is not with them.

It brings up the obvious issue of cultural values.  If our youth is being dumbed down to such an extent by the scores of pop figures rolling off the American Idol / America’s Got Talent assembly line each year, slavishly lionized, what kind of a future is there for classical music, opera, serious theatre, and literature?  To what extent is our educational system itself responsible?  And what can be done about it?

Terry Teachout, the now reigning theatre critic of the Wall Street Journal, addresses the popular culture side of this equation in his recent article, Pop Go the Highbrows. He cites as evidence the “devolution” the Kennedy Center Honors. In 1978, the first five recipients of that once-prestigious award were Marian Anderson, Fred Astaire, George Balanchine, Richard Rodgers and Arthur Rubinstein. This year’s honorees will be Al Green, Tom Hanks, Lily Tomlin and Sting, with the peerless ballerina Patricia McBride thrown in to humor the highbrows.

He goes on to say Alex Ross, the music critic of the New Yorker, got it just right when he wrote the other day that the Kennedy Center Honors have degenerated into “one more temple of celebrity culture, magnifying the fame of already familiar faces....The logic that has taken hold of the Honors is one of pop triumphalism: it’s not enough for pop culture to dominate the mainstream; it must colonize the spaces occupied by older genres and effectively drive them from the field.”

The following day the WSJ published Joanne Lipman’s A Musical Fix for American Schools. Perhaps you too have long lamented the state of our educational system, particularly the wide gap between the haves and the have-nots, and how our educators are low in our value system, paying a great teacher a mere fraction of what we pay other professionals, lawyers, doctors, business people,  you name it, not to mention entertainers and sports figures.  In 1990 when I returned from a trip to Japan, it became particularly obvious to me and I wrote an article, Why Johnny Can't Compete noting that "quality education is truly available to all in Japan and it is widely perceived to be desirable.  Japanese teachers occupy a high status in society and are well paid.  Illiteracy is virtually unknown."

Lipman’s essay hit me as an epiphany.  It’s not only about paying our better educators more, holding them higher in our esteem than other professionals; it’s about radically revamping our educational system.  Music democratizes education, allowing every child to participate on an equal footing, teaching cooperation, and “research shows that lessons with an instrument boosts IQ, focus and persistence.” Among the key points in the article:
            *Music raises your IQ
            *Musical training can reduce the academic gap between rich and poor districts
            *Music training does more than sports, theater or dance to improve key academic skills
            *Music can be an inexpensive early screening tool for reading disabilities
            *Music literally expands your brain

Why shouldn’t our educational system incorporate extensive music education (and by that I don’t mean only music history, but, more so, musical theory and practice, classical music as well as  jazz for its improvisational characteristics) into its curriculum?  Perhaps if students are able to perform those forms of music, the tide can be turned against, as Roth puts it, society’s most unthinking people.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Why Johnny Can't Compete

The horrendous images of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami haunt my consciousness. We have friends there and as I said in an earlier post, our son is presently traveling there (he is safe and has been able to move south more out of harm's way).

Our prior travels in Japan are cherished memories. We developed the greatest respect for the Japanese people, a nation which seemed to reach its economic zenith during our stay as the New Year dawned in 1990. The Nikkei Dow touched 40,000 and Japan was booming. Our domestic press was full of stories about the Japanese having an unfair trade advantage and consequently how America was no longer able to compete with this economic juggernaut. Japan was said to be destroying American industry and would be buying up all our assets. Only a couple of months before the iconic Rockefeller Center complex was purchased by Japan's Mitsubishi Group. "Made in Japan" went from a joke in the 1950s to an economic threat by the end of the 1980s.

The dire forecasts concerning Japan faded over the next two decades as boom turned to bust and it fell into an ongoing deflationary spiral. But today we are saying the exact same things about China's unfair trade advantages, China buying up our assets and holding our debt, almost as if we are victims of outside forces and bear no responsibility for our own economic predicament.

While in Japan in 1990 I was invited to deliver a speech to the Rotary Club of Tokyo Koishikawa on the subject of US - Japan trade relations. When I returned home, I was asked to write an article about our experience, which for one reason or another was not published, probably because its contents did not blame Japan for our own failures.

I think the Japanese economy will recover from this tragedy, although it will take years. Our heartfelt hopes for recovery are with the Japanese people, and for a minimal loss of life and containment of what is appearing to be a serious threat from damage to several of its nuclear facilities. Please consider a donation to the Red Cross for those devastated in Japan.

I recently came across that unpublished article and was not surprised about how little has changed. One now only has to substitute "China" for some of the examples I used for Japan. Our fundamental problem about successfully competing remains: education. The irony is our best graduate schools are attended by some of the finest minds from overseas, but upon their graduation, we give them a diploma without a green card and send them on their way home. But the primary failure here is our public school system, the same failure I decried twenty plus years ago. Nothing has changed and it could be argued that they have worsened.

Given the folly in Wisconsin and the rhetoric of some of our politicians, one would think that our nation is going broke because we overpay our teachers. Of course the converse is true. Why go into teaching when one can become a master of the universe at an investment bank and rake in bonuses? We need great teachers and a better public education system to begin to reverse a continuing decline in our students' performance. "The three-yearly OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report, which compares the knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds in 70 countries around the world, ranked the United States 14th out of 34 OECD countries for reading skills, 17th for science and a below-average 25th for mathematics."

The following is what I wrote in January 1990, in many ways as relevant today as it was then:

Why Johnny Can't Compete

In my capacity as president of an academic and professional book publishing company I have had the opportunity to visit Japan from time to time over the past 20 years. Even though our publications are in English, Japan has become our largest market outside of the United States. It has been an interesting sideline of these trips to be able to compare the economic, social, and educational progress of Japan with what I observe at home.

My most recent trip to Japan occurred over the Christmas and New Year holiday season, when many westerners who live in Japan return home, and Tokyo's hotels are given over to craft exhibits and festivals in celebration of the New Year. The Japanese New Year holiday is a major one: people stop working for nearly a week to greet the new year at shrines and temples, and to pay respect to their families. I made the trip this time with my wife and 13-year-old son, and we felt privileged to be there at this special time of year.

By prior arrangement with my Japanese host (the head of the company that distributes our books in Japan), I was to give a speech to the Rotary Club of Tokyo Koishikawa on the subject of U.S.-Japan trade relations as perceived by the American people -- a subject of great concern to the Japanese. I was aware of the symbolism of making such a speech at the end of this past decade. Japan has emerged as a leading economic power, while we, ourselves, perceive our own position to be in decline. While I made an effort to put what America had accomplished in the 1980's in the best possible light and to emphasize how the U.S. and Japan can become equal trading partners with the new opportunities in the 1990's, particularly those created by the decline of communism in Eastern Europe, in retrospect my words seem hollow. I returned with the realization that if we are to truly compete with Japan as the 21st century approaches, our nation will have to undergo radical changes by rediscovering many of the values embraced by Japan.

There is a cultural basis for Japan's success. The resolve to work hard, to be productive, to be well-educated, to respect one another, to be part of the team, and to be patient in attaining goals is the very essence of their culture. It little matters what one does, it only matters how well the work is done. In Japan, the marked contrasts to minimal working standards we have become conditioned to accept are everywhere. Is it no wonder we have difficulty in competing with a society that prides itself in being the best it possibly can be?

In a discussion with my host about such issues he asked, "Why is there a drug problem in the U.S.? Japanese people do not understand why such a problem should exist." "A feeling of-hopelessness," I replied. Thinking about that discussion, I believe that our future success or failure in restoring hope might be at the very core of competing with Japan. This can only be done by completely restructuring our educational system and giving it our highest societal priority.

Quality education is truly available to all in Japan and it is widely perceived to be desirable. Japanese teachers occupy a high status in society and are well paid. Illiteracy is virtually unknown. Even peasants were able to read and write by the nineteenth century. Japan ranked among the most advanced countries of western Europe in educational excellence.

Contrast this to our present situation. Our minimal educational standards have led to wide-spread illiteracy and millions are basically unemployable. The recently released report by the Secretary of Education estimates that 60% of our nation's 11th graders are barely able to read the most rudimentary documents. How and why does our society tolerate this perversion? Only by radically improving our educational system will we be able to ultimately remove the pervasive hopelessness that corrodes our land, drugs our children, and produces the type of wide-spread violent crime that is virtually unknown in Japan.

So, while we are urging Japan to make cosmetic changes to facilitate better U.S.-Japan economic relations, we must make mammoth changes to compete in the long run. What is needed is the equivalent of President Kennedy's pronouncement in the early 1960's that our national objective was to put a man on the moon by the end of that decade. Do we have the moral fortitude to declare that, as a national goal, we can and will create a public education system which is second to none by the end of this decade?

Only until we restore hope, the expectation that one generation can be better off than the previous one and people can find meaningful employment opportunities -- the very ideals which made this country the great melting pot of the 19th and early 20th centuries -- will we be able to successfully compete with Japan in the 21st century.

Things are by no means perfect in Japan. Their dedication to work borders on workaholism; individuals may not have the same degree of freedom to which we have become accustomed. However, for years Japan has been accused of copying the best of western business ways and technology and then improving upon them. In dealing with our economic dilemmas, the time has come for us to adopt some aspects of Japanese culture and, in so doing, rediscover many of the values that once made our country great.