So, this article a fairly long, fairly biased rant against the current U.S. education system. Now, I'm by no means of a system where...how did the Simpson's put it?..."smart kids powerless before mindless jock-ocracy," (sic) but this author takes things a little far. Here are two points:
1. He trashes the "blank slate" theory. So, human beings are not blank slates when they are born. Great, I don't really know of anyone who disputes that. However, the author goes off into flights of genetic fancy, and where the shrillness is at its worst, you get:
"These undesirable outcomes—these mysterious test-score gaps, these dropping-outs and delinquencies—arise only because we are chanting the wrong spells!"
Leaving aside his comparison of modern teaching methods and witchcraft, I bring this up because, while I don't think that humans are blank slates, we do have a remarkable individuality, not to mention an (almost pathological) ability to change and learn. I agree that no one's a blank slate. But no one starts with everything programmed either. And I'd much rather start from an educational principle that assumes that people can learn, rather than one that would give up on certain people for the sake of preconceived biological or cultural notions. And the problems that emerge from this point of view come out in the article itself.
"One wonders if there has ever been an education theorist who has actually raised children, or retained any memory of his own childhood."
That may be fair, but I've got to wonder if Mr. Derbyshire retains any memory of being a teenager. I think we can safely say that questioning, change, learning - all of which happens in a social setting - are hallmarks of that period of our lives, not slavish following of supposedly biological imperatives.
2. This leads me to my second point. Because there are educational systems where they assume that some people just "can't learn." And those students are either punished or sent off to vocational schools, which invariably suck. And all of this within a "school voucher" supporters' wet dream. I am of course speaking about East Asian school systems.
Oh, the memories of corporal punishment and stress positions gleefully copied by the soldiers at Abu Ghraib, the gulags, and some undisclosed location in Burma. Okay, so I never went to an East Asian elementary school and I exaggerate, but I do look at my cousins, some of whom had to leave Taiwan because they would be stuck in a dead-end school with the expectation of a dead-end job. All because he doesn't take tests well. Or my mom, who is very intelligent, but also doesn't take tests well, and was forced to do law (which she hates). Or my dad, who takes tests very well, and was forced to do chemistry (which he passive-aggressively hates). Or the brother of an ex-girlfriend, who has been taking and retaking the Japanese college entrance exam for 4 years, studying nonstop in between, and still can't get into a good school that will allow him to pursue, in some small way, the career that he wants.
So, when I hear people say that we should adopt a more East Asian model of education, I shudder. When I hear people talk about school vouchers and merit-based admissions, I shudder. Because it's fine when you're on top, but if you're in the middle or the bottom, the resources to provide you with a solid education just aren't there. As I said, there is no profit in poverty, and forcing a "merit"-based system on something as complex as intelligence or learning is inevitably going to leave behind many individuals who could succeed if they are given a chance. Hence, my cousin(s) coming to the U.S.
And of course, as James Fallows just reported, no one, not even the Chinese, Japanese, or Koreans, like their school systems either. They think it deadens creativity, which is a threat to innovation and the service economy.