Thursday, September 08, 2005

Hint: It's not glamorous but it works

But attacking the academic achievement gap is hard work. It takes time. It takes commitment. There's little public glory in helping a child to read or learn math. Substance and effort are boring. But symbolism -- like a flaming cross in the night -- is seductive and attracts attention.

One paragraph out of Rick Martinez' column, but it brought to mind a couple of things I've read this year.

One is Sam Levinson's Everything But Money. Levinson is an often-quoted Jewish humorist who grew up in the Depression-era slums of New York, but went to college like his brother the doctor and his brother the dentist, etc., and became a teacher. Why did he succeed? He says they were "the privileged poor" -- committed parents, a solid foundation of training in right and wrong, high expectations. Also notable is a community culture which honored scholarship. It may not have paid much, but a scholar was a man worthy of respect.

The Chinese culture shows the same currents. Ebey's Illustrated History of China may not have offered any new insights, but it elaborated on the truly ancient civil service system of Imperial Cathay -- those who aspired to leadership were expected to be scholars as well as gentlemen. In Europe, you can see where notable men scratched and scrawled graffiti at historic sites -- like Lord Byron's mark in the dungeon of Chillon Castle. In China, you see tablets of poetry or honored fragments of calligraphy, which were the accepted signature of a noble mind's visit. (And as Paul Theroux mentions in Riding the Iron Rooster, it is very possible that the deeply imbedded Confucian ideal of filial piety and honor for the family is what preserved modern China from absolute chaos during the upheavals of the Twentieth Century).

As another columnist stated somewhere this spring, the Asian student in America does not have a "math gene" which programs him for academic success, but he does have a supportive framework, a family with high expectations, and a culture which respects academic achievement.

A few months ago I spoke with a reporter who wanted to talk about "classical education", i.e. the philosophy rooted in the liberal arts, Western civilization ideal. She asked if it showed a difference in test scores, and I told her I doubted it, because standardized testing, like most of modern education, is based on reading comprehension and math computation skills, and classical education focuses on interaction with the great conversation of ideas and philosophy -- which are not tested that way. It's meant to produce minds like Newton and Jefferson, and not simply employable units of human resource.

So if it's not genetic, i.e. deterministic and beyond our influence, then what can we do to re-instill these things in American culture, before it's simply too late?

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