Educational Excellence Bites Back

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Maybe there's something to be said for self-esteem, after all. That's what I'd conclude from the experience of a British lecturer at a leading institution, who recently published an extract from his new book, based on his children's experiences and his own. Of his classes he writes:

It was only when I started teaching at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques in Paris that I figured out the problem. Better known as Sciences Po, it's part of the "grandes écoles" network that has traditionally trained France's political and business elite. To get in you need to have done fabulously well at school. The big surprise for me was not how bright these students were - and most are very, very bright - but how low their self-confidence was. Getting them to participate in classroom discussions was like pulling teeth. Exam time was trauma time: every year, several burst into tears during the oral.

Another citadel of the high-stakes competitive examination, South Korea -- in far better economic shape -- is actually sponsoring an island-based English-language-only community of overseas-run schools to counter a trend for parents to send their offspring abroad to avoid just such an atmosphere:

"In South Korea, it's all rote learning for college entrance exams," Ms. Lee [a pharmacist whose daughter studied in Canada] said. "A student's worth is determined solely by what grades she gets." She added that competition among parents forced their children to sign up for extracurricular cram sessions that left them with little free time to develop their creativity. "Children wither in our education system," she said.

During the health care debate there were fans of British, Canadian, French, and German systems -- and of course critics. But it's a peculiarity of education that there is no country, especially no large and culturally diverse country, that is widely acclaimed as a model at all levels. America defeated Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, with their formidable centralized education systems, and it survived the Soviet Union, with its outstanding science pedagogy, despite (or because of) the Sputnik panic. Nowhere has the freedom to challenge ideas, and even to drop out and become a multibillionaire as Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Larry Ellison, and others did, paid off more handsomely. In Europe, even the young Albert Einstein, alone of his cohort, couldn't find a university teaching job. So by all means let's raise standards, but let's also keep the rebellious flame alive.

(Thanks to Ben Wildavsky in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, for subscribers.)

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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