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Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Striving for Mediocrity

Recent findings have shown American students to be behind students from other industrialized nations in school. The Globe states, however, that "In Washington, D.C., national education officials hailed the higher scores in the eighth grade, especially in algebra. Black and Hispanic students also did better, officials said, crediting the improvement to clearer standards for what schools should teach and greater federal and state oversight of schools." Elsewhere in the article, they mention that the overall shortcoming might be attributed to a lack of specialization in math in science among teachers.

Although I think that the comment on specialization might bear some truth, we also need to be looking in some other directions. It obviously is true that teachers who know math better can probably teach math more effectively; yet I can't help but find fault in the idea that the effectiveness of American teaching is being judged, evidently, almost entirely on how well students do in the sciences. This is an area in which Japan has long exceeded us; Japan has a culture very different from that of the United States, and that culture tends to encourage scientific thinking. The American culture tends to encourage individualism and creative thinking.

What I see happening is a trend I noticed even as early as my own childhood: a homogenization of education. More and more, we are judging American students solely on how well they learn the sciences and memorize factoids and formulae. While there certainly is a place for objective fact learning, many other aspects of learning get increasingly neglected in modern American education. At least as important as learning facts is learning to think. At least as important, too, is developing the natural gifts of students. Yet the humanities have been dumbed down in an attempt to appease the growing number of judge-by-the-test critics. Every year more schools decrease their logic and creativity curricula in order to spend more hours "teaching the test."

Essentially, in order to get better in our weak areas, we are sacrificing our strong areas. We are striving for mediocrity.

When you think of the great accomplishments of American history, what names come to mind? Thomas Jefferson? Benjamin Franklin? Abraham Lincoln? Jefferson's accomplishments were in the humanities, not the sciences; yet without his genius, the United States literally would not be what it is today. Lincoln's legacy lies in his social reforms, not his math scores. Even Franklin, who was a brilliant scientist, was first and foremost an innovator. We remember him not because of the facts he learned, but because of the facts he created.

I do not in any way mean by this to demean accomplishments in math and science. To the contrary, I agree that we need more science and math in the average curriculum. Let us not judge our accomplishments solely by testable facts, though. The arts and humanities are just as important as math and science to the betterment of our society and the cultivation of students' gifts. If we only judge our educational system by how well we fare in our weak areas, we will never be able to cultivate strengths.

Is mediocrity all we hope for in our students?