Published in the opinion page, as a member of the Community Advisory Board of the Holland Sentinel, the newspaper of Holland, Michigan.
I recently toured the cafeterias of two area schools with a group of fellow students from Holland High. Our mission: to learn about and comment on ideas for a new high school to be built as part of Holland Public Schools’ $73 million bond initiative.
Excited by the prospects and new ideas I’d seen, I returned to school and boasted of the day’s adventure to a math teacher.
“You’ve done what?” she whispered, incredulous. She paused, squinting directly into my eyes. “That sounds about as worthwhile as touring local bathrooms to determine the optimal arrangement of stalls.”
While this teacher’s view of matters probably lies outside the norm, I realize upon further reflection that her remark suggests a truth we often avoid: The greatest influence on the academic achievement of society’s young is culture. Regardless of how we train teachers, compensate administrators, deliver lessons and even arrange lunch tables, without a culture that values — stresses — education, schools will struggle.
Such a response struggles for attention though. Initially, we as a society recoil mentally at the suggestion of an imperfect culture. Too much emphasis on sports?
Impossible! And how dare one frown upon our lust for entertainment. To criticize culture, we feel, is to offend our standards, our agenda, our way of life. But perhaps we should be offended.
Furthermore, culture can hardly be isolated and indexed like a scientific effect. Each individual family carries out its own practices and values, and I like to think I am not so naïve as to label all Western parents as “lax.” Still, a study conducted at Syracuse University reported striking differences in parenting philosophy between American mothers and Chinese mothers who had recently immigrated to the United States.
Of the American mothers interviewed, 70 percent said either that “stressing academic success is not good for children” or that “parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun.” Chinese mothers, by contrast, almost always believed their children could be “the best” students and that “academic achievement reflects successful parenting.” Given this, one cannot be surprised that Shanghai students’ test scores topped the rankings published by the Programme for International Student Assessment in 2009.
Proposals involving a shift in culture lack recognition, too, in the political arena.
Bills involving teacher compensation, school district hierarchies, textbooks — these can be debated, voted on and implemented with the “stroke of a pen” by those we hire to toil in City Hall, Lansing and Washington. But culture finds its roots in fields far deeper than laws, words on the printed page that can be changed. Culture develops over centuries, and one who believes he or she alone can move the mind-set of masses likely hails from another planet.
So is American education doomed for mediocrity?
Should we accept slacking standards and then, this critique in hand, quietly begin disassembling the fine schools we’ve spent decades improving? Certainly not. As much as culture is out of the hands of politicians, it is in ours. Parents, of course, can cultivate their children’s attitudes within the family environment, and help is always appreciated at institutions like the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Holland, places that provide a bridge between academia and the home, where too many lack parental support for a variety of reasons. Robyn Afrik’s column in the Dec. 31 Sentinel reminds us likewise of the positive influence a single mentor can have.
As our nation gropes its way out of a deep recession, we would do well to pause and consider what we ourselves can do to influence the lessons that American youth receive, in and out of the classroom.
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