The New York Times ran an interesting story on Saturday about ethnic divides and tensions over school policy in West Windsor Township, a well-to do suburb of New York. This is the kind of suburb where most parents are from the educated class and their children will also receive university and graduate educations. According to Wikipedia, median family income in the township is slightly north of 150,000 dollars.
The tension is over whether the school district’s academic program is creating students that are overburdened, stressed out, and on the verge of nervous breakdowns. One parent noted that her 4th grader was concerned about not amounting to anything in life because of the dearth of material for a resume. Other parents think that the school district’s concern over psychological health and well-being is going to make their kids unable to compete in the American and global economy. For these parents, the stress and overburdening are features, not bugs. The parents who want more psychological well-being in the school schedule tend to be white. The parents who worry that psychological well-being is a luxury that will hold their kids back tend to be Asian.
This is a fight that is happening all over the United States. Hanna Rosin reports on misery and suicide in well-to-do Silicon Valley high schools. Slate focused on self-segregation in Silicon Valley high schools based on race and how stressful people believed the academics of the schools should be.
The Asian-American parents tend to be immigrants or first-generation Americans. Their basic argument seems to be that psychological well-being and a humanities and arts educations are luxuries that they simply can’t afford. The white parents are older, more established, and have connections. The only way Asian-Americans can help their kids compete is by making sure that they have top grades, get into top universities, and get into top jobs.
I’m somewhat sympathetic to this because it is a basic immigrant technique for making the next generation successful and is basically correct. The issue is also relevant in emerging economies. My girlfriend is from Singapore, and a lot of her friends are expats from Singapore and Malaysia. One of her friends got to do a presentation before the Singaporean Minister for Education after her freshman year at college in the United States. The presentation was on how Singapore could benefit from a more creatively focused version of education instead of fitting students into boxes. The Singaporean Minister of Education largely dismissed that as being a luxury. The United States can afford to have people who spend their 20s in underpaid jobs and dreaming of art because the United States has a large population and can handle slack. Singapore is small and can’t handle any excess baggage. The Malaysian friends received an education that seems to consist of math and science, math and science, and more math and science.
There are very good points here. Recent immigrants might have good paying jobs but they probably lack social connections that can ensure those jobs without having earned stellar grades while still in school. What I wonder about is burnout. Maybe the academically intense model of parenting is good at getting children into top universities, leading to the kind of brass ring jobs that give 22 year olds six-figure salaries. But what good are these jobs if the kid burns out in five-to-ten years, and end up doing something with an easier pace or find themselves out of the job market entirely?
The big issues surrounding the American education system seem to arise because no one can agree on what the point or purpose of receiving an education is; everyone has different end goals. If the purpose of education is to make individuals and the country competitive in the national and global economies, education is going to be very utilitarian. People will be boxed into careers early and subjects will gravitate towards the merely functional. A more psychologically balanced or arts-oriented educated do benefit the rich, well-established, and connected, though. There are also good arguments for making sure that kids don’t slack through their twenties, which can delay everything from home-owenrship to parenting and saving for retirement. The problem is that a lot of American school districts are filled with roughly equal numbers of parents in both camps, and this is just going to produce more tensions and headaches down the line.