Study: Many college students not learning to think critically

6 Mar

Study: Many college students not learning to think critically

Two and a half months ago, The Hechinger Report came out with the results of a four-year long study by NYU sociology professor Richard Arum questioning the value of a four-year college education. Arum and his team concluded that, overall, students are not making remarkable gains in their critical thinking abilities.

Results by numbers:
2,322: # of students studied
24: # of colleges/universities, ranging from most to least selective, represented by the study
45: % of students who showed no significant gains after 2 years of undergrad study
36: % of students who showed no significant gains after 4 years of undergrad study
<20: % of time per week students dedicate to academics (studying, class time, etc)
51: % of time per week students dedicate to extra-curriculars
>40: the average # of pages of reading per week per class read by those who made the highest gains
~20: the average # of pages of writing per semester per class written by those who made the highest gains
0: the # of other students with which those who made the biggest gains studied

The question at the forefront of my mind is how they measured gains in critical thinking abilities. The study says students were unable to “sift fact from opinion, make a clear written argument or objectively review conflicting reports of a situation or event…The students, for example, couldn’t determine the cause of an increase in neighborhood crime or how best to respond without being swayed by emotional testimony and political spin.” However, it seems obvious to state that these are reading and writing based skills. Without having seen the actual test the subjects were given to measure their gains, I can’t say very much with certainty, but under the umbrella of ‘critical thinking’ I place heavy emphasis on problem-solving and deductive reasoning.

All nuances aside, though, this article reifies what I perceive to be one of the biggest problems in modern society: not everyone is meant for college. They’re just not. You like what you’re good at, and there are so many people I know whose talents lie outside the classroom and yet they’re spending money and time going to a four-year institution instead of going to trade school or getting an associates degree. Taking it one step further, not everyone is meant for college directly after high school. Columbia has the school of General Studies for students who have, due to a wide range of circumstances, taken a significant measure of time off from school and have since decided to go back for their undergrad degree. Needless to say, they put all the rest of us to shame, because they know why they’re here. For them, college isn’t just the next step, and it’s not something that’s going to be easy for them- many of them have jobs or families to attend to while carrying a (generally speaking) rigorous course load.

This proposal probably seems contradictory to my last post (re: 20-somethings taking too long to get their lives started), and at first glance, it totally is. In today’s day and age, without a degree of some sort– at minimum, a Bachelor’s– one can’t get a job with a substantial income. If students don’t get that degree straight after high school, that’s wasted time. And yet here I am, saying they should put it off, essentially saying they should waste time. How does that make sense? It doesn’t, really. And it won’t, until we can edit the way education is perceived. Higher education shouldn’t be a necessary next step, because it’s not always necessary. Take insurance agents, for example. How much of their work is dictated by their college degree as opposed to on the job training? That degree is nice to have, and ideally it will produce more educated American citizens, but until we can prove that that is, in fact, the end product of a college education, is it always worth it?

While this study says that liberal arts students made the greatest gains in critical thinking due to their increased exposure to writings and readings and skills of all types, a liberal arts degree is almost useless- it’s value lies predominantly in two things, really. First, the fact that it’s a Bachelor’s degree at all, and second, the location from which the degree was obtained. The process to receiving a Liberal Arts degree is both interesting and enjoyable (I’m on my way to getting one right now), but regardless of one’s major, college grads aren’t exactly graduating with very many tangible skills. I won’t go so far as to say that your major doesn’t matter at all, but a November article from the New York Times’ education section suggests it has very little bearing on what you do later in life (that is, unless you want it to).

To that end, a PayScale Inc. study came up with the following data on the subject:

“Contrary to what many parents tell their children majoring in subjects like political science or philosophy, these degrees won’t necessarily leave you in the poorhouse. It can depend on what career path you choose to pursue with that degree. History-majors-turned-business-consultants earn a median total compensation of $104,000, similar to their counterparts who pursued a business major like economics — whose grads earn about $98,000 overall at midcareer, the PayScale study shows.”

Even the College Board says that, “for most students, picking a college major is not the same as picking a career. It will be up to you to pursue what you like.” But I digress. The value of a college major isn’t really the point of this post.

Anyways, the gist of what I was trying to get at was that if no substantial gains are being made, is there a point in getting a degree at all? And if that is indeed the case, in what does the problem lie: the students, the schools, or the system?

Unfortunately, I’m going to have to make a middle-of-the-road answer, as wishy-washy as those oftentimes seem. Where I went to high school, college is simply the next step. It’s just what you do. I wouldn’t say that most of my peers don’t want to be there (rather, everyone wants to be there; little in life is more straight-up fun than college on the weekends); I instead posit that they’ve never really thought about it. Of course they’ve thought about the financial sacrifices and whatnot, but I’ve seen very few people whose work ethic is directly proportional to the selectivity of the school, the amount of privilege they possess in being able to attend the school, or the amount of money they’re paying for their education- myself included. I dreamed I would become this Super Student when I came to college, and yet, same as in high school, when I sincerely feel something is unnecessary, I just can’t bring myself to do it. I just can’t. I try. I really, really do. And I know for a fact that millions of other college students feel (and do) the same. I’ve taken college for granted; it was somewhere I was always told would be my place post-graduation, and at least the way my high school career functioned, it was never something I thought very much about (in the sense that I, unlike Rory Gilmore, did not see a particular school as the light at the end of the tunnel). I worked hard because I enjoyed it, and ended up at my school because of it. As confirmed by the many complaints and angry rants about seemingly arbitrary acceptances and rejections (I can’t believe I only got in here when so-and-so gets to go there), to me and those I graduated with, college always seemed more like a right than a privilege.

Which brings me to the school. Private colleges function via endowment, a figure that rises and falls largely depending on student success. Also dictated by student success is professor’s rating and standing in a university. The success rating is more or less dictated by grades. As reported this past January by the Columbia Spectator, Columbia University is arguable experiencing significant grade inflation, with roughly 8% of the Columbia College/SEAS population possessing a GPA between a 4.0 (straight As) and 4.33 (straight A-pluses). Are Columbia students getting smarter, or are the classes just getting easier? There’s really no way to tell, but it seems to me that something fishy is definitely going on here, and I imagine at many other colleges and universities nation-wide.

Obviously, there’s no way to force or even ensure that students are doing the readings, save giving a pop quiz or something on each reading, but no one wants to deal with that (least of all the lucky professors who get the 200-person lectures). But I think that schools (especially those on the upper echelons of the selectivity scale) breed competition, which in turn makes students more focused on the grade than on the material- again, myself included. I wasn’t a huge fan of one of my GenEds last semester, so I wrote the papers, I did enough of the reading to speak once a class, and I finished it. I have since forgotten most things we discussed, and anything in the back of my memory will probably be squished out by the semesters to come, but I was so determined not to be at the bottom of the curve that I just didn’t care. Luckily, my school is not like Wharton and doesn’t grade every class on a class curve (only the top x% of students per class can get an A, the next x% can get a B, etc), where it becomes less about how hard you’re working and more about working harder than the person next to you. How can you possibly devote the 120% of your energy necessary to genuinely understand the material to 4-5 academic classes, sleep, eat, and maybe even go out once in a while? You just can’t. So you eliminate what’s least appealing, the work for the classes you dislike. And honestly (this coming from someone who often does just that, mind you)- I’ve probably gotten the most out of those readings, because they forced me to stretch my mind just to finish it, to keep my attention long enough to see what the author is saying. The readings I enjoy almost begin to feel like candy; I can devour them without much effort because they’re fun. But you’ve got to have your meat and potatoes sometimes.

And finally, the system. Why is college all of a sudden necessary for every job with upward mobility, regardless of the degree’s bearing on the work one is doing? Just to prove that you could, at one point in time, write dozens of papers on a fraction of the sleep? Well-roundedness is important, but only if students are actually absorbing and utilizing the knowledge to which they’re being exposed. Clearly, that’s not happening, and so it’s time to re-evaluate the system. I think we’ll start seeing more gains in critical thinking when students don’t see college as a means to an end, but rather an end in itself:  the end of an era of learning; a springboard from which they can launch into a stimulating career. When everyone who claims to love learning can get past what they feel is “important” and just read articles to read them, college will be worth it. When college once again becomes a privilege and not a right, students will begin to appreciate it and do what college is supposed to do: learn how to stretch their minds.

Rock, Paper, Scissors

5 Mar

This is just a short post until I have time to do a full one later, but this is possibly too good of a distraction from midterms. Enjoy, and good luck!

What is it about 20-somethings?

2 Mar

What is it about 20-somethings?

This past August, while students of all ages were beginning to flood the malls and Staples in search of the perfect back to school outfit and binders, recent college graduates found themselves in a sort of limbo: for the first time in their lives, the coloring of the leaves did not signal the beginning of yet another year of papers, exams, and labs. It was just another turning of the seasons. However, for an increasing amount of 20-somethings, college graduation is no longer the impetus to find a job—any job—and leave their parents’ homes once and for all. The New York Times published this exposé on the 20-somethings to try and explain the moving-back-home phenomenon.

As with everything else, it’s easy to see how American culture is to blame for this delayed foray into adulthood. We’ve sanctified the childhood and adolescent years; it isn’t really until junior year of high school that many are forced to even start thinking about the future- and even then, it’s just college. Posters on classroom walls from K-12 remind its inhabitants to “reach for the stars,” “follow your dreams,” and “remember: the sky’s the limit.” It’s almost as though doing what one needs to do to be a functioning member of the adult world is no longer a worthy aspiration—well, worthy might be the wrong word. It’s no longer an aspiration for which we’re willing to settle. We want more. Which is good—but only if we’re willing to act upon this ambition and find it, rather than waiting for it to find us.

A few weeks ago, I was on a rush line getting tickets for ‘Anything Goes’ and I was talking to the woman in front of me. Her name was Dee, and she was in her late 50s/early 60s. As everyone does, she was asking me about college. After answering a few questions, she just shook her head and said, “Wow. Everything is just so much harder now.” She was the first person I had ever met who thought things had gotten more difficult with time.

Dee went on to talk about how when she began college (she went to Rutgers), there were so few options for women- you could be a teacher, a nurse, or a secretary. Period. Over the four years she was there, though, things loosened up enough for her to be a business major. “It’s just fabulous how many options you have for majors now,” she said, “but that just must be one of the reasons college is so much more expensive. I knew plenty of people who worked their way through college—public or private—and were able to pay it back within a reasonable time frame. There’s just no way you could do that now, if you could even find a job.” She went on to lament about how much more competitive everything was, because the applicants were getting more and more qualified—understandably, because they start training for everything so much earlier (one of my younger cousin’s friends is an 8-year-old gymnast who’s thinking to ‘retire’ at 13, after she graduates middle school. No one should be involved enough in ANYTHING at 8 to retire at 13).

Now, this is coming from a person who’s in college now, but I think Dee’s right. Across the board, from parents looking for babysitters, to restaurants looking for waitresses, to business moguls looking for accountants, everyone wants references, experience, and an impressive network. For example, this past summer I was still 17, so looking for a job was a legitimate nightmare. I tried restaurants because generally waitresses don’t have to adhere to the age guideline. I went to 6 or so restaurants, ranging from diners to ethnic eateries, and all of them wanted 1-3 years of waitressing experience. Because there are a handful of people who can meet those qualifications, businesses feel they can reasonably expect it. The bar isn’t too high so long as enough people can clear it.

So how is this all relevant? I think a lot of 20-somethings are finding themselves in this position—unemployable, both for being under and over qualified (whether at the hand of the economy or their own missteps, though, has yet to be determined). I have a family friend whose parents have decided that their 26-year-old is just too old to be living at home. For whatever reason, he’s been unemployed since his college graduation, save a few stints behind the counter at stores or delis. Their solution? Put him up in an apartment in town, teach him about living on his own. He’ll have to do his own laundry, grocery shopping, cleaning, and bills- on his parents’ dime, that is. It seems like a really bizarre concept, funding your child’s first leg of adulthood. And yet it seems like a win-win, doesn’t it? It cuts the cord while still making sure your child is provided for.

But it goes beyond that—it’s an increase in parental dependency in both directions. Once the helicopter parent has nothing left to circle, what’s left for him/her to do? It’s natural for parents to want to feel necessary in their kids lives, so they breed dependent children who can’t or won’t ever fully cut the cord (and just to clarify, “stay at home parent” DOES NOT necessarily translate to “helicopter parent.” Just to be clear). At any rate, it’s normal for parents to support their kids through college and even help them out a bit afterwards, but there comes a time, I feel, when “following your dreams” needs to be replaced with “doing what you need to do to get by.” It may not be the ideal job, but it’s a baby step; a way to insert yourself into the workforce in whatever way you can. Once in the workforce, it’s easier to make contacts, to create work ties that have the potential to lead one to a more desirable job.

The article discusses the possibility of a new psychological age phase- “emerging adulthood”— which begs the question: is it an age group worth creating? Or is it just a creation of those with the means to use that time to “find themselves” as opposed to getting their lives together? Arnett, the psychologist spear-heading the movement, claims it’s a stage for everyone; it’s a stage of possibility. He gives the example of Nicole, a self-starter who’s been taking care of her family since she was eight years old. For her, he says, “’emerging adulthood represents an opportunity — maybe a last opportunity — to turn one’s life around.’ This is the stage where someone like Nicole can escape an abusive or dysfunctional family and finally pursue her own dreams.” But can she? Her 20s may provide her with a sense of optimism that may diminish as she approaches “the 30 deadline,” but if she wants to have food to eat and a place to live, she sure as hell better not go join a band and experiment with boys and drugs as Arnett did for a bunch of years following college. For those without the cushion of daddy’s wallet, one’s 20s are still what they used to be—the time for one’s life to begin. “Emerging adulthood” as a phase is much like a private college education to a degree—it’s nice to have, but not vital.

I don’t understand what’s so scary about being in your 20s. As a good friend of mine once said, “unless you amputate your arm, nothing is permanent.” This friend in particular graduated college, worked in television for two or three years, and then decided she’d rather become a teacher. So she did. And now, still not yet 30, she’s had two legitimate careers and discerned which one she actually liked and wanted to pursue. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll see it differently once I’m actually IN my 20s. I guess my point is that if you wait until your 30s or even your late 20s to start seriously thinking about a career, you’re setting yourself up to be significantly behind the curve, age-wise and, proportionally, experience-wise should you ever change your mind. Moreover, as the article states, having any job instigates momentum to continue on an upward career path.

The article quotes two 20-somethings who wrote in Arnett’s “20-something manifesto:” “It’s somewhat terrifying,” writes a 25-year-old named Jennifer, “to think about all the things I’m supposed to be doing in order to ‘get somewhere’ successful: ‘Follow your passions, live your dreams, take risks, network with the right people, find mentors, be financially responsible, volunteer, work, think about or go to grad school, fall in love and maintain personal well-being, mental health and nutrition.’ When is there time to just be and enjoy?” Adds a 24-year-old from Virginia: “There is pressure to make decisions that will form the foundation for the rest of your life in your 20s. It’s almost as if having a range of limited options would be easier.”

The more times I read it over, the angrier I get (as my roommate can attest)—yes, we do, in fact, expect you to be a functional person. Why shouldn’t we? Since when did one’s 20s become an expansion of (Americanized) adolescence- a time to have fun and “find yourself?” Obviously I’m not saying that every single 20-something should own a house and a car and be halfway to a husband and child, but I don’t see why Jennifer and Virginia-person find it so unreasonable for society to expect them to begin to act like functional adults. And as for Virginia’s claim about having “too many” options, that’s bullshit. At least where I’m from, one of the most popular complaints is the lack of options: the lack of options in the course catalogue, the lack of college major options, the lack of extra-curricular options, the lack of socially acceptable career options. Giving a limited range of options would be moving back in time, especially for women, who fought so hard to get these options in the first place. Removing options would simply create a new gripe: that society isn’t allowing “emerging adults” to ‘be who they want to be,’ and is instead forcing them into a mold.

Finally, Arnett kind of backs out of his own point a bit at the end: he says that not every country’s 20s population goes through “emerging adulthood;” “it’s often skipped in the industrialized world by the people who marry early, by teenage mothers forced to grow up, by young men or women who go straight from high school to whatever job is available without a chance to dabble until they find the perfect fit. Indeed, the majority of humankind would seem to not go through it at all.” In saying so, doesn’t that prove that this phase is a social construct created to allow our children a few more years of fun and freedom before “forcing” them to settle down? It seems that every pre-30s stage has the potential to be “the best years of our lives,” and in creating this “emerging adulthood stage,” we’re essentially making the 20s an extension of adolescence—another 8-10 years to play, to find one’s self, to do things for fun.

And yet I have to ask: where did this entitlement come from? When was it decided that adolescents/”emerging adults” should receive the privilege of a lesser culpability for their actions? When we became willing to cater to them. As to why, I don’t know (as an adolescent, I’m hardly complaining, but still, I have to wonder). Car companies and psychologists alike have decided that 25 is about the time when one’s brain is fully formed, so perhaps the 30-deadline should be pushed back a few years to match. Ultimately, I think it’s a combination of a fear of failure and our willingness to cater to changing milestone markers that’s holding the 20-somethings back. We’ve been so conditioned to shoot for the moon that it’s a kick to our own pride to settle for anything closer to earth. And if mom and dad are willing to support us until we find our dream job, why shouldn’t we let them? This may seem like a rant on rich people, but it’s really not. It’s a rant on those who are choosing not to accept the responsibilities that comes with the privileges of growing up.

Which leads me to my final question: is this delayed beginning to real life a legitimate problem? And if it is, what’s the solution: to forbid our 20-somethings the comforts of home, hoping that the necessity to find a job and fund shelter and food will ignite their ambition? Or to give them ample time to find their way? At this point in my life, I’m not sure I can have a valid opinion—I am, after all, still a student, who isn’t forced to find my footing just yet.. However, I do think there’s a point in time where parents do need to pull the plug on being a permanent primary place of residence. As the old saying goes, “necessity is the mother of invention.” If 20-somethings are told and shown that it’s no longer acceptable to act 18, they’ll have to forage onward. It won’t be easy, and, means depending, parents should absolutely be there for their children to catch them if/when they falter, but it’s important for all of us to start feeling the proverbial “30-deadline” before we become that awkward 29-year-old still living at home, just because we can.

Rethinking Advanced Placement

27 Feb

Rethinking Advanced Placement

The day before Amy Chua’s article hit the web, the New York Times reported that the College Board would be revamping several of its most overwhelming tests- specifically biology and history- as they feel the current structure causes too much cramming and too little learning. For example, in the scheme of things, a college course would not focus on, “the dates of the Pequot War — which, for those of you who forgot, occurred from 1634 to 1638 and eliminated the Pequot tribe in what is now Connecticut;” instead, students will do more reading and analyzing. No more questions like “here’s a plant, what is this tissue;” instead, test-takers will see more graphs and more critical thinking questions. The Board thinks these changes will be a stress reducer for both students and teachers alike, as the teachers won’t have to worry about getting through 1,000+ pages of material, and the students won’t have to struggle to memorize it all. New experiments, new textbooks, new exams. It’s the New AP.

Throughout my high school experience, I took 7 of 32 AP Courses in existence (not all of which were offered at my school, mind you.. I think my school offered about 16)-  English Language, English Literature, Modern European History, Chemistry, Calculus AB, Statistics, and US History (at my school, though, APUSH was split into 2 years, so for all intents and purposes let’s just say it was 8 courses, but 7 exams). I took 5 of the exams, passed all of them, but only received credit for 3 (calculus, chemistry, and language). While I never “threw my hands up” and settled for a 1, I definitely felt the brunt of the US History exam, in that there were just too many details to hone in on. Overall, I felt the exams presented a valid survey of the material I enrolled with the hopes of learning, and, history included, provided a relatively accurate assessment of a) how much effort I had put into the course and b) what I had been taught by my teachers.

Teachers have been roasted for “teaching to the test,” and yet I have to ask: if the goal of the course is to get a 4 or a 5 on the exam, why shouldn’t they teach to the test? For my 8 APs, I had 6 different teachers: 3 taught to the test and made sure we understood the material, 2 taught to the test but didn’t engage as much with the material, and 1 taught the material but not at all to the test. Clearly, the former most method is the ideal, but the exam students did the most poorly on, I found, were those in which they didn’t know how they were going to be assessed. You can know all the English language in the world, but if you get blind-sided by a synthesis essay, you’re going to be a little bit screwed; you can know calculus inside and out, but if you don’t know that you won’t have a calculator for all of it, tough luck; you can know the material all you want, but if you don’t know that it’s better to leave it blank than to guess for questions to which you don’t know the answer… you get the idea.

Of the kids in my graduating class, the most common assessment of teachers was whether or not they felt prepared for the test- be it a midterm, final, AP exam, a unit test. It wasn’t as much about understanding the material (although, conceivably, if you understand the material, you should be fine on any test, but that’s another discussion) as it was about not being disadvantaged to other kids taking the test. Good teachers prepared us, bad teachers didn’t. It was first about knowing there would be an electrochem question on the AP Chemistry exam, then it became about solving it. In one of my history classes, the teacher didn’t teach to the test, but I guarantee I knew more about the Pullman strike than most other history students across the country. He didn’t have us memorize dates and famous figures, because when it comes to understanding how the course of history flowed, that’s not important. And yet it didn’t matter- this teacher was supremely criticized for not preparing the students enrolled in his AP History class for the exam they would be taking that May. And as much as I preferred his teaching style, I can’t say the criticisms went undeserved- students were receiving an excellent education, hands down. But they weren’t getting what they signed up for: a class shaped around the AP curriculum.

When I look back at my high school career, the best teacher I had absolutely taught to the test- sort of. She always kept it in the back of her head when choosing the material on which to spend a lengthy amount of time, but compared to the teachers who taught to the test and nothing else, I didn’t feel like I was being bogged down with busy work with the hopes that repetition would breed comprehension. She separated the test taking tendencies from understanding the material. We learned first, and prepped later.

The biggest caveat of the AP program is its failure to measure comprehension in English. Practically everyone I’ve spoken to at my college received a 4 or a 5 on either or both AP English exams, and yet I am constantly baffled by how many of them are unable to write good, parallel, dangling/indirect modifier-free, complete sentences. It absolutely astounds me. While this issue proves particularly prevalent on AP exams, I suppose it’s really just a fact of life- for the most part, we all do what we need to do to get by. We learn the grammar, the equations, the rules for the test, get the grade, and move on. It only sucks, then, when you get to the next level only to find your peers are there because of their test-taking skills. They never really learned to write, and by now it’s most too late to teach them the nitty-gritty mechanics of grammar. It’s just not worth it anymore. If they needed to know it by now, they would.

While I appreciate the sentiment behind the AP program, I think we should stop trying to make high school college, for several reasons:

1. In college, you don’t need a B or an A to get credit for the course. You get credit for the course for taking it, so long as you don’t fail.

2. At least in my school, the times are structured differently. For one 3-credit college class, I spend 35 hours in class a semester. In high school, we had about 150 hours in class per year. One AP class is supposed to equate to one- MAYBE two, but generally one- college class. If we’re spending 4 times as many hours in a high school AP class, why on earth do we have to speed through everything?

3. High schools don’t have the funds colleges do. This is primarily a problem for the AP sciences, as the article says, in the form of lab costs. There is nary a high school in the country (save for the most endowed private schools) that is comparably equipped with lab equipment as is a college.

4. College courses aren’t set to a national standard. Professors teach what they want, and if the UC Berkeley US History curriculum doesn’t match up with the Rutgers curriculum, oh well. All students’ transcripts will say US History on it just the same, without having to worry what professors nationwide have deemed important.

5. Strictly from a mental-health standpoint, high school should be a time to start developing an inkling as to who you are- what classes do you actually enjoy? What types of people do you like to be around? What clubs make you happy? What sports do you find fun? Starting college coursework in high school is just another way for us to rush through all our schooling so we can join the ranks of Real Life and then, once there, spend the rest of our days wistfully thinking about how it all went too fast and how we took our childhoods for granted. We should be doing college work when we’re in college. But again, that’s another debate for another time.

6. It’s just not fair to everyone. AP courses are expensive, both to teach and to take the exam. While some schools subsidize the cost (these schools are generally the ones who make the test mandatory for anyone enrolled in the class), many others don’t- is an $86 exam cheaper than a few-hundred to a few-thousand dollar college course? Sure, but there’s no guarantee it’ll come to any use. Different colleges accept different scores for different classes, and there’s just no way to know. Some schools don’t even OFFER AP exams, which put their students at a disadvantage to their peers once at college in terms of credits.

7. High school just isn’t college. Period. Again, this may be my-school specific, but we had every class every day, whereas in college most classes (save some foreign language classes) meet 1-3 times a week. The class styles are different, the expectations for high school students vs college students (some may argue that for seniors these expectations should similar, but I think we all know they’re not), it’s all just different.

One of my AP teachers once told us that we shouldn’t fear the test, because a test is just a place for us to show them what we know; “luck is when opportunity meets preparation,” she said, “and you’ve all been given good luck.” And that’s true. The AP test is simply a place for others to evaluate what we’ve learned. However, it’s nearly impossible to evaluate the knowledge of millions of students nation-wide. I’ll be curious to see how well these critical-thinking questions go over when they do eventually launch the revamped tests, because the questions then become even more subjective. Critical thinking and standardized tests are oxymoronic, to a point- not everyone has been taught to see it in any particular way.

My solution? If the College Board is so upset about teachers teaching to the test, stop giving the test. Let the teachers teach their own material. Similarly, if teachers don’t want to teach to the test, don’t teach AP. Petition for an Honors class instead, or do what Scarsdale did and create an Advanced Topics curriculum- theoretically, the students should know the majority of the material on the test by the end of the course anyways, but it frees the teacher of the obligation to teach to the test. I mean, the likelihood of either of those things happening, now that the competitive AP market has been born, is super slim, but still. It’s nice to dream.

Why Chinese Mothers are Superior

27 Feb

Why Chinese Mothers are Superior

In early January, an excerpt from Amy Chua’s memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother hit wsj.com, and almost instantly the mothering and mothered masses responded. I saw the link posted on Facebook a dozen times; I received an email about it; we even discussed it in my sociology class. There were counter arguments among counter arguments; the blogosphere nearly exploded with people dying to take on the self-proclaimed Tiger Mother. Eventually, she retreated, but not before being sufficiently roasted by everyone and their child. It begs the question: why did it make American tick?

First, there’s the obvious: for many (dare I say most), there is no job more important than parenting. Naturally, it’s a sensitive subject- no one wants to screw up their kids, let alone admit it if they do. So when this woman makes such a bold, brash statement criticizing the vast majority of American parents, insecurities flare up: “How dare you say I’m screwing up my child, you don’t know him/her or the rest of my family and what works for us.” Parents suddenly realized that their parenting styles are being judged by ever Jack and Jane in the pick-up line at school, either for coming too early, too late, or sending the babysitter- there’s no way to win, and it sucks.

There’s also the subconscious dislike of that which is too different- what is unfamiliar is scary, and therefore we mentally file it away as ‘bad’ (which is not to say we’re all ego-centric assholes… it’s just that when presented with a new anything, we are can either accept it, modify it, or reject it completely. Essentially, a modification is a rejection of the proposed idea, simply because it is not accepting it. Take play dates, for example. Chua boasts that her children never have play dates. Some parents, such as those of children I grew up with, only allowed their children to have play dates on the weekends- one might call this a modification of Chua’s rule. The modification is, however, ultimately a rejection from the extreme, which we must have deemed as ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ in order to change it and not accept it wholly).

Another point of tension was that Chua seemed to be discounting the genetic lottery her children won. As the children of two highly intelligent parents, Sophia and Lulu were more genetically predisposed to succeed- to clarify, not claiming that geniuses breed geniuses, but intelligence is, to a point, hereditary.

But that can’t be all. There has to have been something bigger driving the responses: the fear that she’s right. The fear that Western parents really are too soft, that we’ve shortchanged our children, that we’ve let them fly too far off the mark. And sometimes, I think we have. When I was in middle school, the ‘F’- for fail- was changed to a ‘U’- for unsatisfactory. Why? The F was demoralizing. Despite that the F was, in fact, a failing grade, it needed to be softened as to not hurt the egos of the students. The era of the hovercraft parent has bred a generation or two of kids who expect too much- they want the ribbon for trying. They want to be praised for doing what’s expected of them- doing their homework, getting good grades, the works. Don’t get me wrong, I totally include myself in this- I was so conditioned to expect compliments and cheers at every turn, in the back of my mind I still feel like the Pavlovian response to me doing anything well- from scoring a point in frisbee to making Dean’s List- should be met with celebration.

Obviously, I know that’s not true. My parents didn’t raise no dummy- I never got paid for good grades, nor was I incentivized to call my grandparents once a week or clean my room when it got messy. Those were just things I did. Period. But Chua has a point- nothing is fun until you’re good at it. When I started high school, I was a bit wary to take all Honors classes. I was petrified of failing. But my mom pushed me- she told me I could  and should and would do it. So I did. And I didn’t fail. And I stayed on the Honors/AP track all through high school. There’s something to be said for pushing a product through to completion- you’ll never know what you can finish until you, you know, do it.

At any rate, while bloggers nationwide found joy in roasting Chua, the commenters seemed to back her up pretty strongly. It makes sense: being a hardass parent is kind of like starting a new diet- it’s appealing in theory, but when push comes to shove, it’s just so much easier and (momentarily) satisfying to order takeout than to make a salad. And so, when it comes down to being liked or respected, there is nary a parent I know who has actually chosen to be respected on a regular basis. Parents do say ‘no,’ sure, but at least where I was raised, it’s not a word anyone’s kids hear very often.

In my opinion, the greatest fault in Chua’s method isn’t her practices- if I ever have kids, you can bet your bottom dollar I won’t be accepting “my teacher hates me” as an excuse for poor grades- it’s the location in which she chooses to execute them. A friend of mine said that the worst part for the girls must’ve been seeing all of their friends going off and having sleepovers and going to drama, not necessarily not participating in the activities themselves. It’s just so much worse to know you’re the only one, she said. And she’s right. When discussing this article with my sociology class, a girl who attended an international school said this sort of thing was actually fairly common, and even though they all lived in Manhattan, it was less stigmatizing because so many kids faced similar restrictions.

Speaking of which, there was some significant conversation among both commenters and bloggers coming from the children of Tiger parents. The general consensus there seemed to be a wary appreciation, which makes sense- yes, it got them where they wanted to be, academically, but God were they miserable. There’s something to be said for letting kids be kids- grades are important, success is important, but if one more kid at my college says that they can’t so much as watch a movie without feeling guilty for not doing work, I honestly don’t know what I’ll do. It’s important to instill in children a sense of self-preservation: teach them how to relax and have fun and play hooky once in a while. It’s worth it! Promise!

As a product of Western-style child rearing techniques, I certainly appreciate its merits- it would’ve actually killed me had my parents made me play soccer, stick with the dreaded violin, or ostracize myself from my peers by turning down any and all offers for play-dates and sleepovers. I love(d) that my parents let me go into the city by myself at 15; I love(d) that they let me pursue whatever activities my sister and I wanted (except for competitive cheerleading. My sister had to live without that one, unfortunately); I love(d) that I didn’t (don’t) have to fear the consequences of coming home with a B; I love(d) that my best is/was (almost) always good enough. The most common thread among the commenters is that Western-style parenting breeds creative and independent thinkers- I agree and I don’t. Creative, yes- for better or for worse, kids can be pretty innovative in crafting reasons why they didn’t do so well on the history test or why they really need to go to that party. They’re good at thinking of new ways to solve problems (because the teacher is always wrong, of course), and are (for the most part) pretty decent team players. But independent, not so much- if mommy’s always there to tell them how great they are, what’ll they do when the applause stops? (Look for an upcoming post about that…) Overall, I think Chua got it right in mentality (think of your children as strong, don’t accept excuses), but skewed a little bit in the execution (forbidding her daughter from getting a drink was probably a little bit much).

So why is this interesting? Parenting is one of the few professions for which no degree is needed, and there’s no training to be had. There are parenting books, sure, but those can only do so much- look hard enough, and I bet you’ll find completely contrasting advice (expect a rant on parenting books later). It’s all instinct. No one wants to screw up their kids, and Amy Chua reifies that that which doesn’t kill us will only make us stronger. Sure, studying for hours for calculus may not be fun now, but when we end the year with the A (and ultimately get into the college of our choosing), we’ll look back and smile: we survived.

Author’s note: Chua’s memoir is not, nor did she intend for it to be advertised as, a parenting guide. The excerpt was run as a promo, which many other books run. This analysis is strictly written on the basis on the excerpt and its implications, even though it is not representative of Chua as a person or mother, nor is it representative of her book in full.

i’ve got time to kill until my life becomes more real

26 Feb

I really like to read magazine/newspaper articles, specifically those which come from New York Magazine. It may as well be my Bible. Regardless of where they’re published, though, I find them interesting- you can say a lot about our day and age based on what headlines Yahoo!, NYTimes.com, WSJ.com, and NYMag.com choose to put on their main pages.

I’ve started bookmarking them for no clear reason, other than making them easier to find when I’d rather read a magazine article than do my course readings. But I miss verbal sparring. It used to be so easy to get other people to read the articles I enjoyed; I’d just give them the magazine during a class period with a sub or one with busy work and we’d spend the last few minutes discussing it. In college, though, everyone’s too busy. I miss talking about issues that are neither academic nor politically driven, neither gossip-y nor over dramatic.

So read. Discuss. Share the links. Make your friends discuss. Engage. Yay!