Why our education system keeps opportunity alive in America
Published: Tuesday, September 4, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, September 4, 2012 19:09
Hopefully most of you are still feeling pretty sunny about school at this point. Classes retain the sheen of novelty. Professors have not yet morphed into terrifying taskmasters. The first major deadline is a distant blip on the horizon. Student and school coexist in blissful harmony.
The honeymoon will not last. After three years at UConn, I can assure you of this fact. Life will soon devolve into a deranged, sleep-deprived existence based on basic market principles of supply and demand. Professor and bosses demand, and you attempt to supply said demands to the best of your abilities. But two months from now, when you are contemplating a) mass murder or b) hibernation as an honorable career option, remember the following.
Each time we set foot on the UConn Storrs campus, we are benefiting from one of the greatest education systems in the world. A system that instills not only knowledge, but creativity, that encourages not merely (or even primarily) excellence, but individuality, that promotes the dreamer even as it challenges the dream. We depart, diplomas in hand, having learned not how to act, but rather whom we can and want to be. This is the beauty of the American system, which tells every child from kindergarten on that he or she can be whatever – and whoever – he or she is capable of dreaming up.
The American system, despite the lofty language thrown about at national conventions concerning American exceptionalism, does not keep this promise to all American schoolchildren. Particularly in grammar schools, during the most crucial formative years, students often do not receive the support they need and deserve. The excellent 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman provides a gripping depiction of the challenges facing American public schools.
But all those political demagogues reaching into their rhetorical arsenals these past few weeks have a point when they speak of America as the country where anything is possible. I would clarify this idea. America is not great because anything is possible here; it is great because we say anything is possible here.
We encourage the dream, the vision and the individual. We praise (some might say over-praise) the schoolchild every step of the way, and public figures and the media eventually take over as parents and teachers. America is not a country that encourages or accepts mediocrity, and to its credit it permits the individual to define success in any way he or she sees fit.
I spent the past year of my life in Paris, France; relishing the greater and lesser pleasures of life in the land of croissants, bafflingly frequent transportation strikes and “equality.” Equality, in the context of the French school system, has another meaning. It means uniformity. It means, for many students, mediocrity.
French students are graded on a scale of 20, in which a 10 is passing. Failing (albeit with ample opportunity for a make-up) is standard. In fact, a percentage of any given class automatically fails, and such failure is announced publically. Why strive for something more than average when the system discourages you from doing so?
I would not trade my Paris experience for anything, and I will defend my Froggie friends to the last of my Francophile days, but I believe their system ultimately discourages creative self-expression. It implies that seeking the extraordinary is a desire somehow at odds with universal equality. This is an idea that I can never accept.
So, when midterms roll around, and term papers and finals and existential crises follow (not always in that order), remember why you are lucky to go to school in the United States of America. You can’t necessarily be whoever you want to be, or do whatever you want to do, but you sure can try, and we will support you in that every painstaking step of the way.