Saturday, September 27, 2008

Bob Compton? Symptom or Pathology?

Remember this as you're reading this post: China has the highest suicide rate in the world.

This is a quote from a Guardian story.

Referring a recent survey by the health ministry, the paper said that suicide was the fifth most common cause of death in China after lung cancer, traffic accidents, heart disease and other illnesses.

But it is most prevalent among young urban intellectuals and rural women. Exam stress, career worries and relationship problems are named as the main reasons why suicide has become the main killer of people aged between 20 and 35.

Newspapers are filled with stories of bright and wealthy college students - almost all of them single children because of the state's one-child policy - who kill themselves because they fear that they cannot fulfill their families' aspirations.

Today's Star has an incredibly irresponsible story, patched together by Louise Brown, on the question--yes, it's now become a question--of our North American education. (That reminds me of Derek Walcott's postcolonial education--not one thing, but many.) The kernel of Brown's piece is a documentary by an American Harvard grad. named Bob Compton. Compton's a businessman/filmmaker who, for the past few years, has been polishing his shovel, ready to sink a nice deep grave for America's education system. So hyperbole is completely appropriate--Compton sees everything going wrong, and he's trying to get people to notice.

Some bloggers agree with Compton's premise. (Here's another one.) Google "Bob Compton" and you'll get a balanced argument. But first let me outline Compton's screed:

It goes something like this: Certain countries (notably China, India, Japan, and Korea) have structured their education systems (yes, they have systems) to maximize potential/future GDP creation/student. This--I almost said "typically," but the better word is "always"--requires students to be streamed at an early age (usually 12-13). Gifted students take advanced math and science courses; mediocre students are trained for administrative or (civil) service jobs; poor students are tabbed for the trades (carpentry, plumbing, etc.).

Now, on the surface, that's a completely reasonable strategy. It's absolutely logical: your brightest students have the potential to be engineers, so make sure you give them the tools they'll need to succeed in a post-secondary math-science-based degree program. And poor students--why let them waste unproductive years in high school? Let them apprentice, train, and get jobs in their mid-late teens. And mediocre students? Why let them compete and fail? (Canadian medical schools accept something like 10% of applicants. So those B students don't have a chance. Get ye into the civil service. Or something like that.)

Yes, the logic's fine. The problem is the corruscating vulgarity of it all.

But that's Compton's criticism of North Americans: we're too soft, to indulgent, too spoiled. We value things like sports, movies, music, TV, books. Fluff. Compton calls it fluff. It doesn't lead to technical innovation, and it doesn't lead to domestic product. Anxiety disorders do. Compete, compete, compete; then try to recreate your lost childhood after work.

Brown's article ends by taking a shot at Compton: the filmmaker's pulled his daughters from their swim teams; he wants them to focus on school.

Why does Compton think that he's improved on Pangloss? Canada graduates more engineers/capita than the U.S., China, or India. So maybe we're safe up here; maybe Compton's okay with what we're doing. But his plan to mechanize childhood is so insidious that American and Canadian educators are reacting viscerally to his film.

Education is not the problem with the education system. The kind of plan that Compton outlines can't be achieved by better teachers or streaming. What Compton describes (although I'm not sure that he realizes it) is a system of rigorous discipline in which maturity is imposed rather than achieved.

Mediocre students are capable of superlative grades. Are they capable of the self-discipline needed to achieve those superlative grades? What happens when we replace "self-discipline" with "discipline"? What happens when discipline is the rule? Come on, we've got the research. What happens when a parent says "You must study this; you will be that? What happens when every parent says it? But we're removing parents from the process; it'll be the system that decides. And the point is that the system already decides. Find a single North American professional school that'd be willing to say, "Well, we would've admitted more students, but we just didn't have enough qualified applicants"? The opposite's true. So what are we going to do with all these force-fed engineers?

His plan's a step away from the creation of an American residential school system. You won't make sure that your child comes to class, does his work, studies for tests and exams? Fine. We'll send him somewhere where he'll have someone who does. That sounds reasonable, doesn't it? Well, it's a step you can't take.

This is a complicated issue, and I don't want to give a facile response. Certainly there are students in American schools--students who will drop out or fail or post middling grades--with the potential to become professionals. But Compton wants those jobs wrested from China, India, Japan, and Korea. He wants more competition--competition for the jobs that immigrants are filling in America; competition for the jobs that are being outsourced to Asia. So, in effect, we could see Americans moving to Asia to work the jobs that Compton wants created domestically. Would that stop Asia from producing its own engineers? No, they'd just adjust their curriculum. They'd draft new plans, adjust their focus.

Who cares about comedians, writers, actors, artists...We don't need them. Or they'll act or perform or write after their labs. Let's not forget that books and paintings and TV shows create jobs. Good jobs, too.

This argument seem to be about very general statements: America doesn't innovate anymore, American education isn't very good. Beyond the tremendous difficulties which inhere in the education of low-income, or high-risk, or low-income and high-risk youth, you've also got to consider that most sub-urban families have more than one child. And sometimes these families have money. And sometimes these families aren't helmed by professionals. The children of those families will achieve as much as they possibly can. And usually in the direction of their Thoreau-ian dream. But force them into certain jobs--all the jobs that Compton wants nationalized--and just wait. Just wait and see what happens when your middle-class, monied engineer says at twenty-seven, "You know what: I really wanted to be a chef."

Again, I don't want to be facile. But after two hundred years of capitalism, you don't just stop and say, "C'mon, kids. From now on we're all heavin' together for the State. We're gonna maximize your economic value."

It sounds a bit like Stalin's method of clearing mines: march a regiment through the field, and whoever makes it through moves on to the next one. Throw 10,000,000 kids at engineering programs, graduate as many as possible, cream off the great ones, and let the rest go home, find a tall building, and die.

For crissakes...Can't we fault outsourcing for some of this lack of innovation? Maybe you should've kept those manufacturing jobs? Maybe you should've protected your middle class. You built and encouraged the discourse of possibility, and now you want to burn it down.

At a certain point competition is not a good thing. And we've gone well past that point. And now Compton's calling for them to put up the steel cage. Just remember how this post started.


Bob Compton said...

Wow! David, you seem very angry. I hope it is sunny today in Canada and you can get out for a long walk. I thought Canadians were more relaxed.

Did you actually view my film Two Million Minutes or merely leap to an array of wild, furious conclusions about me, my family and my film based on a newspaper article and the responses of "experts" who also haven't seen my film?

Is it possible the story missed the essence of my points?

It appears you have not been been in schools in India or China (or even hired Indian or Chinese employees) because they are not at all as you describe.

As an aside, let's talk about suicide for just a moment. As you no doubt know, suicide is the third leading cause of death among American teenagers. (Data Source: National Center for Health Statistics)

Car accidents are the #1 cause of death (in China, of course, kids don't get cars as teenagers).

Homocide is #2 - because of our Constitution's Second Amendment, guns are easy for teens to access. In China, there is no private gun ownership.

So, one might infer that if American kids didn't get their driver's licenses until age 20 and guns were banned as in China, suicide would be the leading cause of death among American teens.

But I digress...

My film and my speeches make a simple point - the high-tech, high wage jobs of the 21st century are going to require higher technical cognitive skills. These are jobs at all levels in new industries - from manufacturing to sales to marketing to distribution to operations. Oh, and including engineering.

I DO NOT think everyone should become an engineer or scientist - though they are excellent, well-paid, satisfying professions.

I DO think all American students should take more math, physics, chemistry, computer science and biology because the technical cognitive skills developed from rigorous math and science will be an enormous benefit to every child - regardless of the profession they choose.

For example, my 16-year old daughter is considering acting and singing as a career. She is taking AP Chemistry, pre-calculus, biology, world history, English Lit, voice lessons and Spanish 3. She also has math and science tutors.

The fact that she enjoys chemistry and can balance an ionic equation has not inhibited her acting, singing or her composing creativity.

What the added cognitive skills of math and science HAVE given her is a comfort with the technology of audio recording, an ability to work with her musicians real-time over the Internet when composing and the confidence to master complex technical issues in the audio editing suite.

I don't know about Canadians, but I think American parents put their kids under tremendous pressure to succeed athletically - starting year round competitive sports as early as 6 and suffering severe orthopedic injuries by age 12 that used to be seen only among pro athletes.

I think team sports are great for a variety of reasons - my daughters still swim during the season, but they don't train year round 4 hours a day 6 days a week. They also play on their high school's golf and softball teams. And do Mock Trial, Model UN and are in the school play.

However, because I love them dearly and want them to be able to pursue any career they find appealing, I have encouraged them to pursue the most rigorous academic route available at their school to develop their technical cognitive skills - important for the 21st century.

My wife and I have helped them allocate their Two Million Minutes of high school toward activities and studies that we believe will best benefit them. So year round athletic training is gone and year round intellectual development has taken its place. Also, less TV and less going to football games and "hanging out."

That is what my film and my speeches are trying to say - help children allocate their time in the best interest of a satisfying productive 21st century adulthood - which I believe requires higher cognitive skills (yes, more rigorous math and science than we now offer) than the 20th century. You may see the future differently and I'm completely relaxed about that.

Bob Compton
Executive Producer
Two Million Minutes

Bob Compton said...

Rounding out your suicide note:

Top 20 Causes of Death - Young US Adults (ages 20 - 24)

1 Unintentional Injury 43.02%
* MV Traffic Accident 29.70%
* Poisoning 6.20%
* Drowning 1.61%
* Fall 0.85%
* Other Land Transport 0.59%
* Fire/burn 0.57%
* Firearm 0.54%
* Other 0.53%
* Suffocation 0.45%
* Pedestrian, Other 0.45%
* Other Transport 0.43%
* Unspecified 0.37%
* Struck by or Against 0.24%
* Machinery 0.15%
* Natural/ Environment 0.14%
* Other Spec. 0.12%
* Pedal cyclist 0.05%
* Cut/pierce 0.04%
2 Homicide 17.30%
3 Suicide 12.98%

Even for this age group in the US, suicide is the third leading cause of death.

Again, I think one has to consider freely available guns, rifles and assault weapons as being contributory to US deaths by homicide - a category that does not make the radar screen among Chinese 20-25 year olds.

And in the US, a great deal of young adult motor vehicle accidents have alcohol or drugs involved - and accessibility to cars - and one might reasonably infer accident victims may be self-medicating their depression or stress with alcohol or drugs, leading to what could be considered "inadvertent suicides."

My point is, I'm dubious that depression, stress or suicidal ideation is more extreme in China or India because of academic pressures than it is in America. I certainly have not seen compelling data.

And my own experiences working with teens and young adults in America leads me to believe they have societal stresses and pressures unknown in Asian culture.

Perhaps you have a different view, which is fine.

Bob Compton
Executive Producer
Two Million Minutes

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