Friday, July 2, 2010

Education in Culture

Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to make fun of or rob the previous post.

I have decided to make July into Feminist Month here in the Middle. I'm sure there is a national month for women or something, but who cares when it really is. Since women comprise (slightly more than) half the world's population, we should probably keep an eye on them year round, just in case. Here I am using Feminist in the sense of one who examines the interactions between one's gender and their lives, a more academic sense perhaps, rather than one who simply believes that women are also people.

But, do not fear, we will be discussing the cultural perception of education in the United States as promised. I believe this is an important pursuit, because there seems to be an undertone of dissatisfaction with those elitist, "Ivory Tower," intellectuals running through our country, which is prevalent enough to make itself felt in our most recent presidential campaign. One might wonder, how does a country so blessed academically, reaping massive benefits in fields such as medicine and technology, develop a widespread anti-intellectual backlash?

To be perfectly fair, some of it may be because the accusations have some truth to them. Our health care system is a perfect example, many of the advances only benefit a select portion of our population. One also notes that services such as the Internet require computer access and a significant chunk of change to pipe directly into one's home. A Kindle (something whose main function is to display E-books) costs close to $200. Even public school systems in advantaged neighborhoods fair better than those that have fewer communal resources upon which to draw.

However, I would argue the main people working to mitigate these and similar imbalance are intellectuals themselves. Ethicist who create panels to govern organ transplants, in an earnest, and somewhat successful, attempt to prevent organ transplanting advances from turning lower classes into organ inventories for those who are more wealthy, libraries which often provide public internet access, and tech giant Google encourages communities to upgrade and open up their net infrastructure. So, while technological advances still operate under a trickle down effect, unlike tax breaks, we ought not condemn the entire educational system for this alone.

What I want this post to focus on, and what I think to be a main source of the issue, is the opinion of public school students about their education and how it is reinforced by the portrayal of intelligent children in the media. Here I believe society has a tremendous fail in framing opinions on the subject. If intellectuals get harsh treatment in news media, they are practically crucified in shows for children. It seems the best they can hope for is the amusement accorded a trained monkey, exemplified by TJ in Smart Guy, and the worst is a treatment comparable to the vilification of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. The nerd is often portrayed as arrogant and standoffish, but deeply insecure due to their inability to relate to others on anything other than an intellectual level, a la Minkus of Boy Meets World.

I, as somewhat of a standoffish child who had trouble relating to my peers, was not terribly deterred by these characterizations, after all, how much worse could it get? Additionally, like much of popular, or "pop," culture, I was not exposed to them in any serious quantity until a relatively late point in my development. However, I cannot help but suspect that they have some influence on the tendency for students see school as a hindrance to more important pursuits, an unpleasant nuisance, rather than an amazing privilege and the gateway to lifetimes of worthwhile considerations and important life skills.

One interesting twist of this inculcation of our children is that it often takes a very different form for young women. Unlike males, where intelligence is often negatively valued, programming for a school aged audience often portrays women excelling academically. Of course, these characters are also among the social elite of the show, epitomes of our cultural standard of beauty, and usually star athletes, or at least cheerleaders. But, mixed in with all these messages is one of approbation for being smart. So, as long as they can meet the other standards of acceptance, it is less objectionable, and even somewhat expected, for a young woman to be academically gifted. Lo and behold, at lower levels women outperform men in school, although this leads to its own problem, where women in public school, especially at the high school level, are expected to excel in all facets of their school experiences. This phenomenon has been labeled the Supergirl dilemma if you wish to read about it further.

One might conjecture that this explains why, while girls perform on average better than boys, at least until they reach the point where society tells them they ought cease to be successful, at the very upper end of the academic spectrum girls are outnumbered by boys. Although they are permitted, and even encouraged, to excel academically, which explains them outperforming young boys as a whole, they are also told to split their attention across a wide spectrum of activities and be high-achievers in all of them, which, studies conclude, takes a toll on their mental health. On the other hand, boys who perform well academically are often barred from other typical pursuits typical of the high school experience, which also may not be terribly healthy from a developmental standpoint, but does tend to have a remarkable salutary effect upon one's ability to focus on one's studies.

What I would hope to see in the future is programming for children that positively reinforces academic achievement, without unduly pressuring students to outperform each other, or base their entire self-worth upon their academic prowess. What I expect to see is something that more closely resembles the plot of Idiocracy, but one can hope.

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