I hadn’t really planned to extend my blog on the current education woes, but it looks like it’s a hot topic everywhere right now. Two days after I published my blog on Hacking Silicon Valley Culture, my daughter’s Middle School Principal (that’s headteacher for you UK readers) sent her weekly newsletter and it was like an extension of what I’d written. She is the mother of two teenage sons and usually includes some personal thoughts and worries in her newsletters, always resonating soundly with us parents of kids the same age. 

This is how her newsletter started out: “I know I have shared with you my internal struggle as both mother and educator a few times throughout this year. It’s about finding that line, the sweet spot, of having kids who are happy and balanced, while still being challenged and making academic gains. Then I get my head a-buzzing when I think of college and the what-sounds-like-inevitable competition in high school (which is just around the corner). It’s enough to make me crazy at times!” 

Yes, that is pretty much what is going through my head too, and without a doubt through many others’. It’s reassuring to hear that our educators have the same thoughts on this. Maybe not all is lost? She also includes a link to an article in her newsletter, urging all of us to read it. Written by a local mother, this is basically a description of what life is like here in Silicon Valley, right now: Training for Discontent – The Doublespeak of Parenting and the Double Blade of Ambition in Silicon Valley

Seems I’m not alone. And there are so many more voices. Michael Mulligan’s Huffington Post article Three Most Important Questions You Can Ask Your Teenager is another highly interesting piece on the American education system; he’s quoting a lot from an excellent book I read last year (Excellent Sheep – The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, by former Yale Professor William Deresiewicz, a must-read!) According to Mulligan, the generation of kids at the point of leaving high school and embarking on higher education “embrace diversity like no generation before them. They seek to serve the dispossessed and the disadvantaged. They work to find green solutions to the environmental mess we have bequeathed them.” And yet, beneath their driven and focussed facade we see “a generation that is plagued with insecurity, anxiety and despair.” We must step away from the huge pressure our current system (We, the parents? Society?) have created and stop asking “What” (What grade did you get? What team did you make?) and rather focus on asking “Who”, “Where”, and “How”?
  • Who tells us who we are?
  • Where do we want to go with our lives?
  • How do we want to get there?
Ironically, the Huffington Post (or, more likely an unfortunate algorithm) chose to include some “further reading”/”this might also interest you” at the bottom of the page, and I had to do a double take, because it couldn’t have been any more unsuitable as a follow-up to this article: a list of the Top 17 Universities in the US….. Go figure.

It seems that the question of “Where will my child go to school?” (that’s what university is called here) is the No. 1 topic amongst parents of High Schoolers. Whether I’m at book club, out to dinner, at a sports event – sometimes I feel that it’s all everybody ever talks about. To someone who didn’t grow in this country, this is very bizarre. It is so utterly different to the system I grew up with in Germany.

To illustrate some of the differences between our two countries, here are two versions of a conversation between two parents I might overhear:

Parent A: “My son is graduating this year.”
Parent B: “Where is he going to school?”
Automatic assumption he is going to college, no mention of what he is going to study. It’s all about the “where”.

Germany (and many other places): 
Parent A: “My son is graduating this year.”
Parent B: “What are his plans? Is he going to study? What is he planning to study?”
No mention of where he is going to study. It’s all about the “what”.

Part of why the “where” is so important to American parents is the matter of tuition cost. If you choose a college outside of your state of residence, tuition fees are generally higher (except of course places like Stanford and the Ivy League Colleges). Quite a few families spend the few years prior to college researching and often visiting various campuses (campi?? damn this Latin education), sometimes all over the country, to find the one that is right for their offspring. In High School, each student gets assigned a counselor who is (supposed to be) on hand to figure out the what and the where and the how. This is a great concept – I wish I had had a counselor helping me to figure out what I wanted to do with my life at age 17. Of course, not all counselors are amazing, but if all fails, there are plenty of experts you can hire to guide you through the whole college application process. It’s a huge industry. 

In Germany, listing the Top 17 universities would be unthinkable. Of course, some universities have special strengths and reputations, but on the whole it is assumed that you will get an excellent education anywhere in the country. And of course, education being a public good, it’s free. 

I could go on and on about the advantages and disadvantages of the US and the German education systems (and I might do so in a future blog; there are so many differences). But listing the pros and cons isn’t really the point of this article. Ultimately, don’t we all want the same thing for our children? To raise a generation of inspired, balanced, interesting, interested, healthy and happy individuals. The wealth of information out there, societal pressures and the abundance of choices might make it harder for all involved these days, but I don’t think it’s impossible.

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