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Jun 7, 2013

Chosen peoples

Both Russians and Americans cherish the illusions of being special, different from other peoples. Let’s be fair, not just these two. Similar fantasies are cherished by many others, from Jews, the original chosen people, to Turks, to Chinese, and continue down the list. It is understandable, because any claim of national or ethnic identity simply implies a being somewhat different from others. But if you take those ideas a bit too far, they become impediments.

One is to refuse to learn from others. The American educational reform establishment is essentially isolationist. While there is a lot of rhetoric about catching up to other countries, very little actual learning from other countries is taking place. Finland has become the new darling of international school reformers, yet Americans manage to strive to catch up with Finland by doing everything opposite to what Finns have done. Russians right now are living through another corruption scandal connected to their state testing “YEGE.“ Many want to get rid of the tests altogether, despite the fact that every major country they are trying to catch up to use one or another form of achievement testing. Why? Of course, because of the mysterious Russian soul, and what works in the West and the East, somehow is not working in Russia.

The less exposure one has to other cultures, the more naïve is the sense of exceptionality. English is the most difficult language! Russian is a unique and most difficult language (neither is especially unique or especially difficult). The great American democracy gave the world public schooling (no, the idea was stolen from Prussian kings). Russia has the greatest original literature, music, and ballet traditions (No, all three are relatively young, and all borrowed from someone else). Etc., etc. Interestingly, the exceptionalism sometimes takes the form of “we are the worst.” For example, Russians widely believe that their country is one of the most corrupt in the world. However, it is very unlikely to be true. In the same way, Rhode Islanders think their state is the most corrupt in the nation, and it is definitely not true.

Those who interact deeply with foreigners (not just as tourists), sooner or later realize the fundamental similarity of all human thinking and especially of feeling. We are just not that different from each other. It would be interesting if we were, but we are not. While cultural practices vary, the underlying mental and affective wirings are remarkably similar. Policies and reforms that work in one place are likely to work in others. One should not ignore the demographics, but yet again, poor people in different countries have similar challenges, and resemble each other. Language learners in public schools will have similar needs and similar solutions will work for them.

1 comment:

  1. From your observation of the most recent attempts to reform education in the US, what three actions by educators would be most helpful in supporting teachers to be more effective in reaching the varied learning needs of their students?
    Your comment about the Finns is insightful. Should we be sending more RIC faculty
    to study their methods?? Should we be inviting their educators to come and speak with us?? I volunteer to go to Finland & study!