It is with great interest and amusement that I have followed a Boston Globe article written in December by guest columnist, Kara Miller. Miller teaches at Babson College in Wellesley, MA. She has also taught at Tufts and served as an application-reader for Yale’s admissions office. Her article was brought to my attention through my good friend, Dave Saba's blog, Edbiz. So why exactly did it catch my attention? I found the article in and of itself very intriguing, but it was the response to the author's comments that amused me the most. Read on and see whether or not you agree with her remarks.
Miller set off a firestorm with her words. In an article titled "My Lazy American Students" (a title chosen by the publication's editors), she dared to question the work ethic of American college students stating, "Teaching in college, especially one with a large international student population, has given me a stark - and unwelcome - illustration of how Americans’ work ethic often pales in comparison with their peers from overseas. My “C,’’ “D,’’ and “F’’ students this semester are almost exclusively American, while my students from India, China, and Latin America have - despite language barriers - generally written solid papers, excelled on exams, and become valuable class participants." Speaking of her international students she said, "But their respect for professors - and for knowledge itself - is palpable. The students listen intently to everything I say, whether in class or during office hours, and try to engage in the conversation. Too many 18-year-old Americans, meanwhile, text one another under their desks (certain they are sly enough to go unnoticed), check e-mail, decline to take notes, and appear tired and disengaged."
Is she right? Well she is correct about American children being outperformed by their international peers. International test results tell us they are. To make her point Miller shared some of these facts in her article. "Too many American students simply lack the basics. In 2002, a National Geographic-Roper survey found that most 18- to 24-year-olds could not find Afghanistan, Iraq, or Japan on a map, ranking them behind counterparts in Sweden, Great Britain, Canada, Italy, Japan, France, and Germany. And in 2007 the American Institutes for Research reported that eighth graders in even our best-performing states - like Massachusetts - scored below peers in Singapore, South Korea, and Japan, while students in our worst-performing states - like Mississippi - were on par with eighth graders in Slovakia, Romania, and Russia." (You can find comparison scores on international tests at utaheducationfacts.com.)
She then stated what is really the focus of her article, "We’ve got a knowledge gap, spurred by a work-ethic gap." "Success is all about time management, and in a globalizing economy, Americans’ inability to stay focused and work hard could prove to be a serious problem. Nowhere, sadly, is this clearer than in the classroom."
My friend Dave Saba agrees with her as well. He offered this assessment in his blog, "The most pampered generation is not used to being told to work and work hard. They are used to receiving trophies for showing up. So college is becoming more of a shock to these students."
But apparently the outrage to her assessment was just as strong as the support. Within a couple days, “My Lazy American Students” was the most e-mailed article on the Globe’s website. By late Monday, it was the most e-mailed article in the last 30 days, even though it had been online for less that 48 hours. Hundreds of comments piled up on Boston.com; on Wednesday, there were nearly 500 and the numbers continued to climb.
In response to the many comments she wrote a follow-up column "Lazy American Students: After the Deluge". In it she made some clarifications saying, "I wrote about how teaching in college has shown me that international students often work harder than their American counterparts. Though this is emphatically not true across the board, the work ethic and success of Asian, European, and South American students – who have to compete with a classroom of native English speakers – can be astounding." But she held fast to her original assessment - "There are, though, the facts. Studies show that American students know less about math, science, and geography than peers in many other industrialized countries. By rejecting criticism, we are doing a disservice to our students. It is not anti-American to point out flaws in our educational system; it is both patriotic and necessary."
I think this article provides great food for thought. It inspires some reflection on our part. Why did so many readers reject the criticism and denounce her comments as horrible (putting it mildly), prejudiced, full of stereo-types, disgraceful? Today's students have to compete in a 21st century global economy. How are they going to fare? How will the future of America and its economy fare if they can't compete. Miller's article may provide some insight into answering those questions. College students are currently working side by side with international students, and the evidence indicating who is outperforming whom doesn't bode well for us; not if Miller's experience is prevalent in higher education. Burying our heads in the sand, like we do with so many blatant problems in our education system, will ultimately alter America's place as a "shining city upon a hill" to a secondary country with a dimming light. Kara Miller is right; acknowledging the flaws of our educational system is both "patriotic and necessary".