Saturday, October 2, 2010

Secondary thoughts


I think Americans must have some kind of sadistic streak, constantly comparing their dismal high school grades to the stellar marks of their international peers. Because the numbers assume something that is patently not true: that all students have the same access to education.

Europeans have realized that a) secondary education is expensive, and b) not everybody needs it--what's the point of having a plumber that can calculate second derivatives? Although if you have a plumber who can calculate second derivatives you've gotta wonder what he's doing as a plumber...

In the Netherlands, the equivalent of a public high school does not exist. At the tender age of 12, students all over the country are given a test that presumably measures their aptitude for certain careers, whereupon they are then shuttled into one of three tracks: the vocational track (VMBO), where they are trained to be electricians/plumbers/etc; the middling track (HABO), which you can think of as "training for secretaries"; and the university track (VWO), which is preparation for university learning and/or a professional career. This last is what Americans think of as "high school", and, needless to say, when the bottom third have already been weeded out, it's easy to see why grades in the rest of the industrialized world are so much higher than they are in the US.

(None of which excuses the appalling state of inner-city education--but it does mean that the middling public schools of the sort I attended were actually pretty damn good)

Whichever track you test into will determine, effectively, the outcome of your life. As much as I like the idea of random events determining the rest of your life (how else to explain why I'm here?), the reality is a little more...unsettling. In the US, there is a persistent-but-not-entirely-unfounded belief that you can do anything you want if you've got the brains and the will to do it. Personally, that's what I was taught--it's what I grew up with, and it's one of those beliefs that I live by. It's a far cry from the fatalistic determination with which my boyfriend, for instance, views the world: he's locked into his career, and things are never going to change.

It's a prospect that's giving me second thoughts about raising my (purely hypothetical) children here. Everybody has their place in society--I agree with that. I'm just not sure I can bring myself to agree with the necessity of that place being a permanent one. To me, anything is possible, and change is good, and that's an Americanism I'm just can't let go.

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