Monday, January 2, 2012

Flat World, Flat Country

A perfect confluence of events:

A Facebook friend of mine pointed out an article that kind of bludgeons the US over the head with a poleax: the reason why Finnish schools are so great and American schools less great (on average) is simply that Finland believes that every child should have the same opportunity to learn the same things. If they fail to pass the test at the age of 18, then it's trade school, or straight to work, but at least they all had the same chances. It's a wonderfully egalitarian system that really brings out the truth in that favorite-of-favorite catchphrases, "All men are created equal".

Undoubtedly the reality is more complicated than the glossy Atlantic article would have it, and indeed, the article touches on a few more points that I won't get into, here. But there is an ugly truth behind it: the gulf in the types of opportunities that the children of the super-rich have, versus those of the middling-to-lower classes, can't possibly be bigger: children who go to schools armed with iPads and filled with breakfasts designed by nutritionists to maximize mental activity, and then children who count themselves lucky to have school that day because they can get the free lunch. There is something seriously wrong when people can see these two scenarios and say, "Yes, that is capitalism at work--things are as they should be." It's one thing for an adult to screw things up--take to drink, do drugs, etc. But it's another to disadvantage a child from birth, and then expect him to pull himself up by his bootstraps the moment he turns 18. I'm not suggesting that every child gets state-of-the-art technology. But it just seems to be common sense that textbooks should not be written by corporations (as Eric Schlosser points out in Fast Food Nation) and that science should not be infused with God, and in a world where there is so much information to be had, it's a crying shame that more people can't make better use of it.

The educational system in Finland is similar to that of the Netherlands, although the process to weed out the educational misfits begins at the tender age of 12, rather than 18. But in any case, the Netherlands still do bettter than the US in the three metrics of reading, math, and science. You can play with the data at the PISA site: it's quite fascinating (although a bit of a pain to use). Or you can just cheat and look at the Wiki page (2009 data).

I am pointing this out because a comment that someone left on my post "Phat" has been niggling at me for quite a while. In the Netherlands, being a much smaller economy, I have fewer choices (the choices that the commenter suggested were bikes or cars). There are 6 brands of peanut butter on the supermarket shelf, rather than 30. There are 4 brands of milk, rather than 10. And there are certainly not 31 flavors of ice cream. The limitation of choices could be construed as a limitation of the freedoms I have (golly, if I want Skippy peanut butter, I should be able to get it!). Or it could be that I am able to be happier. Barry Schwartz explains it much better than I could:

Dr. Schwartz explains it in matters of consumer goods, mostly, but the same could apply to school choices, as well. In the US, the school district you live in can easily raise housing prices by $10,000 or more (at least that's the figure Elizabeth Warren gave in her speech--personally, I think it's more). But the impact of schools is much bigger than mere dissatisfaction with your choice: social and environmental policies are more often driven by pleasant-sounding ideologies than hard science, and we can't vote smart politicians into office unless we are also capable of making smart choices.

Sure, biology plays an important part, too--half of the people have got to be below average, after all. But Finland, I think, proves that good social policy can at least mitigate the effects of an avearge population.

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