Wednesday, December 12, 2007

What would Nation X do?

(Cross-posted on my professional blog.)

This morning, my morning paper had a column by Susan Taylor Martin, Finns set teachers free, with enviable results, discussing the secular, largely-standardized-testing-free Finnish schools that have enviable student outcomes by almost any measure.

On the one hand, this argument is extraordinarily tempting: See what the Finns do? We need to do that: provide substantial social welfare, provide higher status for teachers, then leave them to do their jobs without the corrosive testing regime we have in the United States.

But the historian in me says something different: Wait. This argument has been made before: no, not the one about Finland but the one about needing to follow Nation X, whatever that country happened to be in a particular decade. At the end of the 18th century, a strong push inside the new country said, "We're different from Europe ["Old Europe," as Donald Rumsfeld might put it]. This new nation is a fresh start. We need to be as different from Europe as possible." As David W. Noble argued years ago in Historians against History, that was a dominant theme among 19th century amateur history writers.

But there has also been a counter-argument: other countries have model systems of education, and we need to learn from them. (If you want the academic jargon, you can call it mimetic isomorphism when the rhetoric is all about national anxiety and panic and normative isomorphism when the rhetoric is "this is professionally best.") The most famous 19th century argument along those lines was that of Horace Mann, who traveled to Prussia before writing his seventh school report. While he noted the flaws of Prussian schools, he also thought they treated students much better than schools in Massachusetts. You don't have to beat your students to teach them, he argued, and Prussia is the proof. Why Mann went to Prussia to make that case is an interesting question. He should have known that one of the responses would be the reference to American exceptionalism, and he could have found reasonably kind teachers somewhere in North America if maybe not in Boston.

You can find the "we should do what Nation X is doing" argument sprinkled through the rest of the 19th and 20th centuries. In the post-WW2 era, the comparison nation was whoever our military or economic adversary was at the time, from the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s to Japan and Germany in the 1980s. In the last half-century, many of these comparative arguments were projections of adult anxieties onto children. As many have pointed out over the years, most notably David Berliner and Bruce Biddle, schools are carrying the rhetorical water for adult failings. In almost all cases, the comparison is superficial, omitting information about context and structure. So the blithe suggestions for us to copy Japan in the 1980s often failed to mention the juku market (of private cram schools) or the common Japanese parenting repertoire of letting preschools socialize children through group pressures. Even academics fall into this trap: James Rosenbaum et al. wrote in Market and network theories of the transition from high school to work that professional networking between schools and work was great, and they pointed to Japan as a model... right before the Japanese economy dove into a 10-year downturn. Oops.

There are plenty of wonderful comparative education analyses one can make, but the standard rhetoric you see in American political discourse is usually shallow. Caveat lector.

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