The Soviet launch of Sputnik not only sparked an arms race, it sparked an education race, as America responded not only to a perceived missile gap, but to an academic gap. Life, the nation’s bastion of conventional wisdom, sounded the alarm; Sloan Wilson, fresh off the hit of The man in the gray flannel suit, shouted “fire” in a crowded classroom (emphasis mine):
In their rush to be everything for all children, schools have gone wild with electives. They build their bodies with school lunches and let minds change for themselves.
Where there are promising young minds, there are seldom the means to move them forward. The stupid children of the nation receive much better care than the bright ones. We even now let the geniuses of the next decades fall back into mediocrity.
In the middle of the field was Chicago’s Austin High, where Stephen Lapekas “starts out almost every day by meeting his faithful Penny Donahue”. When he gets there, “classes in Austin are relaxed and full of jokes.”
Sounds good, doesn’t it? A stable girl, lively jokes? That would be the case for a lazy American.
For Stephen, who is studying academically, this year’s subjects include English, American history, geometry and biology, which are fairly respectable courses but at a much lower level than Alexei’s. The intellectual application expected of him is moderate. In English, for example, students rarely bother to read assigned books and sometimes do book reviews based on condensed comics. Stephen’s extracurricular activities, in which he truly demonstrates talent and energy, leaves him little time for in-depth studies. He is the high school star swimmer and a leader in student affairs. As a result, although the teachers consider him intelligent, he is behind in math and his grades are poor. “I’m worried about them,” he admits, but that’s about it.
Who is Alexeï? He is a 16-year-old Muscovite, the son of a hardworking taiga mother, whose superior education system will place him far ahead of the nonchalant Lapekas. Life The photographer caught Lapekas laughing with his class about his incompetence in geometry, while Alexei seriously studied the moral decay of Stephen’s hometown (that’s Sister Carrie he reads).
Maybe Wilson was right; Forty years later, I could barely navigate turn-of-the-century American realism on my own. Because it was boring? No:
Obviously, it is impossible to speak directly about the industry or the intelligence of some 34 million school children and over a million teachers. Some of the criticisms are the inevitable breathlessness that always accompanies a democracy’s efforts to improve itself. Yet the statistics are indisputable and it would be difficult to deny that few degrees correspond to a fixed level of achievement, or that a large number of students do not pursue their studies vigorously. Studies show that bright kids in this country are nowhere near as advanced in science as their European or Russian counterparts. Why?
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before – say, in the New Yorker this week. These are these anxious but tolerant parents:
A college professor recently wrote that students these days “are suffocated by anxious worry, softened by lack of exercise, seduced by luxury, then thrown into the quagmire of excessive sexual interest … They are overfed and underworked. They have too much leisure. and too little discipline. “
And the unfortunate prospect that a dropout could have more than a joyless path to mortality:
In Russia and Western Europe, children had more reasons to study. In the Soviet Union, in particular, scientists and technicians were the new aristocrats, and the only way to join their ranks was through academic achievement. Today, if a Russian boy fails in school, he may be faced with the grim prospect of being a day laborer or serving in some other modest capacity. No one in Russia can dream of leaving school early and earning a million rubles as a seller.
I did not read Crime and Punishment like an uplifting tale of what happens when you drop out of school, but then again, I missed most of the cold war. What was, ultimately, at the heart of the panic: “spaceships and intercontinental missiles are not invented by self-taught men in home workshops”. Now it’s iPhones and financials, but the moral of the story is basically the same. So when Elizabeth Kolbert writes that our spoiled kids are “a large-scale social experiment, and a growing number of adults fear it won’t work as well,” I can’t help but wonder if these parents remember of how the Biggest Generation softbatch thought they were, and how their happy apathy was going to cremate us all.