Saturday, April 04, 2009

Cool Factor

Having grown up in India, I am used to seeing the the academically gifted students being treated like super-stars in schools. All eyes are on them when the annual achievement awards are given out. Being a geek never used to be uncool though it did help a lot to be well-rounded specially by when you were in high-school. A nerd without personality was well-respected but did not enjoy the same kind of popularity as someone who had both brains and social skills.

The notion of treating smart kids like they were fringe people is something I am finding out about as I get familiar with the American public school system. J's elementary school runs a variety of sports camps all year long and provides information on where you can sign up your daughter for cheer-leading or baton-twirling training. Come spring there is an ice-cream social followed by a carnival and yet more entertainment. Every once in a while they raise money for a good cause but there is no real community service involved. Sometimes, I forget that I am dealing with a school system and not a hyper-active kid's social network.

Other than displaying the name of the spelling bee winner on the marquee each year, there is little evidence of any academic activities. Since this is considered a "good" school, the teachers are highly focused on making sure that the kids do well on standardized tests. To that end, they will have them review and practice test materials for months on end. Not surprisingly almost everyone scores high on the tests. Recently, the school even won some kind of coveted government recognition.

When you look at the test scores you will be impressed but disappointment kicks in as you get acquainted with the school itself ; unless you equate education to test scores with bonus points for achieving coolness. I have asked around to see if other parents have experienced anything significantly different in their school districts. Sadly, it turns out that I am not in the minority. There are avenues for talented and motivated kids within the system which as a whole flows in an entirely different often contrary direction.Being smart is just not considered very hip in most American public schools.

If you get lucky, you may end up in a "good school district" where there is no stigma or penalty attached to being bright - the kids and the teachers will just leave the child alone as they appear to do in J's school. That is the best case scenario and a very sad one if I may add. You will never hear the fifth grader who made a splash at a state-level science fair being applauded at a PTA meeting. It is like it were a somewhat distasteful matter best kept under wraps.

However, when some kid wins a local gymnastic competition, news travels like wildfire catapulting the kid in question into instant celebrity. I have no problem with athletic talent being lauded as long as academic accomplishments are as well. When you hear all this rhetoric about making American schools globally competitive you wonder if the powers that be consider it important to change perception about academic talent and success as well.

If the geeks (and nerds) are not hero-worshiped a little at least, the system is fated to sink to the lowest common denominator level academically - which is exactly what ails the public schools in this country. It is not about more funding or super-talented teachers. We had little by way of infrastructure and very mediocre teachers back in India but a geek was God in the classroom.

Just that cultural precept helped haul the under-achievers up several notches. Not to say that the system was perfect but it did succeed in imprinting the value of education on everyone and being a high-achiever was anything but uncool. So when Michelle Obama exhorts young girls to start viewing education as cool, she addresses exactly the right issue and it is not a moment too soon.

Mrs. Obama visited an all-girls school in north London on Thursday afternoon. She told the 240 girls about growing up on Chicago's south side, and urged them to think of education as "cool."

"I never cut class. I liked being smart. I liked getting A's," she said. "You have everything you need. Everything you need to succeed you already have right here."

I hope that kids (specially girls) in J's school and elsewhere in the country are listening up because if they do their lives could very well be transformed. It is a great aspirational goal for any young person to become a Harvard educated lawyer. Even if they fall a lot short, they will still end up in a very good place.

It only helps for Mrs Obama to be viewed as a style icon because it is a highly visible proof that a being smart does not preclude being cool or fashionable. I am hoping she is successful on both counts - making smart cool in the schools by her own example and being an independent minded trend-setter in fashion.


Destination Infinity said...

Nice post. The is also one more side to this: Being addicted to books and whole batches of students becoming engineers and doctor's ignoring all other careers! Atleast in the US they encourage all round development so only the really interested students end up becoming post graduates. Here in India, everyone wants to be an engineer! Irrespective of the aptitude and interest. Education has become big business!!

Destination Infinity

mekie said...

This is a nice post and I enjoy reading your blog. Recently, I watched a documentary called 'Two Million Minutes'. It tracks the lives of two teenagers each in schools in USA, India and China. Offers interesting perspectives on the school culture in these 3 countries.

Anonymous said...

I understand where you coming from and I agree, to an extent.

The focus in the US school system up until the elementary school is pretty much on a 'rounding' the child. Sports is given a heck of a lot more importance and rightly so. It builds character and team spirit, and the children need it then. We didn't play in organised sports back home, and I think that's a genuine lack I see there.

However, as you say, a lot most definitely depends on the school district, and if there are 'pullout's and GT, or TAG curriculum offered. In VA, we do. The stress is right. To achieve and to race ahead, and the kids are applauded and given more opps to do even better. It's good for the school, for funding. A cycle. :-)
Elementary school is still relaxed. The middle school is where academia kicks in nice and strong.

Don't worry, it gets better, desi way. :)


Anonymous said...

Came here via DP.

Interesting post. It reminded me of Paul Graham's "Why Nerds are Unpopular". Quite surprising to hear that geeks and nerds in the American education system are looked down upon. No wonder very few of them want to study there and most of them end up going to universities for football and baseball.

This is not racism or elitism but I have always wondered that somewhere or the other the nature of the people deported should show up. Aah, well, I will write a post on it sometime soon.

ggop said...

Silicon Valley is quite the opposite due to large influx of immigrants from South and South East Asia. Parents opt for private high pressure schools like Challenger right from elementary level. Kumon extra lessons are in vogue. I suppose the bar is set high for both Berkeley and Stanford.

Heartcrossings said...

destination infinity - education seems to be big business in America too. Once the kids are in middle/high school, they probably start to figure they need help to even make it into college...

mekie - Two Million Minutes is definitely worth watching !

knowthas - I think I have seen the change you mention in middle/high school. Specially with Asian kids. If their parents are determined enough (as they largely tend to be) they make sure they get the kids to force the kids to get serious about education. I am sure this is true for a number of non-Asians too.By then however, most of the damage is already done. The kids are not convinced being smart is cool - they are just succumbing to parental pressure..

jatkesha - Paul Graham's is a great article to read for anyone who has been a nerd or has known a few of them.

Heartcrossings said...

ggop - Even in my neck of the woods the desi parents flock to the Kumon center :) Asians will do what they can to raise kids they way they have been conditioned though in America it might mean swimming against the tide..