Obama's Myopic Vision for America's Education

Escorted by unlikely political bookends Al Sharpton and Newt Gingrich, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has recently been touring the country to promote the president's grand scheme for education reform, which Obama himself outlined way back on March 10.  One essential part of this reform might best be summed up with the slogan, "Longer is better." Obama contends that lengthening school days and years will help make us more economically competitive in the twenty-first century. But is it true?

The only evidence the president offered to support this notion was the case of South Korea, which, he said, has a school year four weeks longer than ours. Notice that he didn't entertain the possibility that extended school hours are not the main reason for Korea's economic competitiveness. To no one's surprise, Obama ignored factors such as Korea's relative restraint concerning entitlements and oppressive government regulations on business.  "If they can do it in South Korea," Obama instead concluded, "we can do it right here in the United States of America."

Of course we can lengthen the school year. The question is, should we do it? To think that what works in South Korean schools will work in American ones is, at best, a superficial assessment. Obama fails to consider the vast differences in attitude and practice between South Koreans and Americans on this issue (probably because he doesn't want to). Having lived and taught in Pusan, South Korea's second-largest city, for over five years, I am fairly certain he's proposing that we drive a square peg into a round hole.      

In sharp contrast to America, South Korea has a homogeneous society with a very long Confucian tradition of stressing formal education as a means to economic advancement. For centuries, the only way for men not born into the aristocracy to improve their material lot in life and bring honor to their family was to pass exams, making it possible for them to become government bureaucrats or civil servant scholars.

Of course, education is still crucial to economic advancement in that country. In recent years, if a Korean youth was unable to enter one of the top universities, his or her economic future would be considerably more likely than in the States. That was, I'm sure, a major reason why significantly more students appeared discouraged at the junior college where I taught my first year than at the university where I subsequently worked. 

To be honest with you, I didn't see firsthand just how hard South Korean students have to work. That is because in the Korean education system, once you make it into a university, the academic struggle is pretty much over. Freshmen in particular consider themselves on vacation. But I've talked to many Koreans (including friends, acquaintances, professors, individual students, and some of my classes as a whole) about their education system, and they informed me of the hardships -- culminating in that last year of high school -- with virtually no denial of the general situation. 

For the most part, South Korean students are driven much harder by both the school system and their parents than American students are. If you doubt that, ask yourself the following questions. How many American elementary students go to one, two, or even three private institutes every weeknight? How many American junior high students spend Saturday mornings in school? How many high school seniors in this country stay in school from seven or eight in the morning until ten or eleven at night, five days a week, in order to prepare for college entrance exams? Should Americans adopt these practices as well? I pity the poor administrator who would have to make such an announcement. 

Can you imagine the necessity of a law in America prohibiting private institutes from providing classes for primary students after 9 p.m. and secondary students after 10 p.m.?  But that is exactly what the South Korean government recently enacted to curb what they characterized as an obsession. Even with one fifth of America's population, Koreans still shell out over $18 billion a year on supplementary education, and they spent even more on it during last year's sharp economic downturn. By now it should be clear that America bears little resemblance to South Korea when it comes to the sacrifices both parents and children are willing to make for education.

For all too many American students, sacrifice means having to do any homework at all, while tyranny in the classroom is commonly equated with the prohibition of cell phones and iPods. The very idea of extending the school year another month in this country, before student attitudes change, is nothing short of ludicrous.

And this proposed change would not come cheaply. According to the Education Commission of the States, adding but one additional day of school would cost even sparsely populated states like North Dakota over four million dollars. California's rise in taxes would be the highest, at $292,825,000 per day.  That's an almost-six-billion-dollar price tag for four more weeks. At the same time, shortening the summer break would spell disaster for America's hotel and tourism industries, not to mention its summer camps, all of which have already been badly wounded by the recession.

It doesn't make sense to even talk about extending the school year while the economy is still tanking and so many American students resent going to school at all (in part because current classroom hours are too often wasted with inane or dumbed-down lessons). Similarly, it doesn't make sense for the government to take over the healthcare industry until they have figured out how to eliminate the enormous waste and corruption in the smaller behemoths of Medicare and Medicaid. Assuming you had only $50,000 in the bank, would you attempt to add another wing onto your house if the carpets were rotten, the roof was leaking, and termites were eating through the walls? Of course not...unless maybe you hate the structure and would like nothing more than to see it collapse. 

This proposed measure is not about quality, but control: control over our lives and over the minds of our children. With more time to sing worship songs to our nation's blessed leader and less time spent under the odious influence of their parents, children may finally be allowed to reach their full potential...as mindless followers, that is. It's a necessity for all totalitarian states. This is Obama's real vision for this country.        

He's sure to give the issue of education reform more attention once a healthcare bill has been passed. And you can be certain that when the time comes, he and the other leading Democrats will proceed, despite the deleterious effects of this measure on the economy...or rather, because of them. For from all indications, Barack Hussein Obama considers our capitalist economy his personal piñata. It may be ripped, ragged, and hanging by a thread, but as long as it still holds a few pieces of candy, he's not going to stop thrashing it.