by David Safier
The New York Times ran an article last month that caught my eye: Losing an Edge, Japanese Envy India’s Schools. The article begins:
Japan is suffering a crisis of confidence these days about its ability to compete with its emerging Asian rivals, China and India. But even in this fad-obsessed nation, one result was never expected: a growing craze for Indian education.
Despite an improved economy, many Japanese are feeling a sense of insecurity about the nation’s schools, which once turned out students who consistently ranked at the top of international tests. That is no longer true, which is why many people here are looking for lessons from India, the country the Japanese see as the world’s ascendant education superpower.
A few decades ago when it looked like Japan was the world’s economic powerhouse, we wrote glowing stories about their schools. If only our schools were as good as Japan’s, we thought, we would have a chance to compete against them. Now that Japan’s economy is fading and India’s is on the rise, they’re looking at India’s schools as a model.
There’s a lesson here. While good schools are a prerequisite for a strong economy in today’s world, schools are not the engine that drive that economy. Other factors too complex for me to fathom are at work in all these economic shifts. Blaming schools for economic successes or failures is not only a vast oversimplification, it can create “educational solutions” that cheat our students out of the human component in education, the part that can’t be measured in dollars and cents.
Education may function as the oil that lubricates the engine of the economy. It can even be thought of as the parts factory that supplies new pistons, cogs and wheels to replace those that are wearing out. But it is not the reason one country is an economic powerhouse and another is stalled. And our children are more than lumps of coal to be fed into an economic furnace to keep it burning.
Let’s imagine for a moment that Japan’s schools were every bit as good as we thought they were in the 1980s and 1990s. The students graduating from those schools during those years should have raised Japan’s economy to higher heights if education was the key factor. But Japan began tanking as those students joined the workforce.
Let’s imagine, while we’re at it, that our schools were as bad in the 1980s and 1990s as reports said they were. The graduates from those schools spearheaded our high tech revolution. Where did all those amazing minds come from, able to imagine cyber-worlds that didn’t exist, then create those worlds from scratch? From failing schools?
We longed for schools as good as Japan’s, until their economy tanked and we stopped talking about the Japanese miracle. A few years ago, when the Japanese thought they weren’t creating enough entrepreneurs to breathe life into their economy, their educators began visiting our schools to see how we managed to encourage creativity and a sense of adventure in our youth. Now the Japanese are flocking to schools created on the Indian model.
We need to do what we can to create the best schools possible for the sake of our children, so they can grow as skilled, thinking, caring human beings. The closer we come to that ideal, the better for all of us. If we are successful, when those children become adults, they will be well rounded people who, in the process of living their lives, will help move our economy forward as far as it can go in this ever-more-competitive world.