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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

You can’t get ahead when you are trying to get even.

I go to school every weekday. I wake up early, I arrive on time, I pay attention, and I ask questions. After a full day of school I go to basketball practice for 2 hours. But then I get home and it is back to school work for the rest of the night. I enjoy learning and I like going to school, but as a hard working student, I am confused and intimidated by the notion that “America is in danger of falling behind.” Although I have heard of America’s seemingly lacking education, this article from the New York Times finally provides some facts. According to the PISA Standardized test, students in Shanghai scored the highest out of the 65 countries tested in math, science, and English. Disappointingly, the United States did not even make the top 10, or the top 20. According to this exam American students ranked 23rd.

Initially, I took these results too seriously, thinking that if the rigor with which I am studying is only earning my country 23rd place globally, I must be doing something wrong, right? Everyone must be doing something wrong. But then I thought why does my mentality have to be “us” against “them?” In English class we have been discussing the “other.” The “other” refers to those who are not considered the “norm” in their society. My class created a list of the accepted norms in the America society:

· White

· Christian

· Middle class

· Heterosexual

· English speaking

· A businessman

We had an honest discussion about what it is like to be on the outside of this preconceived “norm.” And we discovered that even lacking one of these qualities automatically puts you at risk of becoming an “other.” Labeling a group as the “other” has become a problem in the past years. For example, after 9/11 most people thought all Muslims were terrorists. Because there is not a lot of media around the Islamic culture, people start to believe this notion. Similarly, most people assume Asians are naturally smart. While it does seem that the Asian population takes education more seriously than other cultures, they are not smart merely because they are Asian. They are smart because they have worked hard to become so. I fear that we have already turned Asians into an “other” in terms of education. Instead of striving for perfection in our own school systems, we seem to keep creating excuses as to why places like China and Japan are better equipped for educational success. The same article as above provides some reasons as to why China scored so high on recent exams, “Chinese students spend less time than American students on athletics, music and other activities not geared toward success on exams in core subjects. Also, in recent years, teaching has rapidly climbed up the ladder of preferred occupations in China, and salaries have risen. In Shanghai, the authorities have undertaken important curricular reforms, and educators have been given more freedom to experiment.

My proposal is to try and combat thinking of things as “us” vs. “them.” Instead of fretting about the successes of the Chinese for their stellar test results, why not congratulate them? If the world truly is becoming extremely globalized, why not celebrate each other’s successes and learn from one and other. The article said that the Chinese are raising the teachers’ salaries and reforming teaching styles, why not try that here? We don’t have to make the same types of reforms as the Chinese, but we should make changes that will benefit us. I think we would like to believe that even though we are not as “smart” as the Chinese, we are better athletes or more well-rounded than our Asian counterparts, but that again creates the “us” vs. “them” mentality. If we dig a little deeper and try to learn more about the students who are scoring higher on their exams, we would probably learn that they are not that different than us. They probably have a favorite class, a favorite teacher, a teacher they don’t like, a crush that sits next to them in class. They probably get nervous before a big test and they probably are just as sleep deprived as us. In order to combat this “us” vs. “Them” thought, we need to start identifying what makes us similar. China is far away from the US, it is easy to create falsities about the country and its people, but what is the point in that?

Please leave your comments, questions, and insights. I am very interested in this topic and would love to hear your opinions as well!

Until next time…



  1. Nice post ali!
    I think you raise a great point about "us vs. them" thinking with regard to China. In education as well as economics and world power in general, we tend to view China as the other, as a threat. I think it's fair to say that our fear of losing our hegemony is the cause of this view. However, like you said, I think if we take the time to learn from each other instead of rejecting everything Chinese, we can make global progress and live in a less hostile world.

  2. I like your blog! Comment me back!

  3. Wonderful post Ali. I also heard about this new ranking and was less than pleased, as you may imagine. For me certain stats are difficult to reconcile because I simply feel as if there is nothing more I can do, that I work as hard as I possibly can, but I'm obviously still not perfect. More importantly, though, is the concept of "us" v. "them" that you identified in your post. Unfortunately, I missed the class in which we discussed "us" v. "them" but I felt your post filled me in nicely. I agree with you when you say that it is worthwhile to focus, or at least shed light on, our similarities in order to combat the falsities induced by the construct of us v them. Interestingly enough, last year in class board we learned about a school in Indonesia that selected Glenbrook North as a school to monitor and potentially model themselves after. Instead of just thinking we would be the example, we reciprocated and observed their school. I was so impressed and in awe with a lot of their innovative technology and methods! I think the point of that entire interaction, on a broader level, was to open our eyes to ways we can connect with people that may feel a world away; and that we not only have so many things in common, but also so much to learn from one another.

  4. Great Job! I agree with you. We could accomplish so many things if we looked past the differences and stopped critizing people or making everything into a competition. We are all human and I feel the thing holding us back from being everything we can be are those people only paying attention to the differences. Why does it matter? If you could please comment on blog about hope, humanity and the human spirit at http://simrankgt2.blogspot.com/ I would greatly appreciate it. Thank you!

  5. I feel that you have provided some excellent insight into this "us vs them" mentality and the whole idea that you can't get ahead when you are trying to get even. These kinds of stereotypes are around us everyday. I know at my school people say that Asians are more intelligent simply because they are Asian. It's crazy. We even joke about it in my math class! something has to change. Now I know ranking systems like the one you cited are important in scoiety, they also tend to hurt people as a whole. Why do we turn everythng into a competition? Sure we all as people and nations want to succeed and be the very best we can be but, can't we use each other to improve? You made an interesting point that we could try reforming the education system here in the U.S. That's a great idea. Why can't we put our differences aside to help everyone benefit? I also agree a lot with what Simran said. We really are holding ourselves back. A lot of what you've talked about can be related to what my class is learning about. Check out my blog about Humanity and Hope.


  6. I really like what you had to say here, and I think you have a great point. By otherizing Asian students, we separate ourselves so much from them that we take away the impetus for ourselves to become better students because that is "their" domain. And you're also very correct in saying that we, the ambitious, wealthy students of wealthy suburban school districts, could not be doing more to advance our nation's educational rankings. But at least part of the problem, I believe, is in the vast inequality in opportunities between students like us and students in inner-city schools and under-funded school districts. That is not to say that all Chinese students attend wealthy schools, but rather that inequality is inhibiting our growth in ways that the Chinese have seemed, to some extent at least, to overcome.

    And then there's the obvious problem that not all students at wealthy schools like our take all the opportunities given them to advance their education. Although I don't support "us" versus "them" thinking, I think it's important to note the de-emphasis on education in America, that working hard to get ahead is less valued than getting ahead by not working very hard at all. It seems that game shows, the lottery, and the stock market, rather than engineering or medicine, for example, are the preferred means of getting rich. In a hyper-capitalist, consumer-driven economy where get-rich-quick schemes elapse hard work, education gets thrown by the wayside.

    That's my two cents, anyway.

  7. @Nick:Thanks for your post :)

    @Jamie: Thank you for your post! I would love to hear more about the experience your school had with Indonesia. I am glad that both schools were hopefully able to learn from the experience, very cool!

    @Simran:Thank you for your post! I would agree with you. Although competition has a valid place in society, it is hard to take the good things that societies are doing when all we are trying to do is "one up them" so to say.

    @Alec T: I agree that something has to change in our society, but where does that change start? Joking about things in math class seems funny at the time, but then later we realize that we are just fueling this idea of "us vs. them" Thank you for your post, you made some very insightful claims :)

    @daniel: Thank you for your comment, I think your point,

    "it's important to note the de-emphasis on education in America, that working hard to get ahead is less valued than getting ahead by not working very hard at all. It seems that game shows, the lottery, and the stock market, rather than engineering or medicine, for example, are the preferred means of getting rich."

    is very valid and sometimes overlooked. To be honest, this is the first time I have thought about the American work ethic in that light, so thanks for your "two cents"!!