Sunday, July 11, 2010

Hopes for the Future

Last September my eleven year old daughter came home from school and said, “Mom, my teacher said all the students in India and China have higher IQs than all the American people combined. She said we will have to compete for jobs with them, so we had better work hard!” This statement caused me to pause for a moment. At first I thought, “How dare this teacher say such a thing to my daughter!” But as I got thinking I decided that this was one of those teachable moments that all the ‘experts’ talk about. That one statement encompassed so many divergent yet some how interrelated subjects under the one umbrella of my hopes and dreams for my child. I thought about standardized testing, what skills are really necessary to make it in the world, what jobs will look like in the future, what defines success, what my over all world view is, and finally how one embattled teacher is trying to lead these kids into the future.

First, I am certain that Elizabeth misinterpreted what the teacher was saying. I am sure her teacher was referring to standardized tests, not IQ. While it may be true that foreign kids do better on some standardized tests, my feeling is that these tests only measure one portion of the spectrum of human intellect. They are innately limited. Just like our eyes can only perceive one small tiny percentage of the light spectrum, so these tests only divine a small part of our children’s potential.
I also wonder, who is being tested? Other countries have significantly different educational systems that start tracking kids into educational levels at an early age. Are they testing the kids who are going to drop out in middle school and become farmers or only the kids on track for college? What about over all penetration of education in the population? In the US, every kid is educated, even kids that won’t benefit from an education long term. Do those countries that we compare ourselves so severely against do the same? Is every kid in every rural village, slum, or farm going to school everyday and then potentially a candidate for this test?

Later that day, while we were on our way to Walmart, I asked Elizabeth how she felt about what her teacher said. She said, “It scares me that I won’t be able to have a job in the future. I am afraid I won’t be able to support my family.” She was worried that people from India and China would move to the United States and take all the jobs and the Americans wouldn’t have any. Her response lead us to a big discussion about a global economy, outsourcing of jobs overseas, and what jobs may look like in the future. “You know, you can make your own job,” I said. She looked at me in surprise and said, “Really? Do you have to ask the government?” I laughed and said of course not and went on to enumerate the many people we knew who owned their own business. “Your Aunt Lynn owns her own company. If you become a musician then you will very likely make your own jobs.” Again, the answer was, “Really?”

The honest truth is that the career Elizabeth will have will not look anything like what my husband and I have today. Just like my job does not look like my parents. It is possible that Elizabeth will never work in an office environment at all, or on a limited basis. She will probably have a job with a set of skills that don’t even exist yet. She may work for a Chinese company, but not live in China.

The main point I wanted to drive home with her during this conversation is that I believe that the world is an abundant place. Just because the economy in China and India are doing well, does not automatically mean that our economy has to be doing poorly. In other words their success right now is not the cause of our current troubles. I believe that there is enough for everyone and the fact of the matter is if Elizabeth ends up making even half of what our family income is today adjusted for inflation, she will be wealthier than the vast majority of the world. I, like all other parents, wish my child to be more successful than I. But really what is success?

I think we spend a lot of time focusing on the material aspects of success, and the material aspects of having a career. A career is not all about making a lot of money. I hold out hope that Elizabeth will follow what she loves. I tell her over and over again that she should do what she loves and she will find a way to make a living doing it. Is her happiness worth the big house and car? What about balancing a family if that is what she chooses? Contentment, I think, is a goal in and of itself. Contentment is the dowdy sister of Wealth and Fame. She is ignored and cast aside in the pursuit of the others. But if you seek Contentment out, she will reward you with a life that is quieter than Fame will allow and not necessarily as financially stable as Wealth. But she is less fickle than both and you will have rich and textured life. That’s not to say there won’t be challenges, but you will be in the captains chair of your life, because Contentment is all about letting you be you. To me, a life richly lead with a lot of experiences and love trumps the material things any day.

And now I come full circle back to the embattled teacher. I can see her in her class room. She has more students and less money. She is desperately trying to prepare these kids for economic opportunities that don’t even exist yet, based on economic realities that are in their death throws. The US economy is in a tail spin and people are afraid and uncertain about their futures. Trying to prepare someone else’s is virtually impossible. She is fighting the kids to get them to read and write more. She is fighting the district for more money. And sadly, she is probably fighting a fair amount of the parents that either do not care, are so overwhelmed that they can’t even deal with their kids school work, or in their infinite wisdom, do not agree with her approach. She is afraid for the kids future and wants to try to motivate them to do better, to be competitive, to care about their future too. That is probably where that statement, “All the kids in India and China are smarter than you,” came from. And so I have to thank her because she gave me an excellent opportunity to talk to my child about my world view and hopefully help develop her own. But I do have this message for my girl: “Honey, there is nothing more important than an education and you will be reading over the summer.”

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