SUMMARY: Teachers in the US are poorly compensated for the work in comparison to teachers in Japan. Outside of the best public schools and elite private schools, students are educated to become loyal, obedient citizens with adequate job skills. This contrasts sharply with earlier educational goals in America.
(About an 8 minute read)
My second wife, Tomoko, spent her early years in Tokyo, Japan. She attended an elite school whose students were mainly the sons and daughters of government and corporate leaders.
Tomoko’s father, for instance, was an American on loan from Motorola to Sony who headed up Sony’s East Asian quality control during the years Japanese goods became synonymous with “quality”. Her cousin, who tutored her growing up, was at one point the head of North American sales for Toyota. His major accomplishment was taking Toyota products from about 6% of the car market in the US to over 22%.
Like the students in elite, private and expensive American schools, the students in Tomoko’s school were encouraged to think. After all, they would need to do a lot of thinking to accomplish the jobs they would one day occupy running Japan’s government and industries.
In Japan, it is unusual for a school to emphasize thinking and decision-making. Most common schools do not. They emphasize rote-learning and obedience because — frankly — that’s what they are preparing their students for. Lives as interchangeable cogs in the machine.
But even the teachers in common Japanese schools are reverenced as among the most valuable members of their communities. Americans would be shocked at high their status is. The Japanese, like so many East and Southern Asians, accord teachers nearly godlike respect and deference.
Each year, a child’s teacher is invited by his or her parents to visit them in their home. This is quite a formal occasion. The parents put on their best clothing and serve the teacher tea and delicacies.
Tomoko’s mother happened to have a designer dress that, in today’s currency, would cost about $65,000. She would wear it on only two occasions. Once, when she and her husband were received by the Emperor. Then also whenever she received one of Tomoko’s teachers.
In contrast to how teachers are respected in Japan, America under-values its teachers on all levels of its educational system, but especially below the university level. They are relatively poorly paid and over-worked. And no one reserves a $65,000 designer dress to receive them into their homes.
Of course, you often get what you pay for in this world — pay for both in terms of money and respect. Because the occupation is not valued, most American teachers are either extremely dedicated people who love teaching, or they are incompetents who cannot get equivalent employment anywhere else.
Until I got into university, I certainly thought most teachers were incompetent. I didn’t have a clue or a thought about why that seemed to me the case, but I certainly knew that’s how it seemed to me.
I grew up in a small, largely rural community. Looking back now, I can see that — except perhaps in one specific way — the community did what it could to educate its children with the limited resources available to it. But at the time, all I saw was that my teachers were dull, uninspired, and uninspiring.
For instance, there was almost no science — about the only subject that held my interest for more than five minutes — until fifth grade. That was the year we quit spending all day with just one teacher, and began moving from class to class through-out the day.
I didn’t know at the time that the system had been changed that year specifically because it was recognized that science wasn’t getting taught under the old system. Had I known that — and had I correctly made sense of it — I would have realized how deeply my teachers cared for their student’s education.
The one way in which the community actually did in fact let down the students, when doing so was unnecessary due to budgets, was by hiring relatively incompetent teachers at times.
Here’s how that worked: In a small community, everyone looks out for everyone else. When someone needs a job, for instance, at least a dozen or so people will rise up to help them find one. But what if the person is not qualified for much?
For decades the community had been, whenever possible, dumping educated women who needed to work into teaching jobs if for some reason they weren’t suited to the very few other occupations available to women at the time. Most of those women were grateful for their jobs, but not really enthusiastic about teaching. Sometimes the community did the same with educated men.
My cousin, by the way, was an exception to that. Although in need of work, teaching was her love and joy. She had started out as the high school Latin teacher, been promoted to principle, and then forced out a few years later.
She was forced out because the superintendent needed to blame someone for his own stupid mistake of telling her to enforce an illegal dress code. She was thus put in a position where she’d be fired either way — either for disobeying him or for enforcing the code. She chose to resign in protest — something that soon led to his own dismissal as the community rallied around her.
Until fifth grade, my school days were spent divided equally between English and arithmetic. I had a problem with the arithmetic. A sadistic first year teacher had turned me off to it by some rather cruel punishments she inflicted for not getting a problem correct.
As for the English, the fad in teaching at the time was to avoid practicing reading and writing. I would have enjoyed doing those things. Instead, they spent hours each day diagramming sentences. Fads!
It wasn’t until middle school that I met my first competent teacher — a history teacher. In high school, I met two or three more competent teachers, including the school librarian. She took me under her arm and believed in me. Her encouragement was a formative experience.
It wasn’t until I was at university that I met more than a handful of competent teachers, including a few who were outstanding. They shaped not only my intellectual skills and knowledge, but in many cases honed my values — such as intellectual honesty.
In most of the world outside of America, it goes without saying that that the quality of teaching a child receives greatly determines the quality of their lives later on. Poorly educated people have far fewer opportunities in life than better educated people.
Beyond that, the quality of education each generation receives largely determines both the nation’s economic competitiveness and the health of its democratic institutions. You cannot long have an ignorant people who remain a free people.
America has not always under-valued both its teachers and education itself. If you were to go back to our frontier days, you would find — as one historian put it — that the frontier was “littered with schools and colleges”. Schools and colleges were among the first community structures built, right after the churches went up.
In fact, when the Japanese began importing the “best of the West” in the 1800s, they modeled their navy on the British fleet, their army on the Prussian, and their educational system on the American.
It seems to me no accident that common public education in the US today has been allowed to grossly deteriorate. It behooves the elites in power on both sides of the aisle that the masses are not well educated.
Before America became a nation, the primary goal of education in the Northern colonies was religious. Basically, the thought was you needed to read your bible — along with other religious literature — in order to lead a devout life.
That changed following the Revolution. The goal became political. You got educated, people would tell you, so you could participate in governing yourself as anyone’s equal.
Then that too changed, following the adoption of Prussian ideals about the purpose of education. The Prussians had instituted universal education in order to create loyal citizens of the state. As more and more Germans migrated to the US, they brought with them Prussian notions of the value and purpose of mass education.
Later on, the Prussian notion was added to and expanded on. The value of mass education was not only to make good, obedient “citizens”, but was now seen as a way to create a workforce educated enough to support the new industries.
And that’s where we are today. On the mass or common level, we educate primary to instill loyalty and obedience, along with the skills necessary to work in the modern labor force.
All but forgotten now is the ancient American idea that one should get an education to further self-government — let alone the notion that the well educated man or woman might have a better quality life.
This post was inspired by an extraordinary article posted earlier today on Parikhitdutta’s blog, which can be found here.