It took some prodding to awaken from my blog-slumber, but if anyone can do it, it is the New York Times. It seems the Times, like many other mainstream media publications, has decided that amping up its visibility can be done by good old fashioned contrarianism: one can seem hip and cutting edge by challenging received wisdom, even if it is the received wisdom of its own readers. Cool, NYT! Tell it like it's not!
So the latest mini-trend is the lazy American narrative, or, more specifically, the lazy American kid narrative (not exactly the narrative Times readers might expect). On September 12, Elizabeth Rosenthal wrote about how much fun high-stakes testing can be, because after all, repeated testing is kinda like doing crossword puzzles, and they're fun, right? (By the way, Elizabeth, the reason people like crossword puzzles is because they're optional. If we had to do them to keep our jobs, they might not be so much fun.) Chinese kids get tested all the time, and they apparently love it. So why don't our kids?
Then Thomas Friedman weighed in with his column, also dated September 12, "We're number 1(1)!" In it, he rehashes arguments from yet another heartless white male economics sage, Robert Samuelson, who declares that the problem with American competitiveness is that American kids don't want to work. Friedman quotes Samuelson as follows: "The unstated assumption of much school ‘reform' is that if students aren't motivated, it's mainly the fault of schools and teachers...Motivation is weak because more students (of all races and economic classes, let it be added) don't like school, don't work hard and don't do well. In a 2008 survey of public high school teachers, 21 percent judged student absenteeism a serious problem; 29 percent cited ‘student apathy.' " Friedman goes on to cite "values breakdown" as the problem in American education in particular, and American society in general.
I guess working in close proximity to George Will long enough, you end up drinking his Kool-Aid. David Brooks sings the "values breakdown" lament every chance he gets, and now Friedman is taking up the dirge. I am not totally unsympathetic to the idea of "values breakdown," although what to do about it short of sending everybody back to church is unclear. Friedman, like Brooks and Will, is kinda vague on what to do about it in terms of social policy. ("Who will tell the people?" Friedman asks, as if telling the people they have had a values breakdown is going to make them slap their foreheads and say, "Oh, right, why didn't I think of that?") American kids just don't work hard enough, and someone has to tell them to get their asses in gear.
Meanwhile, those of us who (unlike Samuelson, Friedman, Will and Brooks) actually work with kids often hear a different story. The deep resistance to working kids harder, including resistance to high-stakes testing, resistance to longer school days and longer school years, resistance to tougher curricula and everything else, is because many Americans hate their own lives, and work too hard. "They're only kids once" is how parents say it, over and over. Let them enjoy their childhood; let them laze about and dandle their toes in the stream in the summer; let them play and have fun. Because, many parents feel, being an adult sucks. When they grow up, they will have to work sixty hours a week to keep their standards of living in place, and even then they won't be able to keep their heads above water. So, while they are kids, let them enjoy it, many parents say.
Samuelson, at least, must be familiar with the statistics that demonstrate that American workweeks are among the longest in the world (according to one Bureau of Labor Statistics report I checked, we're 4th out of 19 industrialized countries in hours worked per worker). These international comparisons are hard to interpret now that so many people are jobless, but considering that Americans work 12 more weeks per year than many Europeans, it cannot be true that American adults don't work hard. So the "values breakdown" narrative must be something more complicated: hard-working American adults not encouraging their kids to work hard while they are kids. In other words, it seems many Americans are conflicted about working their kids hard: they want them to do well, but they also want them to enjoy life before they become stressed-out wage slaves.
People who actually work with kids are very familiar with this conflict. As a clinician who often sees underachieving kids in his practice, I have heard this story over and over. Teenaged boy, 14, says, "Mom and Dad want me to do well in school so I can get into a good college like they did. For what? So I can work all the time, and be as stressed out as they are, and never have time to do anything fun because all I do is work? No thanks." Indeed, it is hard to convince such kids that longer school days and or school years are in their best interest. With parents like theirs, it's no wonder they're apathetic.
So, while I am a child therapist and not a real economist, I have a suggestion. To address the "values breakdown" in real policy terms, how about this? How about some real economic policies that really shore up eroding middle-class standards of living, so moms and dads don't have to work quite so hard? Then kids will look up and see a life worth striving for, and they will get their asses in gear all on their own. Like those hard-working German kids, whose parents get all that time off, and all that maternity leave, and all that state-supported child care....Are you listening, NYT?