Thursday, July 16, 2009

Education and Entitlement

An interesting op-ed in today's Washington Post caught my attention. In it, E.J. Dionne wrote about the crisis facing present-day American higher education. He was mostly pointing to problems of cost that are hampering Americans' opportunities to achieve all they can. You can read it on the Post's website.

He shared an anecdote at the beginning, however, that prompted me to think in a direction than I think Dionne intended. He talked of how the young Sonia Sotomayor studied with her brother and mother together in their cramped Brooklyn apartment, ostensibly invoking how her mother's example guided the young Supreme Court Justice-to-be.

Good example.

But it highlights an attitude that has largely left Americans' mentality concerning education. As a child in the 1950s, when K-12 education was in its first generation of normalcy for American children, there was more of an emphasis on children seizing opportunities available in education. Not all parents pushed their kids to achieve, for sure. Yet compared to today, there was considerably greater emphasis from home about seizing opportunities.

Today, the mentality I see most commonly toward school is one of entitlement. Parents, kids, the community think in terms of what the school owes their children. And certainly we owe those kids a lot. But there is little emphasis on what kids' stake is in determining what they get from school. Parents want absences to be excused without consequence, kids want teachers who will be "cool" and laid back rather than ones who insist on work. In the academic (versus honors and AP) sections there is an attitude that teachers need to arrange the path of least resistance for their kids to earn their diplomas.

Parents, the courts, legislation, a culture that emphasizes leisure and comfort over rewarding hard work all contribute to the ennui. As for colleges' steeply rising price tags, waves of parents and prospective students insisting on the best facilities (apartments, not dorm rooms; new science labs, not good labs in older buildings) have driven tuition and fees up. The approach with which too many parents and students take toward schooling is a strange mix of passive and activist. But missing from that mix is the notion that hard work is necessary for but not in and of itself sufficient for true success. That was something the mother of the current Supreme Court Justice nominee (and many, many of her contemporaries) grasped.

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