After finishing my first year of college and returning home happily to see my family and friends, I have been thinking about the level of education given at the university level and the preparation that secondary schooling gives in the United States. The result: we need to change the way we educate children in our country and elevate the standards across all subjects, primarily in middle school and high school. Not only do college courses demand much more time and effort of the student, they also place an emphasis on self-discipline, a virtue that is intrinsic in Russian education. I do not believe that we must give up “room for creativity” in our course schedule, as many supporters of the American system of education advocate for, but I feel that we must put the focus of our educators and parents on stricter studying methods and increasing the level of difficulty of classes.
Coming from a Russian immigrant background, as many fellow children of immigrants may relate to, I was put under plenty of academic pressure since I initially entered school. When the average classroom program was not demanding enough, my parents placed me in additional preparatory programs such as Kumon (a math and reading learning center) and CTY courses (Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth). Those extracurricular classes put an emphasis on independent learning and agility, which nurtured my academic interests and growth outside of the classroom. Meanwhile, some of the classes for the “gifted and talented” in my school were not challenging me enough, and only in high school did I feel more pressure and challenges from Advanced Placement classes. Now in college, I realize that there is a dramatic difference in the intensity of coursework between high school classes and average college courses. Even AP preparation does not demand as much as that of higher education. This brings me to my next point, that the Russian system of education should be looked upon as a beacon of inspiration, given the strict training and inculcation by educators.
Talks with my parents hint at a childhood filled with great demands in school as well as extracurricular activities, which are representative of the culture they and other immigrants instill in their children. Yet, it amazes me how the level of difficulty differs drastically. Take algebra, for example, which they completed in 5th grade, while in the US most kids begin to study in 9th grade. The trends in science education are comparable to mathematics, where children in the Soviet Union consistently took physics, chemistry and biology every year from the time they were 10 until graduation from school. Science in America is also taught in a poor manner with the students only getting a peek at each of the three main science subjects for a year in high school; that is not enough time. Unfortunately, the majority of American students are falling behind in standards our national government has dictated, so it is easy to see why college students struggle later on in courses that were never part of a foundation for such learning.
In an earlier post I touched upon the subject of education, writing that Russian Jews of a certain age often view college as a pressure cooker for liberal propaganda. I find that, in addition to this one-sided view, many Russian Jews both old and young approach the term “liberal arts” with general skepticism, if not disdain. These sentiments are not unwarranted, considering that in the Soviet Union, vocational training was the basis for higher education. However, because of inherent discrepancies between the philosophies underlying vocational and liberal arts educations, major conflicts erupt when Russian parents decide to send their budding young scholars off to college.
As a freshman in college with scores of interests, you’re granted the blessed opportunity to explore. During this period of self-discovery, young undergrads sample from a rich palette of fields while slogging through mandatory general education courses that may or may not be relevant to them. After two years of navigating through an academic hodgepodge, most students are good and ready to set foot on a strict route toward that illustrious college degree. Whether or not that degree is worth what it was some decades ago, is something else worth mulling over.
Many Russian Jewish parents are baffled by humanities majors and their real-world applications. “Soft” majors like English, philosophy, and even psychology often produce more than one raised eyebrow from well-meaning relatives. Usually this bafflement is often accompanied by questions like, “What will you do with a degree in [x]?” What the older generation doesn’t understand is that a college major is not a direct entryway to a specific job. Rather, it demonstrates that you have satisfactorily completed a rigorous scholarly program, which taught you to think critically and intelligently on a wide array of subjects. What a humanities major does not do, is put a roadblock on a career. On the contrary, many experts argue that “interesting” or non-typical majors actually give job applicants an edge in the hiring pool. So there is nothing keeping English majors from entering the business world or philosophy majors from becoming scientists.