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Culture Is Not Destiny in Education

My friend leans across the table, and says softly‐as if in an act of friendship that only a true friend would engage in— "You know Marc, what my friends in the research community say about the international comparisons you are always making, don't you?"  He pauses, very briefly, to make sure he has my attention and plunges on.  "It is obvious to them that the reason these other countries are doing so well is because, in those countries, there is very strong cultural support for education and that is just missing in the United States."  In other words, the problem is the public, not the schools, and there is nothing educators can do about it.

I sighed.  My friend need not have worried.  He was hardly the first person to share this presumably devastating critique of what has turned out to be an important part of my life's work.  I hear this all the time, not just from casual observers, but from distinguished members of the American educational research community, including a former dean of the graduate school of education of one of this nation's most admired universities.   

When pressed, virtually all the people who have made this argument to me have been referring to what they think of as the Confucian countries, or, they would say, the East Asians.  But if it were true that the single biggest determinant of educational achievement was a dominant Confucian culture, then one would expect that the East Asian countries that could be described this way would lead the world's league tables by a country mile and would leave all the others in the dust.  One would also expect that these countries alone would be leading the world and, because Confucianism has been around a very long time, that this would have been true for centuries.

But none of these things are true.

Since the PISA surveys began, Australia, Canada, Germany, Estonia, New Zealand and the Netherlands have, at one time or another, been among the top countries in the PISA rankings.  Which one of these nations would you describe as East Asian or dominated by a Confucian culture?  Would you say that it is obvious that there is decisively more cultural support for education and schooling in Canada, New Zealand and Australia than in the United States?  I deliberately picked a set of British Commonwealth countries because it is notable that England, the mother of all those Commonwealth countries and a country that has arguably left a big cultural imprint on those Commonwealth countries, has done no better in the international comparisons of student performance than the United States, a performance that is decidedly inferior to that of the Commonwealth countries I just mentioned.  If culture is the decisive factor, one would expect England and the Commonwealth countries to be performing at pretty much the same level.  If Confucian culture were the decisive factor, then you would expect them all to be performing rather poorly, since none of the them are Confucian countries. 

So, what exactly is going on here?  Well, one of my friends in the research community who believes that Confucianism, not the poor performance of our education system, is the explanation of the difference between the high student achievement in the East Asian countries and the relatively poor performance of unhyphenated American students triumphantly announces that his research shows that Asian-American kids are trouncing all other groups in gaining access to California's top public universities, even though they are going to the same American public schools.  The only difference is cultural background, he says, so, quite clearly, it is not the schools that are the problem, it is the larger American culture that is the problem, something the schools are not responsible for and cannot do anything about.

That gets us to the issue of what we mean by culture.  Confucianism is not a deistic religion.  It is a set of beliefs about what it means to be virtuous and about how one ought to live.  Among the key ideas is the notion that humans can improve themselves and have an obligation to do so.  In the matter of education, this set of ideas about self-improvement translates into the belief that all students can perform at high levels if they are willing to work hard in school.  And you might say, yes, this is the sort of idea that we have been talking about: a belief grounded in the underlying culture that explains the superior performance of students in countries with a Confucian culture.  If superior student performance is caused by the Confucian idea of the possibility and obligation of self-improvement and Confucianism is at least two millennia old, then it is unreasonable to expect our schools to educate our students to the same standards that the Confucian countries are educating their students to.

No, sorry. That dog won't hunt.  Until the early part of the 20th century, the United States was the home of the idea that the common man (women came later) was inherently able to go all the way to the top if given a chance.  Benjamin Franklin went to Paris to negotiate an end to the American Revolution famously wearing the clothes of that common man.  He did not believe in a hereditary aristocracy.  He believed just what the Confucians believed, that anyone, with enough effort, could achieve intellectually at high levels if given a chance.  That is actually a very American idea.  One could even argue that that is the quintessentially American idea.

But it is most certainly not our idea now.  Early in the 20th century, American psychologists taught that intelligence determined academic performance and intelligence was fixed, a function of what is in the genes.  That is when American teachers decided that it was their duty to sort their students into ability groups and started the American tracking system. If one believed American psychologists, that was the only fair thing to do.

This is a key point in the argument, because what I am saying to you is that these American psychologists produced a major change in American cultural beliefs.  And so it turns out that culture is no more fixed than intelligence. Culture is not destiny any more than measured intelligence is destiny.  Both can be changed. 

Here is an instructive bit of irony for you.  Charles Yidan, the core founder of Ten Cent, one of the world's most successful tech firms, based in China, decided to use part of his wealth to award two annual prizes for education, comparable in their way to the Nobel Prizes in other arenas.  This, in my view, was a wonderful idea—indeed, I have served on the Prize's international advisory board—and we all ought to feel indebted to him.  The first prizes were recently announced.  The research prize went to Carol Dweck of Stanford University for her work showing that intelligence is not fixed and almost everyone can, with enough effort, achieve at high levels.  Well, guess what? The prize was given by an East Asian, to an American, for finding out what the East Asians have known for at least two millenniums!

The Oxford English Dictionary defines culture as "...the ideas, customs and social behavior of a particular people or society."  I hope I have persuaded you that it is not true that the only top-performing countries are Confucian countries, and it is therefore also not true that U.S. students can never achieve at world class levels because the U.S. is not a Confucian country.

I hope I have also persuaded you that culture is not destiny, that culture can change, just as policy can change and practice can change.  The United States once believed that anyone can achieve at high levels with enough work and it can do so again.  Culture is not determined by our DNA.  The belief that anyone can succeed in school or that it is very important to do so is not confined to people with a particular skin color or religious background.

Finally, I hope I have also persuaded you that, if culture is an important determinant of student performance, that fact cannot be used as an excuse by educators for the fact that American students perform less well than the students in many other countries. It was not the American public or American politicians who started preaching that IQ is fixed and IQ is destiny.  It was American psychologists. And it was American teachers who put that idea into practice.  American educators often bemoan the lack of American support for education and express the wish that there was as much public commitment to schooling in the United States as there is in many Confucian countries.  But, it is hardly clear that American teachers share the belief of their counterparts in Confucian countries that their students can achieve at high levels.  If the cultural beliefs of the American public are a problem, and they are, the cultural beliefs of American teachers are no less important.

The Finns did not come by their deep commitment to education because they were Confucians.  Nor did the Canadians or the Dutch.  It was the U.S. that led the whole world in commitment to education from the 1850s though the 1970s.  We can do it again.

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