In Her Shell
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
  Why Is Europe So Much Better Than Us?
Reading the news that some university presidents want to lower the drinking age put me in mind of the many, many students of mine who have written persuasive papers to this effect. I understand it and I agree with them; the debate is nothing new.

My students would make the "old enough to fight for your country" argument and the "forbidden fruit" argument, and sometimes they even pointed out that in countries with lower drinking ages, teenagers seem to have a more balanced perspective about drinking, or at least learn how to hold their alcohol better.

This article points out that stricter laws and more public transportation options make drunk driving less of an issue in France than it is here. It isn't expected that every kid will have a car. They don't all 'need' one, and really, they don't all need one.

So what the heck? Why is Europe so much better than we are? They have pervasive public transportation!

In grad school I mentored high school age foreign exchange students, finding them host families, taking them on outings, listening to their problems, etc. But they were pretty self-sufficient; they got here two weeks before 9/11/01 and on September 12 they sat around my dining room table and talked in a balanced way about world politics and international relations. Not one of them said they were scared and wanted to go home. All of them spoke at least two languages, none of them got into trouble while they were here, and they made me look back at my own self-involved high school days with chagrin.

OK, I know they were the cream of the crop and highly motivated and had been given the lecture about being embassadors and all that. I'm sure there are some tools out there in European high schools. But seriously. Why is Europe so much better than we are? What is it about their schools that makes them so mature, so far-seeing? Or maybe it's just that--are their schools not seen as the only major preparation for society (read: workforce) and so they are better able to see things outside their own doors?

I remember reading about how adolescence is this artificially created stage, because physically we're ready to start breeding and that's how we used to do it, before advances in industry and medicine lengthened our lives and changed our priorities. So here they are in this holding pattern, not quite adults but not children anymore, and here we are building the holding pens. It's not really working.

In many countries, students are tracked from a very early age, so students who would do a program like that really would be the best of the best.

We have a few kids here from the UK whose fathers work in some sort of less than diplomatic capacity for the British High Commission. (Military, etc.) These kids came from a large general admission type high school and have absolutely no tools; they are at least as low as my inner-city kids were.

I agree that we (the US) has a really fucked-up way of dealing with kid's drinking and other assorted stuff, but I think that the crisis in public education is world-wide.
What a great post! Very thought provoking. All I can say is this: We went to France as Juniors in high school and all most of us wanted to do was drink because it was legal. The same thing happened when we went to Toronto. Anyone who was 18 snuck out (or tried to) and bought beer. -snix
Lu: I knew you would have an interesting commentary on this! I actually meant 'tools' as in 'losers' but the same principle applies. So what do we do about it?

Snix: Thank you! The same thing happened on my high school trip to France. For all their threats beforehand, nobody got sent home.
I know you did, but the day before I read your post, my intern was working with on of these British kids and hos comment was "She tries so hard, but she has no tools."

Not sure what to do about it; if I did I would be a highly paid consultant and not a slightly above averagely paid high school English teacher.

Part of the problem is that the model we are working with is still the model from the 1950s, when there were many jobs in manufacturing. Kids who were lower level could go to work as a skilled factory laborer and make real money, enough to support a family. Now the jobs are all in the service sector, and require not only a different set of skills, but a whole different mind-set. Teaching kids to be creative thinkers is not something we do well, because creative thinkers aren't sheep, and we would actually need to engage them, not just contain them.
Right on, sister friend! My suspicions that the whole educational system needs to change are growing and growing, along with that foreboding feeling in my stomach.
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