Sunday, December 11, 2005

What did Roosevelt say about opportunity?

Oh yeah, something about


"We know that equality of individual ability has never existed and never will, but we do insist that equality of opportunity still must be sought."
-- Franklin D. Roosevelt


Which, I guess, could be read as saying that everyone, even the poor, the non-white, the female, the stupid, the crippled, the belivers in different religions, and the members of the political party that is out of fashion all ought to have a fair shot at life.

Of course, money tends to skew things, but it's a nice enough sentiment, and it sounds especially good when you slap it on something like education. Who could be against a fair chance for children? Even for those truly, butt-ugly children. Naturally, there've been causes for improvement in the execution of this fairness idea, but generally, it's a pretty straightforward concept.

I bring this up because the principal of the school where I work has been chatting with me about his school and schools in Japan in general. As a foreigner, I can offer him the perspective of an outsider as well an aspect of the confessional. Since he speaks to me in fairly rapid English the other teachers can't understand what he's saying. And even if I did want to tell someone else what he said, no one would really listen to me or take me seriously. I'm not Japanese, you know.

To get back to the point, he explained that there is nothing like gifted and talented or AP classes available in Japanese public schools. During the post-war reconstruction of Japan, the education system was totally re-organized with 1940's America as a rough model. While this did mean giving up the Imperial German style of education adopted during the Meiji restoration, complete with unthinking monarch-obediance and a military-preperatory emphasis, it did allow for a greater sense of opportunity. Under the new system, education was supposed to be available to all children, regardless of ability or gender.

But as the revolutions of the 40's ossified into the policies of today, there has been a similar hardening of ideas. According to my principal, most parents today insist on an equal treatment for all students. Even in cases of wildly different ability. A dyslexic child will be kept in the same class as his peers, just as a math prodigy will be kept in the same class, regardless of ability. There is no variation in curriculum within an age level. There are no advanced placement classes, no accelerated courses, no college level courses for those nerdy kids in the high school who were always wrecking the curve. Nothing. Most school districts do have one or two schools per age range that offer a class for developmentally disabled children, and occasionally an entire school for a specific disability, like blindness or deafness. But in general, the kids are kept together by age. Period.

It seems puzzling to me that a child with extraordinary talents would not be allowed to move as quickly as their mind would allow, but the idea of wasted potential never even enters the debate. Maybe it's just an expression of the "sticking out nail gets hammered down" idea, but that really strikes me as wrong. Especially given the tendency to spoil children in Japan. As long as a person is considered a child, they tend to be indulged far more that seems usual from an American point of view. And it strikes me as sort of, well, callous to keep a kid in a class that's below what they're capable of. Having been stuck in manditory lessons myself, I can tell you it's no picnic.

But maybe I'm just viewing this as a synecdoche of one of my biggest problems with both Japanese and American society. People are expected to applaud and appreciate and even worship people who are set up as special for some reason or another. But if a person should actually demonstrate some measure of superiority it's considered in poor taste. Why else would so many people in Japan, more than are statistically possible to fit into a "median group," claim that they were middle class? Why else would people in the US who make several hundred thousand dollars a year say they were "just, y'know, kind of upper-middle class?" Why would it be considered offensive to act superior if you are, in fact, better than someone at something?

Of course, I'm trying to cover a bit too much here. The point is: kids here have to stick together, whether the class is too easy or too hard. And the educators don't like it, but there's not much anyone thinks can be done about it...

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