Saturday, December 04, 2004
Curricula Cuts, Rightless Students and Censorship, oh my!
In the United States, a pupil has few rights on the school campus. Handbooks detailing all the things that are not allowed are passed out within the first few days of class and the student and his or her parents must sign a slip agreeing to abide by all that is written therein under threat of punishments (e.g. repetitive detentions, etc.) It was not until 1969, and it took a Supreme Court case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, that students were guaranteed their First Amendment rights inside the school's gates. A student's right to privacy is not guaranteed: his or her belongings may be searched and atheletes may be subjected to mandatory drug tests.
The United States leaves education, for the most part, to the counties - the subunits of the states. This minute division makes for a very varied educational spectrum across the country. Students are often allowed to take harder classes in the subjects they excel in and easier classes in those they are horrible. This selection creates widely different educational experiences for the students. It is hard to generalize, therefore, but I will be so bold as to say that the US seems to focus, clearly, more on mathematics and English than it does on any of the other subjects and that foreign languages are probably the weakest point of all in American secondary schools.
German schools grant their students many more rights, from being able to leave the classroom without asking permission to an open-campus policy. Students generally stay in one place and their teachers come to them.
However, students take the same classes as each other and it is not until the the last two years, for Gymnasium students, that they actually have a say in their schedule beyond deciding which Sport class they'll take or whether they want to have an Art, Music or Theatre class. There also exists, so I'm told, a North-South gradient: schools in the north are not as academically challenging as those in the south. One person who attended school in the rich Bundesland Bayern (Bavaria) was told by her teachers that Bavarian pupils were ready to pass the Hamburger Abitur in the 11th grade--two years early.
The major problem with German schools, at least here in the North, is their exclusive curricula, especially in mathematics. Students in the 11th grade here have not yet learnt how to factor out something like x²-5x+4 into (x-4)(x-1), they will never learn how to work with imaginary numbers according to the mathematics teacher, they need not be taught synthetic polynomial division. In the US all of those things are normally taught before or during the 10th grade. In their Religion class, which is taken by all student except those who "have no religion", i.e. are not Lutheran or Catholic, Judaism and Islam and other world religions are skimmed over. A German teacher had no idea what Hannukah was and what most people know of Islam comes from Turkish friends or brief news blurbs about Ramadan in the Middle East.
Whatever failings the Germans have in mathematics, they make up in foreign language instruction. English is beaten into most students for 7 years and soon students will be beginning English studies as young as 3rd grade. In addition, they must take a second foreign language for certain number of years, the exact number I haven't worked out since some people are beginning Spanish in the 11th grade but others have been taking French or Latin for 5 years already. Compare this to the mere 2 years required in most American high schools.
The United States is also leading the way in recent censorship and censorship proposals when it comes to educational materials. From the recent proposal by Gerard Allen on banning materials mentioning, referring to, etc. homosexuality from public libraries to the new health books to be used in Texas classrooms. Textbook errors seem to keep popping up as well. Frighteningly enough, many parents are the origin of such censorship measures.
On the same topic, here's a link to a the American Library Association's list of the 100 most frequently challenged books between 1990 and 2000.
Until parents, school administrators, textbook publishers and politicians can step back and let the students of the world learn unhampered there will always be a stain on education where intellectual freedom was not allowed to prosper.