School daze

Geography-lessonIt’s selfish, I know, but I was grateful when I first learned that Vietnam had made the teaching of English as a foreign language a national priority.

The only foreign language I speak is Russian, which had supplanted French – all quite pragmatic on the path to “market-oriented socialism” in a globalized economy in which English is the language of international business.

Việt Nam even requires that high schoolers bound for college pass an English test, along with mandatory papers in math and literature during their graduation exam in June.

There are also tests on three other subjects chosen each year by the education ministry.

And then they have to sit for a college entrance exam in July, which often includes three subjects for each major.

That’s nine tests in all.

But why so many?

The more I learn about Việt Nam’s approach to education, the more puzzled I am.

In the U.S., the most popular standardized college entrance test today covers three areas:

Math, critical reading, and writing.

(When I took the test, the reading and writing was combined:

We had a math score and a verbal score.)

It was strange to learn, for example, that until recently Vietnamese high school seniors were expected to memorize such statistics as the number of U.S. aircraft shot down in certain battles.

Dwelling on data takes time away from more valuable lessons.

It even undermines the purpose of education, if you agree with Albert Einstein.

“Education,” Einstein said, “is not the learning of facts but the training of the mind to think.”

Vietnamese high school students, their parents and educators are increasingly complaining about the wide range of subjects they are required to study.

While high school seniors in other countries focus on four, five or six subjects, their peers in Vietnam divide time between a dozen or so areas:

Math, literature, English, biology, physics, chemistry, history, geography, civic education, national defense education, physical education, and information technology.

The larger problem is not whether “national defense education,” say, is necessary.

The problem is that a student’s concentration should not be spread thin when they would be better served developing core strengths.

Imagine, for example, an 18-year-old Mark Zuckerberg said that all the coding he was doing on his computer was keeping him away from Army education, or geography.

Zuckerberg was only 19 when he founded Facebook as a freshman at Harvard University.

He’s an extreme example, obviously, but those late teen years are also a time when many budding scientists, writers, musicians and scholars of all types discover their passion, perhaps a calling.

As a parent, I now have a deeper appreciation for the challenge of education and the various approaches – none of which, I’m sure, is magical.

Einstein, I think, would not approve of “teaching to the test,” but to some the idea of training the mind to think is sort of an airy-fairy notion.

Yet most people, I suspect, recall taking classes that made the synapses fire in new ways, and teachers who had a knack for inspiring and challenging students to think independently and apply sound logic.

“Logic,” incidentally, was the title of my favorite course in high school, presided over by the eccentric Mr. Guggenheim, who thought it was logical to wear black slacks every day along with either white or black turtlenecks.

From Mr. Guggenheim I learned about syllogisms, “the undistributed middle,” and a long list of common fallacies.

Perhaps Mr. Guggenheim hoped we could figure out the exception to this common syllogism:

“If A is greater than B, and B is greater than C, then A is greater than C.”

Well, of course.



A child’s game demolishes this assertion:


On a recent trip to Seoul, I got a glimpse of the vaunted South Korean system, which ranks alongside Finland, Singapore and Japan among the world’s leaders in academic performance.

The Korean culture is driven, demanding, competitive.

After a typical school day, thousands of Korean students attend private academies from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Too much?


Korean students also endure anxiety taking exams that weigh heavily on college admissions and their perceived destiny.

Such pressures are thought to be one reason why South Korea has the world’s highest suicide rate.

For 30 years, America has failed at efforts to improve its public education system.

Radical change is needed – and none of it is easy.

Việt Nam faces a different set of problems.

The good news, perhaps, is that some improvements seem obvious.




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