June 11, 2021

John Warner: A Generation At Risk

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John Warner is the author of Why They Can’t Write. He substacks at Educational Endeavors, where he most recently made some observations about the US participation in the global education race. We’ve been chasing China, but as he notes, in China a whole generation of young people are dropping out of the race to nowhere.

Young people in China see little chance for upward mobility, so rather than continue in a race they don’t think they can win, they’re opting out, and criticizing those who continue to exploit themselves for the benefit of and perpetuation of the system.

At the Chinese elite post-secondary schools similar to our Ivy League, where students work themselves to inhuman lengths, people have started mocking the “involuted” generation, which is capable of nothing other than grinding work, and was recently symbolized by a student riding his bike at night, a laptop propped on the handlebars, typing  away. As reported by Yi-Ling Yiu at the New Yorker, these conditions are driven by the hypercompetitive Chinese tech industry, which recruits these students and then expects even more of them than their colleges did.

Maybe the U.S. can catch up to China on the PISA exam if the tangping phenomenon trickles down to younger grades.

Or maybe it’s a mistake to view education through the lens of global competition. Maybe competition of any kind is the wrong route towards the kind of learning and development we wish for students.

Don’t get me wrong, I want students to succeed at growing their intellectual, social, emotional, and economic capacities, but we now have nearly forty years of evidence that asking students to compete in a culture of scarcity, grooming them to be individual units of GDP, may not be particularly motivating, and is actively damaging to well-being and mental health. The country that has worked this approach even harder than the U.S., and was seemingly winning the competition, now finds itself in the midst of a genuine generational crisis.

If we’re going to view education as a competition, I think we need to think about what kind of contest fits our values and wishes for the young people we work with. I’d much rather see students competing with themselves while cooperating with others as they strive for their self-directed goals.

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