Response to the NYT Article “Americans Think We Have the World’s Best Colleges. We Don’t.”

I read an article in the New York Times today that annoyed me. It’s another one of those articles along the lines of how bad American students are compared to the rest of the world. But this one was focused on how bad American universities are.

Basically the author claims that Americans believe their universities are the best, but that recent studies/statistics/international tests (PISA and Piaac in particular) show that American college students are way below their international counterparts, particularly in regards to their ability to do math as compared to students in other countries.

These articles pop up all the time, and they often bring up the fact that American students are bad at math. And it can’t be denied, when you compare American students to their counterparts in Japan and China, American students ARE worse at math. But does that mean the whole system is worse?

I taught in China for three years and I am currently teaching in Japan. I have mainly taught students in the upper echelon, the students who are college bound, many of them hoping to go to college abroad. They are the cream of the crop, really. And some less creamy ones mixed in. I feel like I have some awareness of the caliber of student here in Japan and also in China, especially the elite students.

They are amazing at math, but that is because they are expected to be working at a much higher level of math at a younger age. Math is a priority. Students who struggle in math face extreme pressure to improve their performance in math. Even the ones who struggle and must take the lower math are still performing at a higher level than most American students.

This long-term, hardcore, intense study of math from a young age is why they are better at math! But I don’t think it means that American colleges are not as great as many colleges in other countries.

The fact is, American colleges ARE rigorous. I attended University of Massachusetts, Amherst for my general ed classes – my first two years. I found the professors to be challenging, inspiring, and critical (in the best way possible). I learned so much. In addition to that, I had the opportunity to work for a cooperative business on-campus, which was basically a student-run business that was overseen in the same way that an on-campus club or organization would be. We were overseen by the UMASS organization of cooperative businesses, along with about six or seven other co-op businesses. It was such an invaluable experience – I worked with about 10 other students to organize from top to bottom the running of a small sub-sandwich shop in one of the dorms. I learned how to run a small business, do inventory, purchasing, planning, publicity. And I made friendships that were so meaningful because we were participating in this challenging venture together, and we had to figure out how to run it AND agree about how we would run it. It was exhausting and fun and one of the best learning experiences of my life.

American universities offer these types of extra curricular activities to students; I believe that these types of activities beyond the classroom are so important, so stimulating, and so valuable! Not just to student learning, but also to their social development. The array of activities and opportunities on campus make the experience of attending an American university really unique.

I ended up transferring (a long story for another day) to UC Berkeley and finishing my undergraduate degree in linguistics at that top university. I won’t try to convince you that UC Berkeley is one of the best schools in the world – it is, and everyone knows it. But I do feel like I have some perspective because I went to a lower-tier public university (not lower-tier, really, just lower-tier when compared with Berkeley) for my first two years, and I was challenged and enthralled by my academic experiences in both places.

However, I think what really sets the American universities apart is the access to resources. To go to school at a large public university and have access to an incredible library, like the one at UMass Amherst or at UC Berkeley. That in itself is a gift to any learner. If you go to libraries at Japanese universities or Chinese universities, I guarantee you that they just don’t compare.

And being in proximity to great minds who are at the center of groundbreaking research studies….. my professors at both schools discussed their research on a regular basis in lectures. Some of that spirit for inquiry just rubs off on you when you are surrounded by it. You can’t help but be inspired to think, to ask questions, to debate with your peers, to practice being a thinker like those professors in front of you.

I loved my college experience in America. I believe that having the opportunity to take two years of general education courses allows students to become more well-rounded and more sure of what it is they want to focus on. Being a specialist is important, but that’s what grad school is for. American universities at the undergraduate level produce well-rounded thinkers…. at least, that’s what they try to do. Some responsibility also falls to the student to take advantage of the opportunities they have before them.

Everyone knows these studies which compare different countries and try to figure out which students are the best are just bunk. It’s impossible to get a fair measurement because so many aspects come into play. But just based on my own experience living and working abroad for many years, having the experience of working closely with many Asian students, seeing the style of Japanese and Chinese education in action…. I have to say that there are talented students everywhere. But if I were to choose where to go to college, if choosing between Asia and the US… I would choose to return to university in America in a heartbeat. American education is expensive, but the learning opportunities are incredible.


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