Germans are wringing their hands again about the latest PISA study. Don’t worry, Germany –American schoolchildren fared even worse! Kevin Drum asks a pertinent question: do PISA results actually measure anything important to success in the real world? Referring to a previous scare about the terrible state of American schools in the 1970s, Drum notes:
And yet, despite this vast expanse of mid-70s suckitude, my generation has apparently been helping to power the United States to ever greater international dominance ever since. Ditto for Gen X and Gen Y [the current generations]. Somehow, having teenagers who produce mediocre secondary school achievement scores compared to their counterparts in Europe and Asia doesn’t seem to have much real-world effect on actual global success.
I dunno. It reminds me of a conversation I had with a German friend of mine about a decade ago. We were chatting about secondary education in our two countries, and long story short, German kids are better educated than American kids. At least, it sure seemed that way. But if that’s the case, I asked, why does the American economy continue to do so well? Shouldn’t Germany be kicking our ass? He shrugged and then told me a story about how rigid the German school system was and how long his brother had had to fight to get a decent (i.e., non-vocational) education.
I think Drum, with species-typical American nonchalance and pragmatism, has a point here. I have met plenty of young Germans who are imposingly well-educated — they can read Latin and sometimes even Greek, have excellent handwriting, an astounding grasp of European and world history, and often can play a musical instrument pretty well to boot. They learned to do all of this in their Gymnasium. They’re well-rounded and well-mannered.
But I’m also surprised at what they don’t know. I often have to explain to them what an ".mp3" or a "blog" or a "spam filter" is. Until about 2006, I could not take it for granted that all the students in a university classroom would actually know what Google is. They also frequently know very little about macroeconomics; for instance, they don’t understand why price controls never work, or what a central bank does. My hypothesis is that their education reflects not only the the areas of interest but also the areas of disinterest of middle-aged German teachers — whether right-wing (who cares about all these newfangled technologies softening the brains of our youths? Let them translate Horace!) or left-wing (who cares about the neoliberal pseudo-science ideology of "macroeconomics"? Let them write a paper about the Scholl siblings!).
Now, far — very far — be it from me to criticize a broad humanistic education. But for all of its undoubted spiritual potential, it builds very few of the skills necessary for competition in the 21st century (except for intercultural competence, in which Germans are generally light-years ahead of Americans). My point is also not that Germany is doomed — I see no reason why the German economy won’t continue to putter along at its usual modest, but consistent rate of growth over the next few decades.
However, I think PISA results tell us almost nothing about a country’s future prospects. The innovations of the future that will matter economically will come from young people who have terrible handwriting, think Mozart is a kind of candy, communicate in grunts, don’t know the difference between a species and a genus, spend most of their free time listening to Korn and SIDO on their .mp3 players — and discover a new algorithm that lets you store 500 movies on your mobile telephone, and watch them in 3-D surround sound on special goggles.