Unintended Feelings

After watching Hans Rosling's TED talk about Asia's rise, I felt surprisingly and unconsciously afraid, perhaps even competitive. He began his talk with a story that I have heard before; Chinese, Indian, and Korean students are studying harder than American students and playing less. In this story, Asia'a rise is at least partially attributed to the greater work-ethic and ambitions of its youth. As a studious young American, it may be unsurprising that I felt hurt by this assertion. If I traveled to a University in India, would I find the students smarter and better prepared than those at Harvard? Was the U.S. too stupid to compete? I caught myself self-consciously searching for rebuttals of Rosling's claim. After a minute or two of wallowing in my injured Western pride, though, I found myself confronted with what my reaction meant. Emotionally, I did not want to believe Rosling's story, though it was a story that I believed on a rational level. It was even a story which I intellectually hoped was true. Yet some deeper and uncontrollable part of me had been inundated with American pride and fear of the East when I wasn't looking. That part, that unfounded and illogical patriotism, was kicking in.

This seems ironic. I have always preached to others about the necessity of the Western fall, the true value of Asian and African nations that were undercut by Colonialism, and the importance of a more powerful international government. Moreover, most of my experience with the American education system supported Rosling's claim that Western students were not learning as they should. I live in the American upper-crust. Daily I am frustrated by how my peers (and sometimes, I) complain too much and work too little. Even if we have the best of intentions, many of us have the luxury of wasting an education, if we want to. Escaping from poverty is not a relevant motivation for at least 60% of the kids at Andover (those whose families can pay full tuition). The rest of America has little room to rise, with culture and a failed school system conspiring to prevent educational opportunity for most of those who would have greater incentive to work hard.

My first attempt at a logical reaction to the TED talk therefore went something like this: America has to improve economic equality and its education system in order to compete. But even that was an insufficient answer. First, there is no real reason America must be or needs to be the best. I needed to take a few deep breaths and let my misplaced patriotism drop away. I needed to remember that before I was an American, a Washingtonian, a Democrat, or even a woman, I was a citizen of the world. Second, I needed to question the measure of success in the supposed global competition. I needed to define what a successful education meant. Part of me therefore felt that Rosling's story, and others, would all be lacking. A true education had to include the development of character, the room to develop passions, the depth to allow the exploration of spirituality, and the diversity to let kids reconsider. There are many more things, too, that I must be leaving out, but the central point was there. An education can't be quantified and neither can success.

I will be on a plane to India in less than 48 hours. I have two ideas which I intend to bring with me. First, I need to consciously act as a citizen of the world and strive to see how all of us are connected, ultimately, by the same bonds of humanity. I want to try to both recognize my biases and ingrained notions, like those I have here, and also begin to let them drop away. I want to acknowledge my ignorance of India, take in all of its differences and be changed by them, but also find a way to recognize the deep underlying fabric into which all of us fit; borders don't define us, and borders don't really exist. I don't want to forget that. Secondly, I want to figure out what success means for more people from a different view, and keep questioning the purpose of an education. I feel certain that the simplicity of the American dream, or really the Western dream, prevents us from truly flourishing. Perhaps by seeing new definitions of education and success, I can come closer to defining what purpose these two should serve, in general, as well as in my life upon my return.