Serial learners or party-goers?

4th July 2008 at 01:00
San Francisco, in spite of its laid-back image, is one of the best places to observe the world's new generation of "super-pupils"
San Francisco, in spite of its laid-back image, is one of the best places to observe the world's new generation of "super-pupils". These are the ultra-prepared, high-achieving, straight-A scholars who skip lunch and cut back on sleep in order to take extra classes, gain extra hours of study and win places at the most prestigious universities.

I meet Flora, who has a full schedule and a professional resume but is not, as far as I can see, in any way disconnected. Flora insists that she doesn't suffer from stress, because of her meticulous planning and commitment to learning. "The more you do at school," she says, "the easier it becomes. The real strugglers and worriers are the ones who don't do enough."

But some Californian schools are concerned by over-eager learners showing unhealthy signs of stress and have responded to overcrowded timetables by introducing mandatory lunchbreaks and lesson-free periods. The problem is that the American high school system allows serial learners like Flora to take optional courses to gain an advantage in the intense learning competition for elite university places.

For other pupils, however, the most pressing problems are concerned with what to wear at the senior high school prom. Preparations for the prom start early and there is considerable competition to have the best outfit, limousine and date. This conspicuous, and distasteful, consumption now manifests itself in the $1,000 prom bill for parents.

Spring break is another of America's annual educational rituals which involves the nation's students heading south for some sun, rest and all the ghastly things students like to do. I couldn't begin to describe the sort of activities involved in spring break, not in this august journal with such refined readers, but I do eye a poster on the wall of the coffee shop, where I am writing this diary, touting spring breaks in Southern California which feature a daily, and I must now commit to French, "delicieux derriere" competition. Primness, and a shortage of dollars, prevents me from investigating further.

In the interests of balanced and determined reporting, I decide to seek out something more positive about American education, so I ask James, a friendly Californian slouched in the coffee shop's softest sofa, if he could tell me something good about American schools. After a long period of consideration, he said that his kid sister's grade school class had set up a "pretty cool" website which had raised money to buy a well for a village in Africa.

Maybe this happens in Scotland, as it seems an effective way for young people to study an overseas problem, develop IT skills and show concern for their disadvantaged fellow beings.

The coffee shop has a pile of magazines which includes a research journal from a top university. An interesting piece states, conclusively, that education helps people to live longer. Lack of space forces me to skip the details, convincing though they are, to the somewhat controversial conclusion that if governments want to improve a nation's health, they gain more by investing in education than in health care.

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