Girls Just Want to Go to School
Nick Kristof also highlights some hard truths in this NYT op ed today:
You appreciate the challenges that America faces in global competitiveness when you learn that Phung is so obsessed with schoolwork that she sets her alarm for 3 a.m. each day.
…Phung wakes her brother and sister, and then after breakfast they all trundle off to school. For Phung, that means a 90-minute bicycle ride each way. She arrives at school 20 minutes early to be sure she's not late.
…Phung yearns to attend university and become an accountant. It's an almost impossible dream for a village girl, but across East Asia the poor often compensate for lack of money with a dazzling work ethic and gritty faith that education can change destinies. The obsession with schooling is a legacy of Confucianism — a 2,500-year-old tradition of respect for teachers, scholarship and meritocratic exams. That's one reason Confucian countries like China, South Korea and Vietnam are among the world's star performers in the war on poverty.
…I wish we Americans could absorb a dollop of Phung's reverence for education. The United States, once the world leader in high school and college attendance, has lagged in both since the 1970s. Of 27 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development for which we have data, the United States now ranks 23rd in high school graduation rates.
Granted, Asian schools don't nurture creativity, and Vietnamese girls are sometimes treated as second-class citizens who must drop out of school to help at home. But education is generally a top priority in East Asia, for everyone from presidents to peasants.
Teachers in America's troubled schools complain to me that parents rarely show up for meetings. In contrast, Phung's father takes a day off work and spends a day's wages for transportation to attend parent-teacher conferences.
"If I don't work, I lose a little bit of money," he said. "But if my kids miss out on school, they lose their life hopes. I want to know how they're doing in school."
"I tell my children that we don't own land that I can leave them when they grow up," he added. "So the only thing I can give them is an education."
For all the differences between Vietnam and America, here's a common truth: The best way to sustain a nation's competitiveness is to build human capital. I wish we Americans, especially our politicians, could learn from Phung that our long-term strength will depend less on our aircraft carriers than on the robustness of our kindergartens, less on financing spy satellites than on financing Pell grants.
November 9, 2011