Wednesday, July 28, 2004

How Some Kids Spend their Free Time

Reading this entry on the Volokh Conspiracy by Tyler Cowen, it's amazing that kids like Cedric Jennings and Cowen's daughter actually live in the same country: this kid is better educated at 14 than Jennings was as a Brown freshman!

Jacob writes today about his experience with the "CTY" programs of Johns Hopkins. Basically pre-college kids take college-like classes over the summer. I just did a parent-teacher interview there (as the parent). Yana, who is fourteen, took a class on the philosophy of mind. She just started another class on the French and Russian Revolutions. This is her third year there, she calls herself a CTY addict. The year before she did Latin. This time we had her for two days between sessions. I heard about modal logic, Newcomb's Paradox, and mind-body reductionism. Yana now knows why she believes in free will, and why she doesn't want to be an undergraduate philosophy major. She loves CTY, and so do we.
Cowen is an economics professor, and as such hardly living from hand to mouth, but it's simply disingenuous to say that the gap between his child and those of the inner city would be closed simply by paying teachers any amount of money, or pumping any number of extra billion dollars into the public school system.

Coming from a professional household myself (father and several uncles doctors, grandfather a judge, plenty of academics all round, everyone went to university as a matter of course), I know for a fact that there are things one picks up in such a milieu that have nothing to do with anything on an official school curriculum; although I spent most of my early teens in Nigeria in circumstances a lot worse materially speaking than most Westerners would believe possible, like the young Miss Cowen, I too was familiar with much of Western philosophy by the age of 14 (and with an ungodly amount of material about human anatomy and endocrinology at 11, thanks to my father's textbooks), and intense discussions about economic policy and international affairs were routine amongst uncles, aunts and friends of the family. No one needed to teach me the meaning of so-called "SAT" words like "hyperinflationary", "denouement", "abnegation", "elocution", "cacophony" and so forth, as they were simply things one absorbed by osmosis, being around those who routinely used just such words. It certainly helped to attend good schools in which high academic performance was admired rather than condemned, but the primary benefit of such institutions was never in the quality of the facilities they provided - extremely rudimentary by American standards - but in making sure that students who enjoyed or at least respected learning were surrounded mostly by students who shared the same values.

With all of the above in mind, to say that cultural capital doesn't matter, or that any conceivable government program can be expected to make up most of the difference, is simply nonsense; what are people expecting governments to do, go into upper-middle class households and arrest parents who engage their children in discussions of phenomenology? Until the awful day when the scenario outlined by Harrison Bergeron becomes more than a work of fiction, the primary onus for making a better future for themselves is going to lie primarily with individual students and their parents. Even so, the least we can do for them is avoid making the obstacles they face even more formidable than they already are by keeping them trapped in human warehouses that are "schools" in name only, and amongst peers who are "students" in name only.