Summertime, When The Learning Leaves Me
Does Downtime Make Us Stupid?

It should come as no surprise to most individuals to learn that our Western school system does not, in all instances, produce the most driven students. Nor should it be revelatory that some Asian cultures have a much higher proportion of youth with a high work ethic, who possess a seemingly innate ability to succeed in areas where Western children struggle, for example, in math.

Long-time New Yorker writer and author Malcolm Gladwell, among others, has called attention to the fact that the basis for this disparity is not, in fact, the product of some genetic abnormality in Asian populations which drives them to great feats of intellectual achievement. It is a product of cultural mores, which Gladwell sees as being rooted in long running traditions in Eastern cultures, such as the cultivation of rice paddies.

Unlike the Western agricultural cycle, the Asiatic cycle incorporates a great deal less rest. Rice paddies are never left fallow, and the amount of maintenance necessary to maximize yields is exponentially higher. Gladwell estimates that the French peasantry may have worked as little as 1,000 hours a year, spending the rest of their hours idle. By contrast, he claims that Chinese rice farmers would spend as many as 3,000 hours maintaining their crops, with plenty of busy work to keep them busy even during off times.

He goes on to show that the difference in Eastern and Western work ethic can be evinced in traditional proverbs. While a Western serf might say, “if god wills it, the fields shall be bountiful,” a Chinese worker would be apt to state, “no man who can rise before dawn 360 days fails to make his family rich.”

The contrast between the two is striking, and parallels can be drawn, in modern times, to the extent of the school year between hither and yon. As Gladwell states, “The average American school year is 180 days long [whereas] the Japanese school year is 243 days long.” The value of this 63-day disparity cannot be understated. The end result of our cultural tradition of lengthy summer vacations and foreshortened workdays is a mass loss of productivity, and a great period of the year spent not learning, but rather forgetting.

Taking this contrast in learning styles and extrapolating it over the entirety of an individual’s primary and secondary school careers, Gladwell shows that those in the Asiatic school systems will have upwards of two years more time at their desks by the time they hit post secondary institutions. In an ever more competitive global market, where nations outsource labour and talent to every niche market and lucrative corner, it truly seems that North American children are being sold short.

However, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) paints an opposing picture, showing that only 58 per cent of Japanese students enroll in post secondary education, as opposed to the 83 per cent of American students who attend universities and colleges. Although the students in Asian countries spend a great deal more time behind their desks, this does not necessarily correlate with being better overall students. What’s more, the UNESCO data shows that only 23 per cent of Chinese students enroll in tertiary institutions. In literacy terms, China and Japan both fall 1.4 per cent behind the United States.

Strikingly, despite the shorter hours, the United States and Canada both spend a greater amount of money on education, and achieve better turnout at universities and colleges. In fact, nations that adhere to the Western school cycle also beat out Asiatic nations in the ratio of those enrolled in post secondary to those that complete their education.

The one area in which validated Gladwell’s argument was mathematical literacy rates, which show Japan and South Korea as the first and second most mathematically inclined nations in the world, while Canada came fifth, and the US 18th.

Gladwell claims that English has an illogical manner of ordering the elements in our words for numerals. When we say, “numbers above 20, we put the decade first, and the unit number second ... for the ‘teens’ though, we ... put the unit number first, and the decade second.” In Mandarin, numbers are expressed in a more consistent manner. “Eleven is ten one, twelve is ten two, twenty four is two ten four, and so on,” he writes.

The regularity of this numeral system allows for more consistent understanding, and ease in grasping mathematical concepts, says Gladwell. In turn, he alleges, this may well give way to an increase in the number of children who enjoy learning math, and greater success rates across the board.

Unfortunately, for one to make such a grandiose claim, there must be supporting data. Gladwell’s suppositions are drawn from a relatively small sample, and do not seem to jive with the statistics provided by reputable international organizations.

While his observations of the inconsistencies in English number representations are both insightful and accurate, it would be imprudent to adopt his more-is-more take on days spent in a desk chair. It may, in fact, be the case that our longer summer vacations do us no harm at all.

//Max MacKay
Staff Writer

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