My twelfth-grade son is taking his SATs this week. And though years of being a bookworm have netted him an impressive vocabulary, he still kvetched when he heard that the vocabulary section of the SATs, along with the essay and math sections, will be slashed in the years after he takes them.
Less than two months ago the College Board announced its updating of the SATs by removing old vocabulary words, making math easier, ending penalties for guessing and discarding the mandatory essay. In the new SAT vernacular, this is a further “dumbing down” of already diminished requirements for American students at a time when they continue to fall precipitously in worldwide rankings.
And despite research that points to slightly higher percentages of black and Hispanic students over white students using test prep, College Board officials continue to claim that financially better-off students have an edge. In an effort to emphasize “fairness,” reduce “inequality” and “provide opportunity,”, they will partner with an online education site to help students prepare for the tests.
How ironic that this announcement was soon followed by the Supreme Court ruling that upheld a Michigan constitutional amendment banning affirmative action in admissions to the state’s public universities. By legalizing states’ abilities to protect the rights of all student applicants based on merit rather than race, the court’s decision points to the need to strengthen rather than weaken the role of achievement in achievement tests.
Opponents of the ruling highlight the significant drop in enrollment of black and Hispanic students in the most selective colleges and universities in Michigan and other states like Florida and California that forbid affirmative action in higher education. What they don’t mention is the inverse increase in enrollment of deserving students who work hard and earn the right to be accepted.
These same opponents also overlook the proven insult and injury to minority students who rely on affirmative action and its twin partner of lowering educational expectations. The harm that results in rewarding failure and punishing success only serves to further compromise these students’ ability to perform.
It is not the role of schools or government to make people feel good about themselves. Self-esteem comes with productivity, not in the absence of it. And if rectifying the ills of affirmative action results in a decrease in blacks and Hispanics in colleges at a time when it is vital for our country to compete in a global marketplace, so be it.
No amount of artificial enhancements can take the place of a strong work ethic applied to learning. And that ethic is learned at home, irrespective of a family’s financial standing. Which is why those cultures imbued with a strong emphasis on education are the same ones succeeding today, in America and elsewhere.
As was recently reported, a single father from the Sichuan Province in China walks nine miles every day with his disabled 12-year-old strapped to his back so the boy can get an education. He estimates he’s walked 1,600 miles since he started taking his son to school because, though the boy is physically disabled, “there is nothing wrong with his mind.” Thanks to his father’s devotion, Xiao Qiang has climbed to the top of his class.
There are many similarities in the emphasis on education found in the Asian and Jewish communities. Indeed, it’s hard not to connect the dots between the People of the Book and their long history of success, despite the many challenges they’ve faced.
Long before there were laws against discrimination or financial safety nets, American Jews rose to the top academically and economically. The success stories of immigrant Jewish Americans in the early half of the past century and once-penniless Holocaust survivors in the second half attest to their determination to succeed despite obvious hardships.
Jews across the ocean have been similarly successful. In a report released in 2012 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Israel – a tiny country little more than a half-century old, besieged by constant wars and the constant threat of war – was ranked the second most educated country in the world.
This is because millennia of emphasis on Talmud Torah above all have ingrained in the Jewish psyche the necessity of intellectual pursuit. Over the years, whether or not Jews have strayed from their commitment to the principals of the Torah, the value of learning itself was retained.
All observant Jews know they are obligated to study Torah. And while Judaism stresses study over all else, there are no short cuts or entitlements to succeed at it. The only limitations set on this pursuit are restrictions specific to each individual.
Everyone has the ability to maximize his own potential and skills in learning through study and hard work. The Torah does not discriminate. Even converts who have mastered Jewish teachings have become great and revered Talmudic scholars.
Progressives who push the opposite of these Judaic principals in an effort to level the academic playing field have only made the situation worse. Government policies aimed at lowering standards in American education to artificially elevate some in our society have only lowered our international academic standing worldwide.
Until such time as the study and work ethic becomes ingrained in communities that are floundering, there will be no change of the kind progressives envision. And no amount of outside advantages provided to those communities will succeed as long as those ethics are not internalized. As Judaism has shown, success ultimately lies not in simply being people of the Book but in being people who live by the book.