Thursday, January 10, 2013

Putting the mind’s eye in a book

Today I commuted by bicycle. It was better than on Monday, because on Tuesday we got some wet snow which stuck to the ice on the ground. Then it got colder, so there was packed snow which gave a good grip to the studded tires. It took me 58 minutes to get to work, and 65 minutes back home, which is quite good.

The photographs were taken on Tuesday when I commuted by car.

A colleague sent me a link to a WSJ article about the best (and worst) jobs. The top job was mathematician, and the two lowest-rated (positions 200 and 199) were lumberjack and dairy farmer.

Why this is interesting is that I grew up and a dairy farm, doing also some work as a lumberjack, and - thanks to the Finnish school system - I graduated from university with a degree in applied mathematics. Almost like going from the bottom to the top...

Well, for me this was something I can only wonder at afterwards, a lucky thing indeed, as I wasn't suited for farm (or lumber) work at all, being too easily distracted by thinking my own thoughts, and also physically a bit too clumsy and accident-prone.

I was thinking about the extraordinary goodness of the Finnish (and Nordic) school system recently when reading a posting and the comments at Andreas's blog, about the American Dream. In a comment by Andreas, as a response to Paul who was defending the American Dream, was this: "Educational levels in Scandinavia are consistently higher than in the rest of Europe and I believe in the US as well. Giving education for free and to all did not hinder anybody there."

I think why Finland (and the other Nordic countries) have preferred to have a relatively high level of taxes is the necessity of a small country to survive, and that means that one shouldn't waste any of the intellectual capacity of the nation. And thus there is the principle of education for all, regardless of how rich your parents are.

Of course, getting an education is hard work and needs dedication and talent, but why should education be hereditary, that is, depend on the wealth of your parents, and not on your inherent skills?

I grew up on a small farm - we had ten cows - and it wouldn't have been possible to pay for education in the sense one needs to do it in the American system, as an example. And I wouldn't probably had such an interest in education if I would have needed to pay for it. In the Finnish system I survived by summer jobs and by getting a student loan guaranteed by the state. And thus I got a very good education, as one of the first in our family.

Update: The Ministry of Education and Culture has published a small guide titled Finnish education in a nutshell, available in PDF format, in English, and here is a quote: "One of the basic principles of Finnish education is that all people must have equal access to high-quality education and training. The same opportunities to education should be available to all citizens irrespective of their ethnic origin, age, wealth or where they live."

(Posting title is from the poem To David, About His Education by Howard Nemerov.)


Markus said...

Ah, I read through the lengthy comments - Andreas is certainly fighting bravely.

For us the European perspective on reality is the most normal thing of the world, whilst for at least half of the Americans it's not. From a historic point of view, we Europeans have come quite far in shaking off oppression and developing a society along humanistic principles. And also here we are struggling for the right balance of individual responsibility and care of the society - but I would certainly see this as a quite successful state and process.

And it seems to me, that many U.S. Americans still see mainly those oppression mechanisms when trying to understand European society and our efforts to balance market and social responsibility, seeing in every regulation only the negative effect for the first person, not the positive aspects for the whole society.

What you tell about the Scandinavian education system is - weaker though - certainly part of a European point of view in this sector. And I certainly see it as important to give every person a similar chance to make the best of his or her abilities, regardless of class or status. In the eyes of many Americans we are most probably at least socialists.

Juha Haataja said...

Markus, this European-American discussion can perhaps never succeed, as it seems that the American politics are so messed up that there is no room for rational arguments there. On the other hand, many educated Americans seem to be rather European in their thinking and I wonder how they cope with the sentiment there.

No to say that the European system isn't messed up somewhat, but in a different way.

What I see worrisome is the constant urge to make changes, to put up new initiatives, to focus on new things, never making sure that what we already have is working properly.

There might have been an oppressive class society in existence, but now we are moving towards a disposable society where nothing lasts or works properly.

Markus Spring said...

I like that expression "disposable society". It's probably result of the terms of the elected members and their self-obligation to produce "news" - if you change something, it will make it into TV/newspaper and you improve your chances to get re-elected. Long-term effectivity is usually out of the focus.

Juha Haataja said...

Markus, I checked whether "disposable society" is in fact a term used more widely, and sure enough it is, even though it seems to have a different meaning that I was intending.

Apparently there is discussion about disposable/throw-away society, referring to "planned obsolescence", which is altogether another thing, although related to the endless development activities in all areas of the society.

But perhaps the opposite term, "durable society", is a more worthwhile direction to look into: in the middle of all the changes maybe there are valuable things which would be good to preserve, even for just a while.

Markus Spring said...

Juha, when trying to fit that term in what you were saying, it seemed to me that you had in mind a disposability of society - and this is what I feel is the threat now. That we throw away used things is only one negative behaviour, but what I see as lacking is that common conviction that we need society: That is eroding, and in my eyes the U.S. again is the leader of the pack. The advent of liberalism in Europe (I would hope so much for a decay of this meanwhile completely hollowed out idea) made everybody wish a lean administration, a lean state, and left all thoughts of community to complete disposability. Maybe it's just a sign of wealth, but the consequences are dire. At least for those who don't have.