In academia, Americans are a small minority of your colleagues.  And so very frequently the conversation turns to the subject of American public schools.  Europeans, Asians, even Canadians are deeply suspicious about the quality of education in American public schools.  All but a few of them put their kids in private schools.

As for the Americans, while they also favor private schools more than the typical non-academic family, still a majority of them happily enroll their kids in public schools.

And the conversation about schools is remarkable because there is general agreement about the facts but polarized opinions about their consequences.  American public schools are less rigorous, less challenging, and less disciplined; they are more focused on socialization, “creativity” and self-esteem.  For the Europeans these are the weaknesses and for Americans these are the strengths.  (Of course I am exaggerating the polarization but not by a lot.)

Having been involved in countless variations of this debate I have finally figured out why its so entrenched:  both sides are right.

Academics are a highly selected set of people.  Many accidents have to happen to produce someone with the qualities and preferences leading them here.  The type of education you had must have matched perfectly the type of person you are for all of that to come together.  And since people come in different types, they require different styles of education to succeed.

This explains a lot when you look backwards through that process.  An American who survived the American public school system and wound up in academia is almost surely someone for whom that system works well.  And a European who succeeded did so precisely because he didn’t go to schools like that.  This is not saying that Europeans wouldn’t benefit from wishy-washy American schools, just that all of the Eurpoeans who would have didn’t get that and so they didn’t turn out as successful as the Europeans whose schools matched their type.

And so European parents look at American schools and rightly see that those schools would have been a disaster for them.  They extrapolate to their kids and conclude, rightly or wrongly, that their kids should avoid American public schools.    American parents, just as rightly, see the opposite.

(Trivia:  I am a product of public schools.  Here are some of my better-known classmates.  See if you can guess which one I got in a fight with in junior high.)

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