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PBS Stands and Delivers on ‘Learning in America’

Television is our biggest classroom, education one of our biggest problems.

They merge tonight in the premiere of a PBS series titled “Learning in America,” an ambitious, high-achieving five-parter that arrives at a time when the nation’s system of education seems to be at a turbulent crossroads.

A co-creation of Washington’s WETA-TV and MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, “Learning in America” is PBS’ turn to stand and deliver, demonstrating that it still has strong commitment to television that matters.

With Roger Mudd as host, the opening hour (at 9 p.m. on Channels 28 and 15, and at 10 p.m. on Channel 24) examines the spotty performance of U.S. schools in preparing young people for the work force. Its point of comparison is America’s chief economic rival, Japan, where schools are depicted as rigid, highly successful education factories that tailor students to the high-tech industrial world that awaits them upon graduation.

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In Japan, we hear, “school is a serious place.”

And a television place, we should note in a slight diversion. Japan, perhaps even more than the United States, is a TV-reliant society. Sets are everywhere. Thus, it could be said that if Japan is at once producing avid learners and avid TV watchers, that’s evidence that bulk TV watching does not necessarily fry one’s brains.

“Learning in America” contrasts American High School in Fremont, Calif., where the prevailing attitude is “cool indifference,” with Japan’s Yokohama High School, where students wear undertaker black and view intense study as a straightaway to the good life. As far as curricula and study environment, even Japanese vocational schools--whose students don’t qualify for regular academic schools--are seen as being tougher and more stringent than the typical American high school.

Just as revealing as the journalism of Mudd and reporters John Merrow and Paul Solman are the comments of Japanese and American students themselves. For the most part, their attitudes are strikingly different, and from the American perspective, the picture is rather dismal. This is not “Head of the Class” or even “TV 101.”

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Omitted from tonight’s program is a cultural and historical context for Japanese and American education. It seems only logical to assume, for example, that student views on learning on both sides of the ocean are not shaped in a vacuum, but instead relate to deep-rooted social attitudes that are expressions of a total culture. What are these kids receiving at home that is congruent with their nations’ education systems? What has been passed down to them from other generations?

The emphasis here is largely on technological skills, contrasting Japanese single-mindedness with attitudes in America, where peer pressure on kids traditionally runs against study and in favor of driving the right kind of car. American schools, Mudd says, are “unfocused, open-ended and generally unaccountable.”

Based on what’s shown tonight, however, it’s natural to question whether the hard-line Japanese system doesn’t have its own Achilles heel. You wonder whether it stifles creativity even as it prepares students to thrive in a technocracy, whether it narrows their outlook of the world even as it widens their knowledge of math and science.

American companies would probably take the math and science, no questions asked. The concern of some of them, we see, is with the inability of graduates to function even at lower strata of industry. With the old “industrial mindlessness” of factory jobs disappearing and more and more so-called entry jobs making high-tech demands on employees, some companies are working with schools to help prepare students for post-graduation jobs. Other companies have resorted to in-house education.

When the curriculum improves, will good teaching automatically follow? The answer must wait.

The paradox tonight is that a program on education includes hardly a word from educators; in an hour about learning, nothing is heard from America’s teachers. That comes later, in the fourth segment, when “Learning in America” tackles the need for more and better teachers.

Meanwhile, on to the senior prom.


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