Archive for September 15, 2013

Smartest Kids in the World

September 15, 2013 Leave a comment


Four days ago I announced a policy change at Ron’s View, promising shorter and less-thought-out posts so that I could return to old posting volumes. Four posts followed that evening, but nothing since. Maybe it’s time to work through my backlog of drafts and get some of them out, finished or not.

For example, when we were on Nantucket a few weeks ago, I assembled some pieces about a book I had started reading, intending to write in more detail once finished. But that has yet to happen. Let me salvage something from those pieces.

During our Nantucket stay, I read Lee Child’s new Jack Reacher thriller Never Go Back, to which I had devoted three posts (last one here). The day I finished it, I saw a reference to a book that had received a lot of attention when it came out a few weeks earlier, Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. I downloaded the free Kindle sample that night, read it, then downloaded the full book the next morning.

Regarding the attention the book received, in the NYT alone there was both a Charles Blow column and a Sunday review by Annie Murphy Paul.

From the review:

“If you want the American dream, go to Finland.” These blunt words from a British politician, quoted by Amanda Ripley in “The Smartest Kids in the World,” may lead readers to imagine that her book belongs to a very particular and popular genre. We love to read about how other cultures do it better (stay slim, have sex, raise children). In this case, Ripley is offering to show how other nations educate students so much more effectively than we do, and her opening pages hold out a promising suggestion of masochistic satisfaction. “American educators described Finland as a silky paradise,” she writes, “a place where all the teachers were admired and all the children beloved.”


But Ripley … has a more challenging, and more interesting, project in mind. Yes, she travels to Finland to observe the “Nordic robots” who achieve such remarkably high scores on international tests — and to South Korea and Poland, two other nations where students handily surpass Americans’ mediocre performance. In the best tradition of travel writing, however, she gets well beneath the glossy surfaces of these foreign cultures, and manages to make our own culture look newly strange.

In reporting her book, Ripley made the canny choice to enlist “field agents” who could penetrate other countries’ schools far more fully than she: three American students, each studying abroad for a year. Kim, a restless 15-year-old from rural Oklahoma, heads off to Finland, a place she had only read about, “a snow-castle country with white nights and strong coffee.” Instead, what she finds is a trudge through the cold dark, to a dingy school with desks in rows and an old-fashioned chalkboard — not an iPad or interactive whiteboard in sight. What Kim’s school in the small town of Pietarsaari does have is bright, talented teachers who are well trained and love their jobs.

It’s the review’s conclusion that really got my attention.

Ripley succeeds in making our own culture and our own choices seem alien — quite a feat for an institution as familiar and fiercely defended as high school. The question is whether the startling perspective provided by this masterly book can also generate the will to make changes. For all our griping about American education, Ripley notes, we’ve got the schools we want.

Still, I forgot about the book until that day on Nantucket. It’s short. After downloading it, I read a ways into it while we sat by the ocean, read another chunk in the afternoon by the bay, then finished it the next day.

Here is the blurb from the book’s website:

In a handful of nations, virtually all children are learning to make complex arguments and solve problems they’ve never seen before. They are learning to think, in other words, and to thrive in the modern economy. What is it like to be a child in these new education superpowers?

In a global quest to find answers for our own children, author and Time Magazine journalist Amanda Ripley follows three Americans embedded in these countries for one year. Kim, 15, raises $10,000 so she can move from Oklahoma to Finland; Eric, 18, exchanges a high-achieving Minnesota suburb for a booming city in South Korea; and Tom, 17, leaves a historic Pennsylvania village for a gritty city in Poland.

Their stories, along with groundbreaking research into learning in other cultures, reveal a pattern of startling transformation: none of these countries had many “smart” kids a few decades ago. They had changed. Teaching had become more rigorous; parents had focused on things that mattered; and children had bought into the promise of education.

And there’s also a video:

By far the most enjoyable passages are those in which we follow the three American students in Finland, South Korea, and Poland. Back when I read the book and started this post, I anticipated elaborating on this. No point now. The students are mostly forgotten.

I also anticipated quoting some passages about math education. Not that I claim any special expertise on this, despite years of teaching mathematics. I know a few things about math, maybe even a few things about teaching, but not much about how K-12 math education is best done. I have ideas, yes, but haven’t studied the research or the data, so I don’t presume that my ideas have any special merit. Nonetheless, there were some fascinating bits.

Here’s one, not from the main text, but from an appendix on “how to spot a world-class education.”

In 2011, I took a tour of a Washington, D.C., private school that was hard to get into and cost about $30,000 a year. … strange things happened on this visit. When the head of the school talked, nothing she said made sense to me. There was a lot of jargon about the curriculum and vague promises of wondrous field trips and holistic projects. All the visiting parents nodded; I got the sense that no one wanted to say anything off key that might hurt a child’s admission chances.

Then a parent with three children at the school took us for a tour. We saw gleaming floors, bright, colorful walls, beautiful, framed art projects, and other seductive tokens. Finally, one visiting father asked a good question.

“Every school has its weaknesses. What is this school’s weakness?”

“You know, I’d have to say the math program is weak.”

I was speechless. Imagine visiting a tony private hospital that only admitted healthy patients who could afford its services, and finding out the surgery practice was weak. What did it mean if the math program was weak at a school that made small children take I.Q. tests before they were even accepted. That particular parent wrote a check each year for about $90,000 to this school to cover the tuition for her three children. Wouldn’t she demand decent math classes in exchange?

But no one said anything. Maybe all the parents were stunned as I was. Then the tour guide parent added one more thing.

“Oh, and I wish the football program was stronger.”

Suddenly, the parents perked up.

“Really, what do you mean? Is there not a football team? What age does it start?”

I wandered out into the parking lot, mystified. Perhaps this explained why our most affluent kids scored eighteenth in math compared to affluent kids worldwide: Even wealthy American parents didn’t care about math as much as football.

I would say more, but I have to go catch some highlights from tonight’s 49ers football game.

Categories: Books, Education

Fuller View and Hometown Boy

September 15, 2013 Leave a comment


We attended an opening event at the Seattle Asian Art Museum Wednesday night for two current exhibitions: A Fuller View of China, Japan and Korea, and Hometown Boy. Having flown home Monday night from New York, we were still a bit on east coast time, so it took some willpower to defer dinner and get over to Volunteer Park, but we were glad we did.

The Fuller exhibition honors Richard Fuller, who founded the Seattle Art Museum.

Dr. Richard E. Fuller and his mother, Margaret MacTavish Fuller, traveled extensively collecting Japanese and Chinese art in the early 1900s. In 1931 they gave the City of Seattle $250,000 to construct and maintain the Seattle Art Museum. Dr. Fuller, who directed SAM for its first 40 years, donated much of his own collection and acquired important works by contemporary Northwest artists such as Mark Tobey, Morris Graves and Kenneth Callahan.

In 1931, Dr. Richard Fuller commissioned architect Carl F. Gould to design the art deco building that is now the Seattle Asian Art Museum. It opened in Seattle’s Volunteer Park in 1933.

Xiaojin Wu, Associate Curator for Japanese and Korean Art, gives this description of the exhibition:

Dr. Richard Fuller’s 40 years as the museum’s founding director are the bedrock of its history, and his passion for art resonates with collectors of his time and beyond. In commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, this installation shows how Dr. Fuller, his family and friends, and several more recent Seattle collectors, built SAM’s celebrated Asian art collections. Featuring some of SAM’s best-loved works such as the Poem Scroll with Deer, the installation showcases the incredible quality and diversity that make SAM’s Asian art collection one of the finest in the country. The selected Chinese paintings and calligraphy also celebrate the launch of an innovative online scholarly catalogue, a multi-year project sponsored by the J. Paul Getty Foundation.

Hometown Boy features the work of Liu Xiaodong. Josh You, the former SAM curator of Chinese Art (who left for Hong Kong two months ago) explains:

Now one of China’s most renowned contemporary artists, Liu Xiaodong grew up in a small industrial town in China before moving to Beijing at age 17 to study art. Three decades passed before he decided to head home to paint this celebrated series Hometown Boy. An internationally acclaimed artist who has lived through Beijing’s phenomenal growth in the past few decades, the 50-year-old Liu is baffled by the familiar: childhood friends who continue to struggle for a living, his parents’ unchanged home, and undeveloped paddy fields. The hometown boy has become an outsider, who masterfully captures the details of daily life in a typical Chinese town neglected by the media but teeming with life.

We arrived at the opening just as people were being ushered out of the wine reception to the basement auditorium for the program. It began as usual with welcoming remarks from the board president and then from Kim Rorschach, the museum director. We learned that Kim knew Liu Xiaodong’s work well, having featured it in a show at her previous home, Duke’s Nasher Museum of Art. And Liu Xiaodong was with us in person, as was former curator Josh Yiu.

Josh took the stage next to talk about Liu, then brought Liu up for an interview and an audience question and answer session. This worked better in principle than practice. Josh began with a question that lasted at least a minute. We all shifted our attention to Liu for his reply, only to realize that Josh was now repeating the question in Chinese. Liu answered, Josh replied (in Chinese), and their conversation went on a while before Josh translated some of it for us. The Q&A portion worked a little better, and Liu even answered a question or two without translation, though only briefly before switching to Chinese.

Next Xiaojin Wu came up to give us some background on the Fullers and the Fuller exhibition. The program closed with an amusing video clip of the late Bagley Wright giving remembrances a few decades back of Fuller, his taste in collecting, and his criticism of Wright’s own collecting choices.

It was now past 7:30 and we were hungry. There’s always a choice after the program: eat or art. We voted eat. And there’s usually a modest buffet, enough to take away our hunger. As we came up the stairs, we saw people strolling around with small Chinese food takeout cartons in hand, but couldn’t find a buffet table laid out with cartons or other food. We soon realized that the food was being passed by servers. And when another server appeared some five minutes later with a tray of cartons, a polite mob surrounded her. Gail squeezed in for the last box. Fried rice, which we split. No point standing there waiting for more. We headed into the Fuller exhibition.

This would be a good place to show you pictures of some of the objects, but I’m not finding much at the website. Nothing from the exhibition itself. There’s this, from the permanent collection highlights:


A little small. I know. This is one of the museum’s most well known works, a pair of six panel Japanese screens in ink and gold on paper from the 17th century. And you can see it represented in the photo at the top.

We didn’t spend much time in the exhibition, given that it was very late for us and we were going to have to stop on the way home for more food. We spent more time seeing Hometown Boy, which occupies a single room. Here’s the one picture from the exhibition website, Liu Xiaodong’s self portrait from 2010.


I can’t show you more. If you’re around, you should see the paintings for yourself. Or, if you’re in New York, see his latest paintings at the Mary Boone Gallery, which is showing In Between Israel and Palestine.

We headed out with plans to return for a closer look when we were less tired. And with more immediate plans to eat fried rice. I called Teriyaki Bowl for a takeout order and we picked it up on the way home. Not as good as what SAAM was offering (catered by their in-house restaurant, Taste). But it hit the spot.

Categories: Art, Museums

Nantucket Notes

September 15, 2013 Leave a comment


Our annual stay in Nantucket came to an end a week ago, and six weeks ago we flew back from New York to Seattle. In past years, I always had a lot to say about our time in Nantucket. This year, not so much. But I think that’s more a function of the general slowdown of Ron’s View this summer than the lack of items to write about.

Early in our Nantucket week, I had written most of a post on our first dinner there, at Topper’s. Before I could finish it, we had eaten another dinner out, and then another, and another. Suddenly I had half a dozen posts to write about Nantucket restaurants. I seem to have given up. Which is too bad, because I really wanted to say a few words about our dinners at Ventuno and Company of the Cauldron, our two favorite restaurants on the island.

Then again, I don’t have much new to say about either of them. Ventuno opened two summers ago in the location of our previous favorite restaurant, 21 Federal. I wrote about it at the time, then again last year. The first post made reference to our sitting not far from John and Teresa Kerry. They didn’t make it this year. Or we didn’t see them anyway. I’m sure he was occupied with Syria. We did sit at the table they had occupied, and had a fabulous meal.

Well, I may as well say more. Here’s a link to the menu. To start, we shared the polpette (meatballs) and the fritelle de ceci (chickpea fries). Then we split an order of pasta: the strozzapretti with chicken sausage, broccoli rabe, and pecorino. Though I don’t think we had broccoli rabe, online menu notwithstanding. It was some other green. Gail followed with the duck breast, while I had the Nantucket fluke, but again not as described on the menu. It was placed on top of the most delightful mix of beans and vegetables. For dessert, the bomboloncini: bittersweet chocolate doughnuts, a small scoop of ice cream, and chocolate sauce.

As for Company of the Cauldron, each night they serve a fixed four-course meal at a fixed time in a gorgeous setting on the lower level of an old building, lit mostly by candlelight. Menus are listed online each week, but our week is long gone, and I’m going to have a hard time remembering what we had. Bread and hummus await. Then the first course. Gail, you’ll have to remind me in the comments section. Then a salad with goat cheese. Then halibut. And then an apple and crust dessert of some sort. A perfect meal, despite my inability to remember or describe it.

Not that our meal at The Pearl the next night suffered much by comparison. We shared golden pork and shrimp potstickers and Vietnamese lettuce wraps. Then we had the Lemongrass & Cilantro BBQ Beef with a side order of fried green tomatoes.

That was Saturday, eight days ago. Earlier in the day, we took our not-quite-annual bike ride from Wauwinet to Sconset, seven miles to the southeast. Gail’s bicycle chain came off two miles into the ride and I didn’t seem to know quite how to get it back on. Fortunately, Joel was just a phone call away. With the time zone difference, we called him a little early, but he was kind enough to answer the phone, and able to tell me what to do. We were thus fortunate to continue our ride.

Sconset is such a lovely village to wander in, with its great beach and superb views out over the ocean, not to mention the unbelievable homes that line Ocean Avenue. After a light lunch at the Sconset Cafe (closed already for the winter, I see at the website), we wandered down Ocean Avenue a ways, coming back to shop at the Sconset Market, check out The Chanticleer (some day we’ll eat there), and go into an art gallery before climbing on our bikes for the ride home.

Maybe I should add some photos.

At the top, a view from the inn where we stay, looking out over the east end of Nantucket Bay, with the ocean just beyond the thin strip of land you see that separates it from the bay.

Here is a shot looking up Main Street in town, away from the harbor.


We always make it a point to stop in at the Nantucket Historical Association‘s Whaling Museum. (We’re members.) We made it our first stop when we got into town this year and took some photos from the rooftop deck. Here’s one, looking out over the entrance to the harbor.


And one more, looking back toward town from Straight Wharf.


Clicking on any of them should yield a higher resolution photo.

Below are two pictures of lower quality that I took in Sconset with my iPhone. The Atlantic from Ocean Avenue:


And part of Sconset’s small commercial area, including the cafe to the right.


Categories: Travel