Phyllis Chesler Interviews Carol Gould

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High School Blues
Last uploaded : Thursday 22nd Nov 2001 at 00:09
Contributed by : Carol Gould


News Lastnight I had an experience to match that of Chelsea Clinton, who has been experiencing anti-American rhetoric at Oxford University. The difference between Chelsea and me is that she is a recent arrival; I have been an expatriate since 1975.

Several friends and I went out for a meal, and the conversation turned to my educational background. I was asked what I had thought of my high school chums ?going to Israel? for a semester when we were seventeen. The question baffled me, as none of my friends, or for that matter my siblings? or parents? friends, had ever entertained the slightest notion of a ?gap year? in Israel or anywhere else. My mind flew back to the tensely competitive days of my teens, when we had already experienced the convulsions of the civil rights revolution, the assassinations of Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, President John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy as well as the terrible Chicago Convention riots, the Kent State University killings and the shooting of Alabama Governor George Wallace. Add to this the Vietnam War and it is a wonder anyone of my age bracket was able to complete high school in one emotional piece.

As we finished our meal I tried to explain to my friends that the young women with whom I had attended the fiercely competitive Philadelphia High School for Girls were already focussed on their university careers by the time we had reached tenth grade(year two.)

One of the people at the table, Liz, said ,?Ah, well, the American students who came to Israel had to take an extra course to catch up with the other students!?

When I asked her to explain (I was thinking of all the geniuses who have gone on to glittering academic and professional careers who came out of Girls? High), she said ?Well, in America you take so many subjects in high school that you have proficiency in none!?

With great authority, friend Sheila added, ? Surely you appreciate that no human being is capable of having any useful education if they dabble in scores of subjects in high school! Here we study three subjects and are well ahead of Americans at the same age.?

Having lived abroad ? outside the United States -- for nearly thirty years, I am a seasoned debater when it comes to attacks on my academic qualifications, but this was a new concept, to coin the colloquial expression, 'I couldn?t get my head around.'

1. Girls? High girls are a breed unto ourselves. My contemporaries were privileged to have been taught by the last generation of graduates of the Philadelphia Normal School, of which my late mother was a proud alumna. From Dr Esther Meixner to Helen Johnston to Katherine Skelton, the faculty was a formidable collection of brilliant scholars who demanded a near-punishing discipline and excellence from the student body.

2. Although it is now thirty-four years since high school, I have a dim memory of studying the standard curriculum: History, English, Math and Science with one foreign language. I was also in the renowned Treble Clef Choir directed by the eminent baritone William Murphy, on the editorial staff of the Iris leaflet and annual Milestone publication, as well as having time for orchestra and drama. On graduation, I received the Vera Schenker Prize for Diversity of Artistic Gifts. This was nothing unusual, as Girls? High girls were expected to excel in every department. My sister, also a Girls? High graduate, is an eminent music journalist, a brilliant linguist, a gifted artist, an opera coach and a concert-level pianist. She ?dabbled? in the subjects offered in high school and is the formidable product of that system

3. I have no experience of high school education across America, but my impression is that we are not thrown a salad bowl of courses that amount to a row of beans that destines us to a mire of ignorance and third-world desperation.

There is a certain arrogance amongst non-Americans that has always bemused me. Many years ago a senior British military officer at a dinner party looked straight into my eyes and said, ?It is a great pity you haven?t any culture.? I proceeded to reel off a list : Mark Twain; Ernest Hemingway; Eugene O?Neill; Tennessee Williams; James Michener; Sinclair Lewis etc etc but he chuckled and said , ?Oh, a few names on a list means nothing.?

My list did not even include the huge number of American Jews who have contributed to world culture. At the time of writing, three of the biggest hits in the West End, ?The King and I,? ?My fair Lady? and ?Chicago? are the fruits of the genius of American and Jewish Broadway writers. Were it not for hits like these many jobs would be lost . Indeed, it is an irony that Harriet Walter, one of the (no doubt well paid) stars of ?The Royal Family? by George S Kaufman and Edna Ferber, is a supporter of the Boycott Israel group.

Jokes about George W Bush abound, but I would love to wake up one morning and not hear a British ? educated television presenter referring to a guest being ?sat? on the sofa. How wonderful it would be not to have to spell my name and address three times over the telephone, nor to hear ?You was holding for someone?? when I ring a London colleague?s office. Over the years people in my neighbourhood have asked me to ?write a letter? for them because they are unable to spell or write a complete sentence. Some have even been generous enough to say, ?You?re a clever Yank, and I can?t string two words together; can you write so-and-so for me??

If the British educational system is so vastly superior to the American equivalent, why is Britain not at the forefront of every industry? Why is it not leading the world? Why has London Mayor Ken Livingstone had to lament the fact that IT consultants from abroad are being encouraged to come to Britain to fill gaps? All one has to do is compare the public persona of Rudy Giuliani ? a formidable public prosecutor before his Mayoral career ? and that of some European counterparts, and one wonders if the anger of which American are on the receiving end is not just a product of old-fashioned envy.

Getting back to the friend in the restaurant : Liz and Sheila refused to back down and were still shouting at me at the top of their voices when the manager reminded us he had to close, near midnight! (They had started berating me about my inferior high school education at 10:30PM.) As I walked them to their car I could not help handing back a dose of sarcastic arrogance in return: ?I am sorry to come from a third world country that has achieved nothing in two-hundred years.?

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