Jonathan Zimmerman: Americans Think They're Too Smart to Work Hard

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at New York University. He is the author, most recently, of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.”]

Are you smart? I mean, really smart? Like, so smart that you don’t really have to work?

Then you’re kidding yourself. And your belief in your own intelligence is holding you back.

That’s the real story behind the latest piece of bad news in American education, which continues to stack up poorly next to other nations. On a standardized test administered to 15-year-olds in over 60 countries, the US came in 17th in reading, 23rd in science, and 31st in math....

Why? Politicians and pundits fingered the usual suspects: our schools. Whereas Asian countries demand rigor and hard work from their students, the theory goes, our own schools have gone soft. Witness the larger number of school days in most Asian countries, the stricter academic requirements, the greater volume of homework, and so on.

There’s something to that. Asian students do work harder, by every measure we can find. But there’s more to it than that. Put simply, Asians believe that hard work is the prime determinant of their success. By contrast, Americans and other Westerners typically ascribe academic performance to innate ability....

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