Friday, June 30, 2006

Looking in from the outside

It's funny how different a culture looks when you view it from the outside. I had never thought of my culture as being particularly alcoholic until after I moved. I remember someone challenging me in grad school in the USA when I rejected their offer of cocaine - "You're such a hypocrite, you look down your nose at people who do recreational drugs, but you abuse alcohol!" I had never thought of myself as someone who abused alcohol (and certainly never as an alcoholic!) But when I thought about it, I realized that although I didn't drink every day I did in fact binge drink. Many years later I quit drinking altogether for a while in reaction to dating an alcoholic. I picked it up again a while later, but have never indulged in binge drinking again.

I was still somewhat surprised reading on the BBC news website today:

Nearly one in four secondary school children aged 11-15 reported that they had drunk alcohol in the past week when surveyed in 2005.

Then I thought about it - at 13 my mother sent me to parties with a litre of (hard) cider. Clearly we were all drinking! (OK, there was one party where in response to the request BYOB, I brought a pint of milk! People thought I was really weird, but it got drunk!) Although I didn't drink every day, I was allowed wine with lunch on Sunday, I would guess from at least the age of 13. So - had that been me being surveyed, I probably would have answered the same way. But what REALLY surprised me was the following:

The average amount of alcohol consumed by this age group doubled between 1990 and 2000 and currently remains at 10.4 units (or about 10 small glasses of wine or five pints of beer) per week.

An average of 10 small glasses of wine a week?! I don't drink that now, let alone when I was a teenager!!! That does seem like a lot! Especially given what we now know about the adolescent brain and the influence of alcohol on it. (And of course remembering that 10.4 units is an average, so there are clearly 15 year-olds in the UK who drink more than that!) I wonder what the statistics are for American teenagers? Although this report is about older teenagers, it seems to imply that the problem is just as big in the US, with 16% of those surveyed having reported that they have blacked out from drinking. I think one serious issue in the US is that in general the driving age is lower, and teenagers are much more likely to have a car. Looks like we have some serious education work to do on both sides of the Atlantic!

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Educational snobbery

When I left the UK to do a Master's degree in the US, many of my friends and colleagues in the UK wondered why on earth I would want to do that. They knew that the British education system was so much better then the American one. I agreed with them to some extent, but I was still happy that I was going to have the chance to be a student for another couple of years and to live abroad.

When one of my students in a class I was teaching at the university told me that she had got 5 CSEs in the UK my (private) reaction was that she would never have gotten near a university in the UK. Another of my students attributed his success in the American system to the fact that he had gone to school until the age of 18 in Jamaica - a more 'British' style of education. Looking back on it now, that first student might not have gone to university if she had stayed in the UK, but she got plenty out of going on to further education in the US. Some people are simply not ready to study hard in high school. The second student would have done well no matter where he went to school.

I have met many extremely well-educated Americans - and not all of them went to highly competitive Ivy League schools! My husband is an engineer. He worked for a company that did business with a company in the UK. There was a problem with the manufacturing process of a product that he had designed. The company flew him to the UK for a couple of days to sort out the problem after the British engineers had tried and failed. While he was there he overheard the British engineers making snide comments about how terrible the American education system is. He asked them if their education was so much better, then why had they needed him to sort out their problem?

From what I understand, more people in the UK go to college than did when I got my undergraduate degree, so the system is becoming more American in some respects. It is still different though, and vive la différence, I say!

Saturday, June 17, 2006

21 years later

I came to the United States in 1985, expecting to stay 2 years. Here I am, almost 21 years later, still here. I've had an American passport for almost 5 years now but it doesn't really make me an American. Sure, I don't line up with the 'foreigners' at the airport and I sound American when I go back 'home' to England. I am as American as I'm ever going to be, as American as I need to be, and as American as many other Americans, but I am still less American than someone who was born here and grew up here. I lived elsewhere for the first 24 years of my life and I will always be able to see the United States as an outsider. Quite frankly I don't always like what I see.

On the other hand, now that I am almost an American, I see my homeland in a different light too. I'm no longer completely English, but I'm not completely American either and I like it that way. I can pick and choose, take the best of both for my own, and reject the parts I don't like. I criticize both and love both. If only I could spend equal time in each country - but until I win the lottery that's not going to happen, and given that I don't buy lottery tickets it's never going to happen!
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