Susan Reads: Nothing to Envy

Rarely have I come across a book so haunting.

If you Google Earth for North Korea at night, you will see South Korea as brightly lit as a coast of the US. Above it is a greatC0044096-Korea_at_night,_satellite_image-SPL big blackness. This is North Korea. It is not black because they block out satellites, or by treaty.

It’s because there is no electricity.

In an entire country.

Author Barbara Dimick’s book, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea won the 2010 Samuel Booker prize, with good reason. Dimick has seen the “official” places of North Korea, but moreso spent years tracking down people who managed to escape the deadly iron fist of North Korea and interviewing them extensively. She follows several families, some of them die-hard party loyalists, through their unwavering patriotism, their questioning, their suffering, to their desperate do or die escape.

indexDimick traces some of the history, from World War II, when things started to go flaky, through the Korean conflict, when things got really wacky, to the insane tyranny of Kim Jong Il, and now Kim Jong Un. North Korea, until the 1960’s, actually had a better standard of living than South Korea, but began to fall apart in the 70’s. But, unlike Russian Communism, instead of saving itself, North Korea became even more hard-nosed, more dictatorial, more insane. By the 90’s, there were no jobs, no wages, no food, no manufacturing. People began starving to death in great masses, with children so stunted by malnutrition they barely topped 4’7” as adults. Trees died, because people stripped the bark to eat.  As many as three million people died, and there were many reports of cannibalism.

Imagine a place where radios and televisions are set by the government to one single official channel. Where the government doles out the very food you are allowed to eat, and the quantity, and the clothes you wear. Where everything is in black and white except the propaganda posters, which are in red, the only color people can look to with cheer. Where every home must display a photo of the dictator, and clean it daily with a special cloth, where the picture can be inspected at any time and you can be sent to the Gulag for disrespect. North Koreans are so isolated, so indoctrinated, so starved, so cowed, that they are not only  utterly brainwashed against the outside world, but cannot imagine what the outside world is like. After three generations of this, they’ve never known anything else.

Perhaps the saddest, most poignant moment is when the once-loyal mother makes a desperate swim across the river into China,article-north-korea-hunger crawls to the first house she sees, starved, frozen, exhausted, desperate, pushes open the garden gate, and discovers a bowl of meat and rice and  vegetables set outside waiting for her, and she is utterly amazed, not having seen meat or even rice in months. Then the family’s dog comes around the corner of the house, and the woman realizes that in China, even dogs eat better than North Koreans.

Read this. Really, read this book. It’s short. It will painlessly explain so much of the insanity, the politics, the danger that is North Korea, and will help you separate the Korean government from the Korean people, who have as much control over their situation as an ant has over an elephant. You will not forget it.

Susan Reads: The Smartest Kids in The World

America’s schools are abysmal; in the world arena, our students barely break the top 20, ranking down there with Lichtenstein – and private prep schools aren’t significantly better.  In fact, America scores only seven points higher than dead center. We blame poverty, we blame spending, we blame teachers, parents, curricula, lack of diversity – but no one has come up with an actual plan that works.

               In The Smartest Kids in the WorldTime journalist Amanda Ripley follows three American exchange students of different backgrounds to some of the highest-scoring countries in the world – laid-back Finland (#3), the pressure-cooker of South Korea where students are in school more than 14 hours a day (#2), and upcoming Poland (#15), which, despite poor standing as a poverty-stricken, post-communist country, managed to climb from the bottom to the top ranks in only three years because of drastic and ongoing reforms.

                Not everything is rosy in all places; there are still pitfalls to each system, but one thing remains common to all good systems: value the education.  When anyone in America becomes a teacher because they want to be a sports coach, there’s a problem. All top countries made it extremely difficult to become a teacher – thus, only the top teachers actually make it to the classrooms.  Sports are not included in school; they are strictly extra-curricular.  Teachers are paid very well for making it that far – and if their students slide, they can be fired far easier than in America  – why keep a bad teacher?  Seriously – why do we do that? In most of these places, the teacher is not the focus. It is not about holidays, or length of day, or passing endless standardized tests: it’s about imparting learning to the child.  Education is about the child’s learning, and nothing else.

Ms. Ripley’s research illuminates what is wrong with our educational system, and lays out a course  to work towards fixing it. This book is a fantastic wake-up call to educators of all children, from Pre-K to college. It’s a fast, easy read that will leave you very angry with the status quo. – a must-read for anyone concerned about the state of education in America.

Go. Read it. And start bugging your schools.