The Two Million Minutes Documentary

As a former public school administrator, I must agree with the premise of this documentary.

How do American students spend their high school years? A documentary video released in December entitled Two Million Minutes presents a comparative glimpse into high school education in three countries: the United States, India, and China. Unfortunately, this country does not fare well in the comparison. Produced by an American venture-capitalist and filmmaker who is familiar with the “products” of all three educational systems, the film follows two public school students each from Carmel, Indiana, and their counterparts in Bangalore, India and Shanghai, China. Having interacted with individuals from all three systems, he found that the individuals in other countries were not only well versed in a variety of subjects, but could carry on conversations about literature and the arts. He was appalled to discover that the Asian students were at least three years ahead of his own teenage daughters, who attended a private American school.

The title comes from the calculation of four high school years—roughly two million minutes. The American students represent the top strata of their class, with A- or A grades, yet their attitudes towards education appear cavalier at best. They admit that aren’t working particularly hard; and they view their education as only one small facet of their lives, apart from their extra-curricular activities, their part-time jobs, and their social lives. One American girl anticipates college as a time to “join a sorority, do some partying and tailgating, and have fun.” Another student admits that he might just have to put some effort into his work when he begins college.

The Indian and Chinese students, in contrast, take their high school education very seriously, especially those preparing for careers in engineering and medicine. They allocate more time to academics and less to social pursuits and sports. One Indian student maintains that the American student’s life, “Seems like a dream, with relatively little work.”

One criticism of the documentary is that it provides an unfair comparison. After all, education through age sixteen is compulsory in the US, virtually everyone attends high school. However, high school in the other two countries is already selective and reaches roughly half of the children. Yet the message is clear: The US education system is broken and does not allow for global competition. This country ranks 24 of 29 countries in math achievement.

The film faults the US community and parental expectations. Many parents emphasize athletic accomplishments over academic achievement. They are not involved with their children’s education, and they do not provide effective role models. By their behavior, Americans appear unperturbed that they are not contributing effectively to the global economy. This film provides a dire warning. If American students are to succeed on a “flat earth,” they must be challenged.

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