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Jay Mathews, education reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, told an Elon audience America's higher-education system is working to effect positive changes across the world.

"We're given, when we're put on this planet, millions of dollars of time," he said, "loads of time, and not everyone takes advantage of that. Young foreign students do, and they pour into this country. All they want is a chance to learn and grow and get the earning potential to have a comfortable life. When you think about it, American colleges and universities are changing the world, and mostly for the better. Think of all the young people effecting change - many of them with an American education ... Where are the men and women who are slowly turning the most populous country in the world into a better place? In China. Below the surface, that country - compared to when I was there 20 years ago - is nearly like a Western democracy."

Mathews, the guest speaker at the annual Media Board Banquet, is the author of the newly released book "Harvard Schmarvard: Getting beyond the Ivy League to the College that is Best for You." In the book, he ranks Elon University #1 on a list of "100 outstanding (but underappreciated) colleges," and the School of Communications is singled out as one of Elon's most outstanding features.

"My entire career has been fumbling around," he told Elon's student journalists with a smile, "and I think that in your career you will find it will be the same for you."

He explained that he happened on the idea for "Harvard Schmarvard" after he was asked to write a book review of "A is for Admissions" for The Washington Monthly. He described the tone of the book as incredibly pretentious and narrow-minded, adding that the author basically said that anyone who doesn't get an Ivy League education is a failure. "It was nose-in-the-air to the nth degree," he said. "So I wrote an angry review, and that got me started." Interestingly enough, Mathews was educated at Harvard himself.

"I was faced with an American obsession that was hurting a lot of families," he said. "I realized that it isn't the name of the college that is important, but that just going to college is important." He maintains that students and parents should look beyond the big "brand name" schools. He suggests young people consider his list of 100 excellent schools that "deserve more attention than they are getting."

Mathews says the patterns for success in life are learned long before the college years. "It's not what you learn in college; it's the qualities you learn long before you ever take the SAT," he said. "Persistence. Humor. Patience. Creativity and other traits. It's formed in your persona."

He said young people should attend a university where they can thrive, "Kids who pick Elon or Pomona are akin to the geniuses who bought Microsoft stock in 1985."

He shared with his audience of student media members and their mentors a couple of keys to "how journalism works in the outside world:

"One, you have to take things personally. You have to look for things, sories, events, trends that you connect with personally. You eventually hook into things that interest you, and that's where the rewards come.

"Two, hard work brings success. It does matter that you work hard. Effort brings back satisfaction."

He closed his talk with enthusiasm for the quality of the American higher-education system. "We can steer the young people into making a positive difference in Iraq. And it won't be Harvard and Yale saving the world. It will be American education doing the job."

Mathews served with the U.S. Army in Vietnam, then returned to Harvard to earn a master's degree in East Asian regional studies. He began at the Post as a local reporter in 1971, became the Post's Hong Kong bureau chief in 1976, and from 1981 to 1992 he served as Los Angeles bureau chief. He won the National Education Reporting Award in 1984 for a series on job retraining for automobile workers. While in Los Angeles, he also wrote the books "Escalante: The Best Teacher in America" and "A Mother's Touch." His book "Class Struggle: What's Wrong (and Right) with America's Best Public High Schools" was the first detailed book on the dynamics of elite public high schools. The rating system he invented for high schools, the Challenge Index, is still used by Newsweek magazine, school districts and other news organizations.

Mathews' column "Class Struggle," appears each Tuesday on the Washington Post Web site.

 

 

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Last Modified:  4/11/03
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