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Coming to Terms

In the United States and Finland

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Joseph Lelyveld spent nearly 40 years at the New York Times, including stints as a correspondent in London, New Delhi, Hong Kong and Johannesburg (twice). He retired as executive editor, the newspaper’s top editorial job, five days before 9/11. His essay about that awful day and its aftermath, “What 9/11 Wrought” (p. 58), is as provocative as it is insightful.

“Nobody can forecast the future,” he says. “But I am surprised that nothing remotely on the scale of 9/11 has occurred again for a decade in the United States. Now that could be proved wrong any day, but I think most of us had the feeling that this was the beginning of something huge and ongoing. It was, but you have to wonder, too, whether in the immediate shock of this horrific event, we exaggerated the potential for it to be replicated over and over again.”

And how should people think about 9/11 ten years later? “It was a terrible assault on our country. All the people who were killed were innocent civilians going about their business, living their lives. I think all one can do is mourn and hope that we will learn in our lifetimes how to put this thing behind us.”

When Finland’s 15-year-olds got the highest scores in reading on a standardized exam taken by students around the world in 2000, LynNell Hancock took notice. A journalist who has specialized in education for three decades, Hancock says the result “kind of came out of nowhere. No one had really been focusing on Finland. Then as I read about how they had done this without standardized testing, with a strong teachers’ union and with lots of things that are just the opposite of America, it further piqued my interest. And as the debate has escalated—with conservatives pushing for marketplace reforms and progressives pushing for greater public support—Finland keeps coming up, argued and misunderstood by both sides. It became even more important to me to go see what’s up.”

And what is up in Finland’s schools? “These schools are joyful places,” says Hancock. “The teachers come in jeans and sandals. Some of them wear funny costumes on holidays. In America, we tend to think you have to suffer to be the best, but the Finns think, no, if the kids are suffering, you’re doing something wrong.” Her story, “A+ for Finland,” begins on page 94.

About Carey Winfrey
Carey Winfrey

Carey Winfrey was Smithsonian magazine's editor in chief for ten years, from 2001 to 2011.

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