Levelling Down

I have blogged before about the so-called “self-esteem” movement that has taken over the thinking (?) of those who run our schools. The idea is to tell everyone that they are wonderful and this is supposed to inspire them to excellence. The problem is that all the data show this is false, that kids know it’s a lie and they simply do as little as possible and wait to be told how wonderful they are. Everyone gets the trophy, not just those who actually have earned it. The woman who has studied this movement in detail and written the definitive book on the subject is Maureen Stout who has taught at all levels from kindergarten through college and while initially a supporter of the movement, came to realize the damage it was doing in the schools.

Professor Stout holds a PhD in Education from UCLA and now teaches at California State University in Northridge. In 2000 she wrote The Feel-Good Curriculum: The Dumbing Down of America’s Kids in the Name of Self Esteem.  One of the key chapters begins as follows:

“. . .the self-esteem movement has slowly infiltrated education to the point that today most educators believe developing self-esteem to be one of the primary purposes of public education. As a result, schools are providing more courses in ‘life skills’ and less attention on academics, which are the sore of a liberal education. The very essence of public schooling is thus being transformed. We are in danger of producing individuals who are expert at knowing how they feel rather than educated individuals who know how to think.. . .The self-esteem movement infiltrates virtually every aspect of schooling from teaching methods to evaluation to curriculum planning. It is the most popular of all the fads, and the most dangerous. . . .The preponderance of evidence illustrates that self-esteem is irrelevant in all areas of education.”

I recall the comment of one of the legislators in California — a state where the self-esteem movement received state-wide impetus from the legislature and has become the accepted thinking of those who determine education policy in that state — who  was confronted by the hard evidence that the self-esteem movement actually thwarts development in children and said “I don’t care what the evidence shows. I know it works.” In a word, don’t confuse me with the facts, my mind’s made up.

In any event, the latest sad chapter in this ongoing saga comes not from California, but from a Minneapolis suburb where the annual honors banquet applauding the efforts of the brightest and best students in the Senior class was cancelled because it (presumably) hurt the feelings of those kids who did not and, in some cases, simply could not, achieve those honors themselves. The plan is to give all the kids some sort of recognition for the efforts they expend in school — presumably for breathing in and breathing out, certainly not for merit. Indeed, merit has pretty much gone out the window.

This is the result of a trend that goes far back beyond the self-esteem movement, namely, the egalitarianism that has resulted from the recognition that human rights must be acknowledged in all men and women regardless of their circumstances. The notion of human rights is a vital moral precept and one of the prizes of the Enlightenment; it is precious indeed. But it has sired some peculiar off-spring — such as the notion that any attempt to point out differences among people amounts to “discrimination,” and this is a bad thing. It has also fostered the self-esteem movement in the schools, which has, in turn, given rise to the absurd notion that we dare not call attention to the achievements of the best and the brightest because someone’s feelings might be hurt.  To which I say, “tough noogies, that’s life!” Some people are deserving of praise because they excel and if we want our kids to achieve anything resembling excellence we need to point out those who stand above the rest.

In the 1960s Gabriel Marcel noted the danger of the egalitarian movement, its tendency to “level down” the population, to make mediocre the norm, to lower expectations and demands and give everyone credit whether it was deserved or not. In the schools, as Maureen Stout pointed out, it is “dangerous,” because it destroys the urge on the part of bright kids to show their stuff and it fosters the lie that everyone is excellent when, in fact, only a few are. If everyone is excellent, then no one is. The word loses meaning. We need to recognize and reward merit and excellence or they will disappear forever. That’s the danger Professor Stout is pointing to. And she’s right.

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8 thoughts on “Levelling Down

  1. Great post, Hugh. People also tend to confuse equity with equality. It is inequitable to treat unequal things equally, just as it is inequitable to not give people an equal chance. We need to give folks an equal chance, but reward those who perform at a higher level more than those who do not. If you don’t, then your performers will go elsewhere as they have choices. With that said, the better management teams I have come across have a collegial, more egalitarian style. They pay themselves well based on performance, but not exhorbitantly, as they know their success is a team effort.

  2. There’s a Barney song called “You are Special” that my little girl has heard over and over. She asked me the other day “is everyone special?” It was difficult to answer, because to say everyone is special negates the meaning of the word. I cam up with “everyone is special to someone; you are special to ME, because you are my baby.”

    My oldest daughter plays softball, and though she tries her hardest year in and year out, she is not gifted in the sport. The girls don’t usually get trophies at middle school level, but one of the parents decided to fundraise and get them all one. She came home with it, dejected. “I don’t feel proud of this.” I think she felt worse about getting this token that should symbolize merit when she knew that, in this case, she had done nothing “special.”

    I definitely think self-esteem is important for kids, but they know when praise is undeserved. Positive feedback is something I try to employ with my kids, to catch them doing something good and to recognize it. I also use constructive criticism, because one day someone is going to tell them the truth. It might as well be me, because I love them.

    • Beautifully put! The kids know when we are yanking their chain. The best thing is always honesty and the so-called “self-esteem movement” is based on a lie.

  3. i remember once when i was teaching elementary art, i went to the headmaster’s office between classes).. the headmaster looked at me and asked, ‘what’s wrong?’ and i said, ‘i just lost my temper with that 3rd-grade class..’ she laughed and said, ‘if you lost your temper, they deserved it…’

    even back in the 80’s, i was seeing a shift, where the students puffed out their chests and said, ‘call my mother.. she won’t care…’ –

    my friends that i visit in the cloud forest are university professors – doctors in their fields of wildlife biology and veterinarian ophthalmology (!) … many times i save your posts to read offline when i am staying with them, and they always appreciate and agree with your words!

    i was appalled that her ‘going away’ gift at her retirement gathering was a t-shirt for a dozen-plus years of teaching, mentoring and lecturing! what is wrong with this picture?

    • After 37 years at the same university I received a framed certificate thanking me for 37 years of loyal service. So did everyone else who managed to teach there that long — no matter how hard or how little they worked! So it goes. Thanks for passing my words along. It’s good to know that I am appreciated!! Take care.

      • Hugh, anyone who teaches that long deserves a gold medal. Thanks for your positive influence (then and now). By the way, I thought of you last night watching PBS Newshour. A Philosophy professor has written a book about Plato being alive today. She wanted to bring attention to the relevance of philosophy even today. Best wishes, BTG

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