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.

The Kids and The Critics

When Mark Bauerlein joined the ranks of such thinkers as Maureen Stout, Jane Healy and Charles Sykes (among many others) by seeming to attack the younger generation in his book The Dumbest Generation he was both praised and pilloried. One of his critics sounded one of the most hackneyed mantras around by attacking the author in a familiar ad hominem: “Here we go again, an aging schoolmaster knocking the kids. The old ones did it when Elvis arrived and now they do it because of Grand Theft Auto. We’ve heard the grievance many times, the lament of graying folks, so let’s not take it too seriously.” Well, as one of the graying folks who has added his shrill, small voice to the chorus, I take offense at the ad hominem and would simply say: look at the evidence. Today’s kids are generally wasting their time in school — when they even bother to attend. They are learning very little and the emphasis on job preparation and the love affair the teaching establishment has with technical gizmos is depriving the kids of the chance to expand their minds and become vital participants in our failing democratic system. More than anything else, a democracy requires an educated electorate — or at least one that knows how many Senators each state has and how many Supreme Court justices there are. Today’s kids do not: civics is seldom even taught in the schools any more. Worse yet, the kids simply don’t care.

I do wonder how many of Bauerlein’s critics have actually spent time in the trenches — in the classroom with the kids they glorify and defend as tomorrow’s answer to today’s problems. It certainly makes sense in this youth-worshipping culture where aging is regarded as a certain sign of senility that there would be fierce defenders of the kids, defenders like James Glassman and William Strauss (authors of The Next Great Generation) who are convinced the kids are under immense pressure these days and are being unfairly attacked by people like Bauerlein and Stout and the rest. But as one who spent 42 years teaching kids from 9 years of age through graduate courses I can say I have seen first hand what all the data reflect: the kids in fact experience very little academic pressure and they spend precious little effort on things academic — the average college student spending 3 hours and 41 minutes a day watching television and enjoying seemingly endless weekend parties. There is a serious problem in the classrooms of this country as the kids are taking advantage of a system that asks very little of them. Please note that I do not fault the kids, so those who defend them can save their pet ad hominems. I fault the system, of which I was a part for so long, because it is defrauding the kids and their parents who are spending large sums of money to pay for something that isn’t worth much in the final analysis.

I kept examples of my many of tests and syllabi that I passed out during my years of teaching at the college level and I saw first hand the deterioration of the education process: I simply could not assign difficult reading assignments or ask complex questions on tests toward the end. The students weren’t able to understand what the authors wrote or what I was asking – with notable exceptions, thank Heavens! If Bauerlein meant by “dumb” what the word literally means, he was perfectly justified in ascribing that quality to today’s youngsters. They are dumb: they cannot speak. Nor can they read or write or add. They are, for all intents and purposes, illiterate, and recent studies show they are defiant and even proud of that fact. They regard reading as a waste of time. It’s not surprising that their vocabulary has shrunk by 72% since the 50s when it was already shrinking. They cannot grasp such things as hypothetical sentences where consequences are dependent on antecedents for their full meaning.  They cannot understand what authors are saying in books that have been read and understood for centuries. Many cannot grasp the “cheaters” that are written down to the ill-equipped in order to explain what the books say. Worse yet, in a recent N.A.E.P. civics exam a full 45% could not understand basic information on a sample ballot. They cannot calculate a tip in a restaurant — even if it’s only 10%. And they cannot write complete sentences, though, I am given to understand they tweet endlessly in a kind of newspeak which we must assume they do understand. The data are overwhelming and it makes perfect sense since very few of them read even the backs of cereal boxes any more and they are allowed to use calculators in math class. They have traded their books (which, admittedly, many of us read only grudgingly lo those many years ago) for their electronic toys. These toys are rotting their brains, from all reports. And this is what has people like Bauerlein and Jane Healy worried. They have collected the data which so many others choose to ignore and it stares them in the face. As educators themselves, they know what those data mean and it disturbs them deeply.

So those who fault the “graying folks” for merely turning over the cold ashes of past worries about the younger generation should take notice. There really are new and serious problems and they cannot be dismissed with a toss of the hand and smart remarks about the age and character of those who point them out. It’s time to stop shooting the messenger. To be sure, there may be some exaggeration amid the reams of criticisms of today’s youth. But in both education and in the general culture as well what we’re seeing is a descending spiral in which many of those who should be addressing the problem are part of the problem itself, simply because they refuse to admit it is there.

Self Esteem Examined

In a recent blog I argued that the self-esteem movement that permeates the schools has also infiltrated other aspects of our culture — such as religion. My argument may or may not be sound, but it occurs to me that it really doesn’t matter unless I can make a strong case that the phenomenon we call the “self-esteem” movement is not necessarily a good thing. On its face we would think that we would want our kids to feel good about themselves and that an educational theory built around the concept of self-esteem would be a sound one that guarantees success in the classroom and later in life. Not so.

I will call on Maureen Stout who holds a PhD in Education from UCLA and now teaches at California State University in Northridge. In 2000 she wrote the book on the self-esteem movement, titled The Feel-Good Curriculum: The Dumbing Down of America’s Kids in the Name of Self Esteem. The book is based on careful research and first-hand experience.  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.”

Now whether we agree with Dr. Stout that this movement is “dangerous” it is certainly worth careful scrutiny. We can see how insidious it is by means of a brief thought experiment. Imagine, if you will a young child faced with a barrier. We have lowered the barrier in order to allow the child to step over it easily. After she has done so we applaud her and tell her what a terrific job she has done. As she stands basking in our praise she notices other children stepping over the barrier and also receiving applause and affection. It appears to be the norm: all of the other children make it over the barrier easily and all receive praise. As she reflects on this her sense of having achieved something special disappears in a cloud of disappointment and a suspicion that something just isn’t right.

Compare this with another child who is asked to hop over a barrier that is quite a bit higher. She will have to move back and make an effort. At first she fails, but we assist her and tell her she can do it if she tries a bit harder. We give her some tips on how to do this sort of thing successfully. Other children around her are also trying, many of them are failing, but several make it over to our applause and sincere praise. She wants this praise as well and she makes an extra effort and finally also clears the barrier. Her sense of accomplishment is genuine, as is our praise and appreciation. Her growing sense of self-worth is genuine as well and not likely to fade in disappointment as was the case with the first child.

While this little thought experiment may appear transparent and overly simple, it makes an important point — one that has been confirmed by numerous experiments that the “self-esteem” advocates who drive educational practice simply ignore. Self esteem must come as a result of real effort; our job is to set the bar higher and help others over it; failure is a fact of life and helps us grow; children sense the dishonesty in plaudits that are not earned; and when things are made too easy this lead to an unwarranted sense of entitlement. Maureen Stout is right: this movement is dangerous and it is wide-spread. Things worth doing are worth doing well and praise must be earned in order to translate into a genuine sense of self-worth.

Feel-Good Schooling

At the risk of flogging a dead horse, I want to return briefly to the problem in our public schools. I have addressed this problem in previous blogs and even suggested remedies for the problems. But I know full well that any suggestions I might make will fall on deaf ears. And that is the issue I want to address.

Until or unless the education establishment admits there is a problem in America’s  public schools, it goes without saying that the problem will go unsolved. There can be no solution if those who are involved see no problem in the first place. And that is clearly the case. I have been in contact with a number of teachers and without exception their posture is one of defense: excuses and rationalizations come tumbling out. I read these same excuses in the articles defending the status quo. There are none so blind as those who will not see, as the saying goes.

Those, like me, who are “outside” the establishment are dismissed because we simply don’t know what’s going on. The fact that I taught for a year at the elementary level and 41 years at the collegiate level and have read any number of books on the subject, in addition to writing one of my own, is deemed irrelevant. I am one of “them.” And unless you are on the inside you simply don’t understand what is going on — what the teachers have to put up with daily, and how they struggle against insuperable odds to open young minds. But I do know these things. I visited enough public school classes to know I couldn’t teach in our public schools. I wouldn’t last a month. I also know there are dedicated teachers out there who perform miracles every day, and exceptional students who go on to lead exemplary lives. But I also know there is a larger problem and it needs to be addressed.

Sad to say, those who dare criticize from within the establishment are not heard, either. I have mentioned Maureen Stout, who wrote an excellent book about The Feel Good Curriculum, subtitled “The Dumbing Down of America’s kids in the name of Self-Esteem.” She taught for years in the public school system in California and now holds a teaching position in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at California State University in Northridge. Her book is a well argued attack on “the self-esteem” movement, which is described as “a radically child-centered, therapeutic model of schooling, which has transformed schools into clinics and teachers into counselors, creating a generation of self-righteous, self-absorbed, underachieving children.” Indeed so. But her book was never on the best-seller list and in the twelve years since its publication it has had no noticeable effect. The establishment simply refuses to listen to criticism.

The educational establishment resembles the A.M.A.in policing itself, a situation that is designed to breed corruption. But in many ways, the educational establishment is worse, because (so far as I know) teachers cannot be sued for malpractice — which is a way of curbing abuse, surely — and they have created a huge and powerful bureaucracy which protects them from political influence that might have meaningful results. The only thing parents can do, as they have done in Wisconsin, is to retaliate against the teachers themselves by reducing their public support. And that is cutting of one’s nose to spite the face. It is not the solution. Teachers need to be paid more, not less. That’s the only way to attract the best and brightest minds to a profession that now attracts students from the bottom third of the colleges and universities, nation-wide.

And, as I have written in an earlier blog, the only way to begin to solve the problem is to eliminate the certification process, thereby crippling the Blob that controls the education establishment, and return schooling to the best teachers, attracted to teaching by the expectation of greater prestige and higher salaries, and then given their heads. But this won’t happen. Indeed, nothing much will happen, unless the establishment, including the teachers themselves, admits there is a problem and opens itself to constructive criticism.

Self-Esteem

Let’s start with an obvious truth: high self-esteem must be earned, it cannot be handed to us. This is a truth that has apparently been lost on educators who have embraced the notion that by simply pouring praise into the heads and hearts of their students, no matter whether they deserve it, their self-esteem will rise and they will perform miracles. Or at least, they will pass their tests and make the teachers look good. This is absurd. Its absurdity was augmented in California not long ago when a school board member was confronted by data that showed that heaping praise on students doesn’t improve their performance one whit. His response: “I don’t care what the data show, I know it works.” Methinks the man is brain-dead. Perhaps he didn’t get enough praise as a child. But unwarranted praise doesn’t improve performance. You know it. I know it. Kids know it, too.

Maureen Stout knows it. And she knows whereof she speaks. Indeed, she has written a book that seeks to undermine the self-esteem movement in the schools. She says, in part, “The self-esteem movement infiltrates virtually all aspects of schooling from teaching methods to evaluation to curriculum planning. It is the most popular of all the fads [in education], and the most dangerous. But . . . it is not essential. In fact, it doesn’t even make much sense.”  The fact that Ms Stout taught in the public schools for years, holds a PhD in education, and now teaches in one of the prestigious California teaching colleges carries no weight with the education establishment. What she said in her book has been widely ignored. The education establishment doesn’t take kindly to criticism from the outside — or the inside, apparently. The self-esteem movement has taken over the schools.

As a result, as Ms Stout points out, “Schools are providing more courses in ‘life skills’ and paying less attention to academics, which is the core 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 persons who know how to think. This is a radical transformation in the role of schooling.” And it is by no means clear that this transformation is of benefit to the children or society. On the contrary.

Nevertheless, the movement has so much steam that it has passed into the world of the elderly as well — though they worry more about lower self-esteem, which, they are told, is a function of aging. Only by continuing to act young and foolish will they maintain some semblance of their self-esteem. But it’s quite possible, as Wallace Stegner reminds us, that it is society that lowers the self-esteem of the aging, not age in itself. He has a powerful passage in The Spectator Bird that makes the case as only he can. After his narrator receives a questionnaire in the mail he vents as follows:

“Who was ever in doubt that the self-esteem of the elderly declines in this society which indicates in every possible way that it does not value the old in the slightest, finds them an expense and an embarrassment, laughs at their experience, evades their problems, isolates them in hospitals and Sunshine Cities, and generally ignores them except when soliciting their votes or ripping off their handbags and their Social Security checks? And which has a chilling capacity to look straight at them and never see them. The poor old senior citizen has two choices, assuming he is well enough off to have any choices at all. He can retire from that hostile culture to the shore of some shuffleboard court in a balmy climate, or he can shrink in his self-esteem and gradually become the cipher he is constantly reminded he is.”

Hyperbole, perhaps. But it is certainly the case that the elderly don’t get the praise they have earned, while the kids get praise they don’t deserve. Ironic, isn’t it? Maybe by the time today’s kids become elderly their self-esteem will have been boosted so high it can’t be lowered by treating them with disdain. I doubt it. They will feel cheated all over again. Things today, including praise, are simply too easy: nothing costs anything. And we don’t even have to wait until tomorrow to get what we want. This is unhealthy, and it breeds self-contempt, not self-esteem.