Learning From Failure

Toward the end of the recent British Open golf tournament (referred to, simply, as “The Open”), Rickie Fowler was chasing Rory McIlroy and actually tied him on the 12th hole during the third round. Later that round, he stumbled a bit, got a couple of bogies while Rory was getting two eagles on the last three holes to finish 6 shots ahead of his closest competitor. Rickie was later interviewed and he was confident that he could play better on the last day of the tournament and had a good chance of winning (which he nearly did).  He had played well to that point and he thought he knew what had gone wrong during those last few holes. He could learn from his mistakes and correct them and would do better, he was sure.

What a novel idea! To think that a person could learn from his mistakes! So many educators who are on the “self-esteem” bandwagon hell-bent to destroy their students’ ability to succeed in a complex world should take note. Failure is not, in itself, a bad thing. It can make us stronger. It’s what we make of it that is important. If the child never learns to fail, pick himself up, dust himself off, and try again he will never be a success in the “real” world. Fowler did just that. In the final round he played beautifully and gave McIlroy a merry chase, losing by only two strokes, thereby assuring himself a coveted place on the Ryder Cup team.

It’s ironic that it is in sports that these lessons can still be learned, not in the classroom where failure is generally regarded as an inherently bad thing. But, again, there are those who would not have the kids keep score in sports so they never fail there either. In a word, there are those among us, parents, coaches, and teachers, who live in a fantasy world where no one fails and everyone feels good about himself regardless of whether those feelings are well-deserved. And those parents, coaches, and teachers think they are preparing the kids to be a success in later life, whereas the opposite is the case. They are preparing those kids to be failures because they will never have failed before and will not have any idea how to deal with it when it comes. And that failure will come, eventually at some point in some form or other, is a certainty.

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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.

Easy Peasy

A couple of my recent posts have stemmed from reading Jesse Norman’s most interesting book about the life and thought of Edmund Burke. After reading it I was inspired to return to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, which I had not read for many years. It is filled with many of the wise and thought-provoking words that set Burke apart as one of the great minds of his age. But it also has the occasional passage that marks the man as a creature of his time and makes one realize why he is not favored by readers who like to think of themselves as “liberal.” There is, indeed, a stubborn strain of conservatism at the core of Burke’s thinking that can be at times a bit unsettling. He believes that if political change comes at all it should come slowly and he is sometimes annoyingly sympathetic with the wealthy and aristocratic whom he tends to paint with brighter colors than most historians would like. But we make a mistake to simply dismiss the whole of his book  as conservative bias and can find important lessons even in the most unsettling passages.

One thing that is disturbing to many is Burke’s insistence that the notion of “equality,” which was embraced by the French during their revolution, needs to be carefully qualified. In discussing the concept Burke sounds a bit like a reactionary who wants desperately to hold on to the notion that some people are simply better than others. This did not sit well with the Jacobins in France — or many of Burke’s contemporaries. And it does not sit well these days in the minds of those among us who have been conditioned to think that equality is a natural right of all human persons and no one should ever be regarded as in any sense better than any one else. For example, we hold to the conviction in our schools that “no child should be left behind” — well, some of us do. And we question expertise and the notion that some people may actually know more or be better than others, at least as far as their ability to do some things the rest of us cannot do — like walk a tightrope across the Grand Canyon, for example. Indeed, we have embraced the loose notion of equality to the point that we regard all opinions as somehow on a level and suspect anyone who claims to know something we cannot know. As one of my students said in being asked to comment on a passage in Plato’s Republic, “that’s just his opinion.” Yes, but there are mere opinions and there are reasonable opinions. Burke questioned this egalitarianism — especially in the case of the French experiment with leveling down and raising those who held menial positions in French society prior to the revolution to lofty perches among those who held the new reins of power. Burke worried that the cobbler might not make a very good lawmaker. As he notes:

“Every thing ought to be open, but not indifferently to every man. No rotation, no appointment by lot; no mode of election operating in the spirit of sortation or rotation, can be generally good in a government conversant in extensive objects. . . . If rare merit be the rarest of all rare things, it ought to pass through some sort of probation. The temple of honour ought to be seated on an eminence. If it is to be through virtue, let it be remembered too, that virtue is never tried but by some difficulty, and some struggle.”

It would seem that Burke champions opening up opportunities to all but suspects that some may fall short in ability. This is a notion most of us reject since we have come to realize that many who appear unfit for heavy duty prove themselves quite able when given the opportunity. The cobbler may, in fact, make a very good lawmaker — certainly better than the clowns who pretend to be doing that these days for huge salaries in the halls of our government. Burke might not agree; there is the suspicion on his part that some roles in society and government are unfit “by nature” for a great many people. In a word, there is an elitist strain in Burke that many find disturbing, though I must say while I may be willing to let the cobbler have a go at lawmaking, I would prefer that he not be enlisted to remove my appendix when the time comes. There are some things that a great many people simply cannot do. We may have carried this egalitarian thing a bit too far. The problem is Burke seems to want to determine this before the fact, whereas we are willing to let everyone have a try and see what happens.

But the sentence that jumps out at me in the above quotation is the one that talks about the “difficulty” and the “struggle” that prove “virtue.” This notion has been completely lost in a society that stresses “self-esteem” and is turning out young people who believe that struggle and difficulty are to be avoided at all cost — after all, we remove these things if we possibly can in order to grease the skids and make things easier for them than they were for us. How often have you heard parents say they didn’t want their kids to have to struggle the way they did when, in fact, it may have been that very struggle that brought about their success? Dostoevsky, for one, thought struggle and even suffering made us more human, deepened our sensibilities. As Burke suggests, “virtue is never tried but by some difficulty, some struggle.” One must wonder whether this explains why there we encounter so few virtuous people: so many now tread the path of least resistance.

Lead Story

The firing of the Rutgers basketball coach, Mike Rice, — and the athletics director as well — remains the lead story on ESPN. I have blogged about it before because it raises so many questions about the priorities — or lack of priorities — at our major universities where the tail does indeed wag the dog: athletics trumps academics.

But there is another side to the question. I will not make any attempt whatever to justify the coach’s behavior, or that of the athletics director who simply tried to look the other way, but I think we might do well to try to understand what might be going on here — and in many other athletics programs across the country as well. Let me begin with a story close to home.

A good friend of mine was the superintendent of our small school here in my home town. During most of his tenure he was housed in the old school where the gymnasium was located on the same floor as most of the classrooms and as a general rule, except for PE classes, the gym was not to be used during school hours. One morning, my friend, whose office was just down the hall from the gym, heard the sounds of a basketball dribbling and hitting the rim of the basket. The noise went on for some time and was amplified by virtue of the poor acoustics in the empty gymnasium. My friend went out on the floor of the gym and confronted the student about the noise he was making and the fact that he was breaking a school rule. The student looked him in the face and told him to “fuck off.”  In the end my friend was able to have the young man removed from the school property and the student was later suspended — as his parents shouted “foul” and attempted to have the superintendent fired from his job. I dare to say that in one form of another this story is echoed countless times across this land in gymnasiums and even in classrooms — as I infer from some of the blogs I have read by my teacher-friends who have very unsettling stories to tell about their experiences in their classrooms.

But what can we expect? Parents spend very little time any more raising their kids who, as they grow up, are told they can do no wrong. Their sense of entitlement knows no bounds. Even if the parents wanted to raise their kids with some “tough love” they have been told punishment and discipline are taboo and are almost certainly going to thwart their child’s potential — or some other psychobabble. Further, the kids go to school where the teachers are not allowed to lay a hand on them and are told they must raise the students’ self-esteem while at the same time they try to teach these self-important, spoiled children basic subjects they will need to know as they grow into responsible adulthood.  So we have students in our schools who have had everything handed to them and who expect the royal treatment wherever they go. And the athletes have even a higher level of expectation — if they are any good — because dozens of college coaches are after them to have them play for their team. We begin to get a picture of spoiled kids with high levels of self-esteem and unreasonable expectations who are somehow supposed to be turned into a team — or taught arithmetic and basic grammar. It’s unreasonable to expect a coach or a teacher to keep himself or herself on such a short lead for the entire school year. The remarkable thing is that more of them don’t snap and start throwing basketballs at their charges. Or worse.

Again, I do not condone Mike Rice’s behavior at Rutgers, especially since his behavior is apparently chronic and not just a one-time thing. Coaches should not lay a hand in anger on the players in their charge, and the man should have been summarily fired: the coaches themselves should know what they are signing on for in this day and age of narcissistic athletes. Indeed, as noted, they are in part responsible. But one can understand why this sort of out-of-control behavior occurs and the responsibility may ultimately come back to the parents and the culture at large.

Protecting The Young

I recall that in Plato’s Republic Socrates recommends that in the ideal society precocious young boys and girls be taken from their parents at a very early age and raised by the state until they reach their mid-thirties at which point they will enter public service and eventually be qualified to rule. The idea is that the state will raise the children into middle age, educate them and prepare them for kingship. The notion is radical, not only because it involves taking children from their parents at an early age, but also because it involves both boys and girls. Though he may have taken his lead from Pythagoras who welcomed women into his school in Italy, Plato was probably the first feminist: he thought women should be allowed to rule the Republic along with the men.

Whenever I taught this book, however, at least one student could be counted on to raise the following objection: by taking the children from their parents and raising them apart, when the time comes to rule they will be naive and unprepared for the “real world” where there is strife and struggle. The philosopher kings, as Plato liked to call them, would be unprepared for the hurly-burly of the real world. Aristotle agreed with my students; he was relentless in his criticism of Plato’s notion of philosopher kings and this is a large part of the reason: they need real-world experience and what Aristotle called “practical wisdom.” Philosophers who have been raised apart from the people in the political state would not be able to function effectively.

This is a telling criticism and accords with common sense. And yet isn’t this precisely what we are doing in our schools when we continually stroke the kids and tell therm they are wonderful? Granted, the state hasn’t taken the children from their parents, though one might want to argue that electronic toys have in effect done precisely that. In any event, even though the public schools are not set apart and the kids who attend those schools are not selected for their precociousness, they still are made to feel as though they are potential philosopher kings — without the philosophy.

I have blogged about this absurd situation previously, but it remains the case that parents and teachers need to keep fixed in their minds that they are preparing kids for the real world where there is failure and disappointment and things don’t always work out the way we had hoped. The fundamental flaw in the “self-esteem” movement that has gripped this country is that it turns out young adults who have a deep-seated sense of entitlement and who are not prepared for the shock that the real world of marriage and work have in store for them. It is ironic that in the interest of doing the right thing by our kids in trying to raise  their self-esteem we may well be robbing them of the equipment they require to be successful in the work-a-day world.

Putting the “You” In Church

One of the fascinating things to think about in this self-involved culture we love to call our own is the current situation in the churches. They live on the edge of a contradiction that is fascinating in its way.

As we all know, the traditional churches are losing parishioners at a rapid pace. After all, self-absorbed people don’t want to be told what to do and cajoled into making sacrifices when they are used to being stroked and entertained. Both Protestant and Catholic Churches have lost large numbers of members in recent years as many people raised in traditional churches either drop out of church altogether or transfer to other, more “friendly” churches that will give them what they want. What they want is to be entertained and this is what the mega-churches promise. And they deliver.

The Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas is the largest church in the United States. It is so big that they now hold their services in a renovated sports arena.Their services come complete with expensive coffee and doughnuts, lounge chairs, TVs, and a bookstore they can visit during or after the service as parishioners are welcomed in with messages designed to assure them that absolutely nothing will be asked of them (except for a small contribution); their need to be stroked as they were when young and in school will be continued and kneeling is optional; they may sit where they want and take in a service that is sure to thrill and delight them.

These devout people are assured that winning is a good thing and that God wants them to be wealthy. Three of the four largest churches in this country practice what is called “prosperity Christianity” which tells parishioners that God wants them to be rich.The self-esteem mantra is repeated steadily that assures them that they are special and that they will be successful if they really want to be successful — because God would never let them desire something they couldn’t achieve. As pastor Joel Osteen of the Lakewood Church says “God would not have put the dream in your heart if He had not already given you everything you need to fulfill it.”

The contradiction to all this comes once they are lured into the mega-church and they are then told that they really should love their fellow-man (except homosexuals, of course) — though they must love themselves first (repeating the false cliché that insists that self-adoration leads to healthy relationships with others). They are also told that God doesn’t want them to sin, even though He does want them to prosper. So under all the hype there is a trace of the traditional message of Christianity as Osteen and others of his ilk tell the gathered throng stories about St. Paul and Jesus that warm their hearts. He also admonishes his parishioners that they must “take time for people [most people]. . .learn to appreciate them. When you go to the grocery store, encourage the cashier. Be friendly.” There are also rules: no adultery, no idols, go to church, don’t lie, don’t steal, and don’t covet your neighbor’s stuff — faint echoes of the Ten Commandments. And this from a man who has been telling these people that first and foremost is their love of self and that God wants them to be successful and prosper.

The contradiction between self-adoration and the friendliness they are supposed to show toward [some of] their fellow humans (which frequently demands that they actually pay attention to others) is passed over lightly as people flock to the services and go home feeling good about themselves, assured that as long as they are pleasant to the cashier at the local grocery store they are living the good life and that while they must keep one eye on their weaknesses and make sure they don’t fall too deeply into sin, they are on the right track and doing just fine. And meanwhile the traditional churches where God comes first and parishioners are reminded to be humble and care about others see their pews slowly empty, their doors close, and the buildings turned into homes, apartments, or public houses.

Poor Mom And Dad!

I am struck by the irony that behavioral psychologists are now writing books to remedy some of the problems triggered by their own colleagues years ago. This is especially true in the realm of parenting where parents have been told by “pop-phychologists” how to raise their kids for many years now. I referred recently to a book by Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell that deals with the narcissism they are convinced stems from the “self-esteem” movement that has taken over the schools –and our homes. Like the teachers, parents have bought into the notion that their kids need more self-esteem and the way to achieve that goal is to keep telling them they can walk on water. As Twenge and Campbell point out in their book “Thinking that you’re great when you actually stink is a recipe for narcissism, yet this is what many parents and teachers encourage in children every day in the name of self-esteem.”

Twenge and Campbell admit that a part of the problem, at least, stems from some of the books their colleagues wrote back in the 60s and 70s — books such as PET: Parent Effectiveness Training written in the early 70s which told parents to be less authoritarian and that they need to be “pals” with their kids, insisting that “saying adults know more [than their kids]. . .is akin to the belief that some racial groups are superior to others.” Seriously! In a word, parents shouldn’t be telling their kids what to do, they should ask the kids what they want and go from there. The roles of parents and kids soon began to reverse, according to Twenge and Campbell, as parents became kids and kids became parents — telling their parents what they wanted and even what they should be doing.

My sense of things is that this movement dovetailed with the growing need felt by parents in the 70s and 80s for both Mom and Dad to work in order to provide their families with the material goods our commodified culture insists will guarantee them “the good life,” a life that was repeatedly paraded before them on their television sets. This trend has continued and, if the parents are not separated or divorced, they spend less time with their kids, are tired when they get home from work (feeling a bit guilty) and they take the path of least resistance which is simply to let the kids have their heads. “Yes” is easier to say than “No.”

All of this is coupled with the growing self-esteem movement to translate into a doctrine that turned the homes and schools upside down: parents and teachers now want to be friends with the kids and center their lives and teaching around what the kids want. In the schools this movement was carried along by the student-centered educational theories of John Dewey and his colleagues at the University of Chicago initiated in the early part of the twentieth century resulting in a strange blend of common sense (the child matters) with nonsense (the child rules).

In any event, psychologists like Twenge and Campbell are now back-peddling frantically as they try to make parents realize that it was all a terrible mistake: by putting the child at the center of the family’s universe, he or she becomes the center of their own universe. The chickens are coming home to roost. The self-esteem movement has resulted in kids who turn into dictatorial, narcissistic adults (as mentioned in a previous blog) who are convinced that they are entitled to be handed the controls of their lives and the lives of those around them (including their parents and teachers), creating growing numbers of adults who live in a self-centered, fantasy universe, talking, singing, and writing about themselves — the only interesting people they know. These are character flaws that cannot be easily altered.  The tiny snowball the pop-psychologists started down the mountain in the 60s and 70s has now become an avalanche.

The solution to this cultural malady is for the parents and teachers to simply resume control of the homes and schools. They need to teach the kids the meaning of the word “no” and mean it when they say it. I would also add that we need to pay more attention to what kids need and less attention to what they say they want. Kids need structure and discipline: it helps bring them back to reality from the fantasy world they have come to believe is real and it centers their lives. As things now stand they are becoming increasingly self-absorbed, conceited, aggressive, and convinced that they are entitled to wear the crown that rightfully belongs to the adults who used to rule the world and who now sit at their feet nervously waiting to be told what to do.

The Kid As King

I have taken a break from reading history and turned to a popular book by two behavioral psychologists, Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell. Their book is The Narcissism Epidemic and, allowing for hyperbole, the title says it all. Apparently I understated the problem in my blogs about self-esteem and the movement in the schools that is making it difficult for teachers to teach and students to learn. According to our authors this movement has moved out of the schools and has blossomed into narcissism which is a cultural phenomenon of epidemic proportions. To quote the authors at some length, we are told that:

The cultural focus on self-admiration began with the shift toward focusing on the individual in the 1970s, documented in Tom Wolfe’s article on “The Me Decade” in 1976 and Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism. In the three decades since, narcissism has grown in ways these authors never could have imagined. The fight for the greater good of the 1960s became looking out for number one by the 1980s. Parenting became more indulgent, celebrity worship grew, and reality TV became a showcase of narcissistic people. The Internet brought useful technology but also the possibility of instant fame and a “look at me!” mentality. Using botulinum toxin to smooth facial wrinkles to perpetuate a youthful face birthed a huge industry. The easy accessibility of credit allowed people to look better off financially than they actually were.

As the authors are at pains to point out, this has all resulted from our preoccupation with ourselves and our mania to promote “self-esteem” not only in our schools, where it may have its roots, but also in our culture at large. And as I have mentioned in previous blogs, the problem is not that people are told that they are great; the problem is that people that are not great are told that they are. In other words, narcissism, as defined by Twenge and Campbell, is built on a lie. Praise when deserved helps build genuine self-esteem and self-confidence. Undeserved praise builds a false sense of self-esteem which quickly translates into preoccupation with self, conceit, over-confidence, and the inability to establish emotional connections with others. It also results in a sense of entitlement and grade inflation in our high schools and colleges. It even leads to violence, according to the authors. As they say, “The long-term consequences are destructive to society.”

The narcissistic personality, which is becoming commonplace, lives in a make-believe world where he or she is the only thing that matters: narcissism is a flight from reality that can become violent when the person is forced to see things as they really are. As the authors point out: “In fact, narcissism causes almost all of the things that Americans hoped self-esteem would prevent, including aggression, materialism, lack of caring for others, and shallow values.” Again, the problem is undeserved praise and adulation. It is essentially false, and that’s the core of the problem — for a culture that prides itself on its honesty.

We want our kids to be confident and self-assured. But heaping undeserved praise on them is obviously not the answer. In fact, studies have shown that it is actually counter-productive. As our authors tell us, “Self-esteem boosting [in a number of tests cited] led to failure, not success.”  And if our two authors are correct, the narcissism that stems from unwarranted self-esteem has serious consequences indeed as the kids grow into adulthood. The solution to the problem is better parenting coupled with the elimination of the self-esteem nonsense at home and in the schools. We need to be honest with kids, praise them when they deserve praise and never hesitate to engage in constructive criticism when it is called for. It really isn’t rocket science: it’s just plain common sense. Our grandparents knew all about it long ago.

My take on it is that this movement started in this country in the late 1960s with the “I’m OK, You’re OK” movement and the attendant cultural strictures against being “judgmental.” The notion that we shouldn’t judge one another, that everyone is fine just as they are, rests on the assumption that there is no room for improvement — which is absurd on its face. Studies have shown that self-esteem comes after genuine accomplishments; when it is based on empty lies it is easily deflated, leading to disappointment, frustration, and even (as noted) violence.

There are important differences between negative and positive, constructive criticism. The idea that we should not judge one another rules out the critical observations about our own and others’ behavior that is in need of correction. None of us is perfect and we all have room for improvement. But not for the narcissist: in his or her world things are hunky-dory and everyone is perfect just as they are. Even the Neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.

Give ‘Em What They Want!

My latest love affair is with the delightful British comedy “Rev” on PBS. A recent episode was especially interesting. As the Rev’s wife tried to think of ways to spice up their sex life, the Rev found himself with a mess of problems. He is the newest vicar at a large inner-city Church in London that is struggling to remain open. It has a regular congregation of around 20 parishioners and an Archdeacon who is always in the Rev’s face about “numbers.”

In this episode the Rev is distraught just after delivering his sermon to about seven people when there suddenly appears a tall, good-looking man who professes to be a vicar himself whose church is under repair; he asks if he can bring his congregation to the Rev’s church on Sunday. If it works out they would continue to come until his own church is repaired. This delights the Rev who has been told that the Archdeacon will attend next Sunday’s service to count noses. It’s an answer to the Rev’s prayers. Be careful what you wish for.

The new vicar moves comfortable furniture into the back of the church, sets up a smoothie bar and installs a sound system to carry his voice to the far reaches of a crowded church — which is exactly what he has to do on Sunday as, helped by the rap star “Icon,” he takes the floor away from the Rev and proceeds to put on a performance for several hundred screaming young “believers.” The session is so successful the new man is able to hand the Rev a check for £10,000 at the end of the day — to the delight of the Archdeacon and the chagrin of the Rev. It’s not what he thinks religion should be: religion is not about spectacle and giving the folks what they want; it’s not about large checks at the end of the day. It’s about teaching the gospel and helping folks turn their attention to more important things than smoothies and rap music.

The point of the episode was made clear in amusing fashion, especially interspersed as it was with the Rev’s wife’s various role-playing attempts to seduce him in dark corners. But the point rings true as traditional churches are closing their doors — in England many of them have been turned into flats or even into public houses — while the non-traditional churches give the folks what they want and realize growing numbers of “believers” who are all told they are terrific, that Jesus loves them no matter what, and they don’t really have to change a thing no matter how much they hate people who aren’t like them.

The movement to give the folks what they want has indeed taken off. And why wouldn’t it? It is certainly a major movement in the schools as teachers entertain students to keep them awake and the students are constantly told they are wonderful and can do no wrong — the leading edge of the self-esteem movement that has gained ascendency in educational “theory” these days, giving rise to a deep sense of entitlement on the part of so many people. In fact, the culture as a whole has come to think that struggling is wrong and to expect everything handed to them with little or no effort whatever. I hate to say it, but this is the kernel of truth at the heart of the Republican rhetoric that insists we are losing our freedom to government handouts. There is indeed some truth in this, but it is a message that is lost in the forest of political exaggeration and hysteria and is generally falling on ears deafened by rap music, stomachs filled with fatbergers, and attention turned to the next large purchase.

The Rev ends up sending the tall young man on his way . But it takes a confrontation between the Rev and his nemesis who demands the eviction of one of the old parishioners who has, in the ecstasy of the moment as emotions ran high during the service, pinched one of the young women in the ass. The Rev, backed by the Archdeacon, stands his ground: we cannot deny church attendance to anyone. The young man leaves in a huff and the Rev goes back to preaching to his empty church. Unfortunately we cannot dismiss entitlement and unwarranted self-esteem that easily. They seem to be here to stay.

Training Or Education?

I have argued this topic before, but it bears repeating in light of an excellent comment making the rounds on Facebook. The comment was made by Chris Hedges, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and frequent contributor to the New York Times, among other major papers. His comment, in part, reminds us that “We’ve bought into the idea that education should be about training and ‘success’ defined monetarily rather than learning to think critically and to challenge. We should not forget that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers…” I couldn’t agree more.

Bearing in mind that education begins in the home with parents who have time for their children and are eager to see them learn, there are a number of things wrong with the direction American education has taken since the 1940s at least. We have bought into the progressive education fiction that teaching is about the kids when it is supposed to be about what the kids learn. Robert Hutchins and John Dewey fought over this issue for years and Dewey’s child-centered system of education won the day. But Dewey soon left Columbia Teachers College after his triumph and washed his hands of the whole thing: he didn’t like the way his ideas were being misrepresented by his “supporters.” Educators have further watered down Dewey’s ideas of “child-centered” education.

We like to think that we have placed the kids first when in fact they are forgotten in the jargon-filled nonsense about entitlement and self-esteem. Kids are told they are wonderful just because they breathe in and out, whether or not they have actually done anything worthy of praise. They know this is a lie: they sense lies the way a squirrel senses where the nut is hidden. And they are handed the keys to the educational kingdom rather than having to work for them, forgetting that those things that come too easily are really not worth having — while the nonsense about entitlement leads to rampant grade inflation and passing along kids who have learned nothing. Real learning takes effort and that effort is rewarded by a sense of accomplishment that becomes inner satisfaction and requires no pat on the head. And the subject matter that is learned is of central importance.

But Hedges has his finger on the single most dangerous mistake we have made in recent years: we have confused education with job training. It started in the 1950s when the educational establishment was concerned that drop-out rates were climbing dangerously and needed to be stopped. They did research and discovered that high school and especially college graduates made more money in their lifetimes than did those who dropped out of school. So the marketing machine was set in motion and the theme was developed that kids should stay in school in order to be successful — monetarily, as Hedges says (the terms we have decided are the only ones by which success can be measured). Big Mistake! Education is not about jobs or making money. It is about putting kids in possession of their own minds, helping them to achieve true freedom, the ability to think for themselves, separate truth from nonsense, and not to suffer fools. These are the critical skills Hedges mentions and he couldn’t be more right.

The current presidential contest reveals the consequences of this sort of confusion. Instead of dealing with the major issues facing this country and this planet, about which we hear practically nothing, we are focused instead in “jobs and the economy” as though these things are the only things that matter. But a society made up of miseducated people who have been trained to work and not to think can easily be duped into swallowing this line of nonsense — without even knowing what they have ingested.

What matters are not the jobs and the economy in the end. What matters is the survival of human beings on a planet under siege by corporate greed and a business mentality that has convinced us that money is the only thing that really matters and is solidly behind the misperception that education is all about job training. As Hedges goes on to conclude, “A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power, which mistakes management techniques for wisdom, which fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death.” Amen to that!