The Blind Leading….

Readers will recall when recently the football team joined a young man on the University of Missouri campus who was fasting in order to effect change on that campus regarding alleged racism and the unwillingness of the administration to deal with the issue. The football team threatened to refuse to play and the result was the desired resignation of the president. There is no doubt about two things (1) racism is a poison and needs to be stamped out wherever it appears, and (2) a Division I football team refusing to play speaks louder than words.

There was much hullabaloo about the event and a number of articles and posts on social media — including a post by yours truly. One of the better articles attempted to put the event in perspective and led in with a photograph of the football team, with its coaches, after they had their way. A caption under the photo grabbed my attention:

“In just 48 hours a sub-500 football team affected [sic] a change that could have a monumental impact on the world of college athletics — athletes controlling what happens on campus.”

Think about this. The fact that this group of athletes was successful — in light of the fact that previous attempts by football teams failed to bring about change, as in the case of Northwestern’s team that wanted the players to unionize — indicates the power of extortion. There can be no doubt that the threat of non-playing at a time when revenue from TV and attendance is very much at stake had an important impact on the decision of the president to resign. After all, colleges and universities are becoming increasingly about business and profits (just ask the University of Iowa where a businessman with no academic credentials whatever was recently hired as president). But as an educator the thought that festers in my soul is the thought that football players can “control what happens on campus.”

Now, if this refers simply to the elimination of other cases of racism and other forms of bigotry on college campuses, so much the better. That’s as it should be. But if the influence of athletes threatening to withhold their services can effect “what happens on campus” generally one must pause. Clearly, this group of athletes was inspired to do the right thing and they were effective. But the thought of a group of athletes, or a group of students of any stripe whatever, holding a gun to the head of the administration and faculty to effect change in, say, curriculum is worrisome indeed. Such a thing is not totally absurd., as hinted at in the caption quoted above.

If a group of students were to put pressure on the administration and faculty to alter the curriculum — to substitute, say, physical education for physics — this would be anathema to everything higher education stands for. I exaggerate, of course, but interestingly enough, the precedent has already been set, and not by a group of football players at Missouri. It was set in the 1960s when militant students took over the Dean’s office in places such as Columbia University and Berkeley and insisted that there be curricular changes.  In a number of major universities during that period a great many core courses were eliminated completely on the grounds that the students found them “irrelevant.” In a word, if the students didn’t want to study, say, world history, then world history was dropped. The faculty and administration capitulated, possibly out of fear. This started a wave of rejection until within 20 years there were very few core courses on any college campus anywhere in this country. As a result, we have seen an increasing number of college graduates who know nothing about anything except those few items that happen to be of interest to them. Many of them cannot read, write, or speak coherently; they know nothing about the way their government runs (or doesn’t run) or about their history, black, white, feminine or masculine; and they have no idea whatever what science is and why mathematics is integral to the exact sciences. They are increasingly susceptible to the drivel that spews forth from the mouths of public figures who want to sell them left-handed monkey wrenches.

Thus, the thought of the athletes running the show is disturbing on a number of fronts. To begin with, it is simply a sign of a power struggle that has been lost by those who should have shown the way, and secondly it suggests the possibility of further changes in the climate of higher education that will move the students farther and farther away from the goal of true intellectual freedom, which should always be the focus of any education. Students should have a say in what they study, to be sure, but they should not be allowed to rule out whatever doesn’t happen to appeal to them at the moment. While education starts in the schools, it bears fruit later on, after graduation. But it needs a start in the right direction or else it will spin in circles and lead the college graduate into blind alleys.

Building Self-Esteem

One of the curious notions that permeates education circles in the lower grades these days is the idea that children should be told they are wonderful when, in fact, they have done nothing to deserve praise or even acknowledgement. This notion was recently questioned by a character on the popular TV show “Modern Family” when Jay told his wife, Gloria, that she should be honest with her son and not praise him when he doesn’t deserve it. It made for some light humor, but it is an interesting point.

Educators like to think of themselves as occupying a special branch of social science, but the fact that the social sciences do not support the self-esteem movement doesn’t seem to faze these people. When a school board member in the California school system was confronted by the evidence that stroking children undeservedly doesn’t improve their performance, he was noted to say “I don’t care what the evidence shows, I know it works.” Don’t confuse me with the facts!

Not only do the data not support the theory, they actually fly in the face of this theory and support the position Jay takes in the TV show. Telling kids they are wonderful, or the latest project they made is terrific when, in fact, it is awful, does not build the child’s self-esteem. It actually confuses them and undermines their confidence in adults. Kids know when they are being misled.  This is one of the points I was making in my blog about “Sports Lessons” when I contrasted sports with education. In sports, the athlete — at any age — knows when he or she has done something deserving praise. When the praise comes, in the form of applause or awards, the athlete has a well-deserved sense of pride and accomplishment. When a child in school is told that his science project is great when she knows it took very little time, no imagination, and doesn’t even work, it simply confuses and undermines confidence in the teacher, or the one heaping praise. Moreover, when you think about it, false praise is insulting to the child.

In the TV show, Jay’s son, Manny, is puffed up with the effusive praise his mother heaps on a centerpiece he has made for the dinner table on Thanksgiving. It is awful, and when Gloria is in the other room, Jay takes Manny aside and tells him the piece “is not your best work.” At the same time, he assures the boy that he can do better, and Manny senses that this is true and we have one of those moments that suggest that TV really could be a valuable tool is helping us raise our children if it weren’t preoccupied with sex and violence and selling the sponsor’s products. Jay gives an honest opinion of the project, while at the same time assuring the boy that he can do better: the comment does not tear down the boy’s self-confidence, it redirects his attention away from the false image his mother has created of him and the rather weak effort he has (knowingly) made and assures him that he can do better the next time. It is a character-building moment. Honesty really is the best policy.