Monday, April 28, 2008

Education Confrontation Part 2

Picking up right where I left off, before we were so rudely interrupted.

Actually, this will be a bit smaller in scope now, since I got to make many of the points that were intended for this part in the Interlude. You may not need a bathroom break in the middle of this one. Still, I'd go before we leave, just to be safe.

The principal proudly told us about the school's monthly "award assemblies", where certificates for various achievements are handed out to a significant percentage of the student body. She stressed the large number of awards dispensed. My wife looked more closely than I did at the slide depicting a batch of winners, and she got the impression that none of the certificates appeared to be for any particularly noteworthy achievement.

I don't have enough information yet to be certain that this school is another temple in the Cult of Self-Esteem, but I certainly have grounds for suspicion. I'd have to attend one of the award assemblies, or at least see a list of the recognized achievements, to make a more informed judgement.

For now, I have to at least consider the possibility. This is not a court of law, this is my son's upbringing. The stakes are too high to allow for any presumption of innocence. If someone is trying to involve themselves in my son's education, and I have the slightest reason to question their motives or methods, the burden of proof falls entirely on them to exonerate themselves in my eyes. Until they do so, I cannot afford to and will not trust them.

Of course it's obvious that actual achievement should be recognized. I would go a step further and say that any honest effort and / or improvement should also be recognized. Encouragement is important, for everyone, not just schoolchildren.

Those who have honestly excelled in any area, be it academic, athletic, or any other, should be publicly recognized. I would also recognize the "most improved" students, especially since the confidence boost will do more good for them than it would for the students who excel (they tend to get used to the recognition pretty quickly and so it loses its significance for them - trust me on this). The student who goes from a D to a B average has actually expended more effort and accomplished something more meaningful than the one who goes from an A to an A+, and that should be acknowledged.

However, rewards and accolades should not be doled out like Hallowe'en candy to those who have not earned them. At some point in the not-terribly-distant past, educational bureaucrats decided that building self-esteem in students should be a primary goal of the school system.

Their mistake has had dire consequences for all of society as more and more self-important brats and hoodlums grow up (chronologically, not mentally) with overinflated and unjustified egos and barge into an adult world that, despite their delusions, would have gotten along just fine without them.

My son has several "sound books" - storybooks with buttons on them that play sounds when pressed. Each button is illustrated with a picture that also appears inside the book, and the reader is meant to press a particular button whenever its picture is encountered, to provide a soundtrack to the story.

Most of them are fine, if a bit grinding when you hear a child's favourite sound over and over, ad nauseum. There's only one that bothers me. The book is about some sort of competitive endeavour - perhaps, if memory serves and mine often doesn't, a Clifford the Big Red Dog book about a dog show. One of the buttons triggers the sound of someone cheerfully proclaiming, "Everyone's a winner!"

No, not everyone is a winner, and it does children a disservice to teach them that sort of "lesson". People with talent, drive, ambition, and several other traits, luck very much among them, are winners. It is deeply wrong to teach children that "everyone's a winner", and giving them such a distorted worldview can have major implications for the rest of their life.

Now, some important qualifying points to this concept. First up, when I use the term "winner", I am referring only to the person (or team) who is the most successful in a specific situation where success can be objectively defined. The golfer with the lowest score, the last person standing at the spelling bee, the kid who can cram the most jelly beans into their ear. I am not using it in a more generalized sense (i.e., referring to someone who is generally prosperous as a "winner").

A "winner", as I am using the term, can only ever be the winner momentarily. As soon as a new competition of any sort begins - and pretty much everything in life is a competition of some sort - then the title is again up for grabs.

Second, there's absolutely nothing wrong with not finishing in first place. A person who goes through life consistently finishing what they start and accomplishing what they set out to accomplish never has anything to be ashamed of, even if they don't wind up getting a lot of blue ribbons pinned to their shirt.

Yes, the first person who ends up in first place has accomplished something noteworthy, but so has the person who finishes in fifth place, as long as they finished the race. The opposite of "winner" is not "loser". The opposite of "winner" is "person who didn't bother trying."

Handing out unearned accolades leads to an inflated sense of self-worth, which leads to an inflated sense of entitlement later in life. That immaculately groomed woman who shoved in front of you at the checkout counter at the corner store, yakking on her cell phone all the while, giving you a dirty look when you discreetly coughed to signal your existence, as though you should feel privileged to share the same oxygen as her - she was almost certainly assured throughout her childhood that she was Daddy's Princess and could do no wrong.

Time for a tangent, which also forms a bonus True Story From One Of My Jobs.

Once upon a time when I worked in a call centre, I got a call I'll never forget. I was taking inbound calls on an information line for a government department. Our lines were very busy, and the hold times were long. (Side tip: never, ever, phone anywhere that uses a phone menu system - banks, government agencies, most customer service lines, etc. - if you aren't prepared to spend at least 30 minutes on the phone, no matter how simple your query. Managing your expectations leads directly to managing your temper and not snapping at the poor schlub who finally talks to you.)

During this busy period, those of us answering the phones were routinely beginning each conversation with a quick apology to each caller for the wait times. One day I got a caller who wasn't satisfied with that. He whined and ranted about how valuable his time was and how he couldn't afford to wait 20 minutes to talk to someone. I went through all the standard sympathetic responses, but after several minutes of this fellow doing nothing but complaining, I had to get things moving along.

(Digression for another fun fact: the folks who answer when you call a government information line are under absolutely no obligation to listen to complaints or anything remotely abusive. They are completely within their rights to terminate any call where the caller seems to just be wasting their time. Most of these employees I've known - and I've known lots of them, having once been one of them - will actually put up with a lot more than required before doing so.)

I had been trying to gently prod this fellow toward his question, but to no avail. Around the eighth time he went over how unacceptable it was for someone as important as him to have waited almost twenty minutes, I said, "I'm sorry about that, sir, but I need to point out that now someone else is waiting while we talk about this."

His next words still ring in my ears, these many years later. Verbatim:

"I don't care about anyone else. I care that I had to wait."

I would have to completely reevaluate my life if I ever caught myself saying something like that.

Believe it or not, this story is on topic. That man was almost certainly surrounded during his formative years by people who were very concerned with his self-esteem. Congratulations, folks, you succeeded. You built a selfish, rude, possible borderline sociopath. Bravo.

I'm going to preface what I say next by saying that I'd like you, the home viewer, to withhold your emotional reaction until continuing on to read my explanation. Your immediate reaction to the next sentence is almost certain to be strong and negative (I know mine would be), but please let me explain before coming to your conclusion:

I've long believed that one of the most important lessons a parent can instill in their child is this: You're not special.

Has everybody put away the pitchforks and torches yet?

Good, then I'll clarify.

Of course each child is special and unique. To everyone around them, but especially to their parents. Children are the centre of a parent's life in a way that I could not have understood before becoming a parent myself. One of the great mysteries of Scripture, to me, is how God comforted Job by "replacing" his children. I can't imagine being consoled - distracted, yes, but not ultimately consoled - by having another child (or two) after having had a child die. Yes, the new children would be blessings of their own, and grief mercifully fades away over time (sometimes to resurge at unexpected moments), but there are scars that never completely heal.

While I'm waxing theological, it is also obvious, I should think, that each child (and indeed each person) is special and uniquely loved in God's eyes. The Bible is replete with this message. It may seem like a cliché from a thousand sermons, but it's become a cliché because it's true: even if you were the only person who needed salvation, Christ would still have gone to the cross to provide it, just for you.

So, then, what do I mean by "you're not special?"

I mean that you're not special in the sense I was talking about earlier. You're no better than anyone else. There is no grave injustice in your having had to wait for an operator to answer your call, or your having to wait in line for a cashier, or your having to take your turn in a playground game, or your having to sit down and listen like everyone else in the classroom. No matter how much your family and your friends love you, there are times that you need to exercise some humility, often in the form of sitting down and / or shutting up.

You are dearly loved and valued by God and (hopefully, but sadly not always) your friends and family. None of that in any way sets you above the "common herd" in social interactions.

The modern school system is very good at teaching self-esteem in a very bad sense. The unqualified "self-esteem" that modern society glorifies would have been recognized as arrogance and selfishness not so long ago. Humility and self-denial are infinitely greater virtues (as black is a darker colour than white), but are not so emphasized by the Department of Education.

To be fair, I doubt that there is an effective way to teach these virtues in a classroom setting to a large number of students. There is a line - not particularly fine, but a line nonetheless - between healthy humility and an incorrect sense of worthlessness that may be too easily crossed in such a teaching environment. Healthy humility needs to be taught by example, over the long term, in close relationships. In other words, children need to learn it at home. There is no substitute for this.

Parents can certainly teach this sort of healthy self-image to their children in the hours when those children are not at school, but it becomes much more difficult when much of the school curriculum is explicitly designed to subvert the concept. As a strong proponent of parental rights, I do not recognize that the state (i.e., the government-run school system) has any moral right to subvert parents in such matters.

I don't think for a moment that the school system intends to crank out sociopaths. I think the goal of the system's architects is laudable: to teach a healthy, non-defeatist self-image to students. However, healthy self-esteem can only reliably be taught the same way as a healthy humility. In fact, the two concepts are inseparable, two sides of the same coin. Attempting to teach them in a modern classroom setting is a futile task, and it's well past time to admit that the experiment has been a failure, as proven by increasing adult incarceration rates.

Quick side tangent: I can't remember where I've seen it most recently, and I'm too lazy to Google up an example at the moment, but there's a recurring meme in the left-wing blogosphere that cracks me up every time I see it. In an attempt to draw attention away from actual fascist states, people sometimes try to argue that the U.S. of A. has become a fascist state by pointing out that their incarceration rates are increasing even while crime rates are dropping. The implication - and sometimes outright claim - is that this proves that "dissenting" Americans are being locked up on bogus charges. Political prisoners, if you will. After all, if crime rates are dropping, how can the state justify locking more people up?

This, of course, fails a basic logic test. Does everybody see the problem?

I'll give you a hint: what would you, as (I hope) an intelligent person, expect to see happening to crime rates as police get better and more efficient at locking up actual criminals (and keeping them locked up)? Do you suppose that previously law-abiding citizens, seeing a void in the marketplace, would suddenly begin committing more crimes to keep the rates up?

End tangent.

This brings me to another pet issue about "self-esteem". Late in the last century when I was a university social sciences student, a quantum shift was happening in regards to research into violent offenders. It had long been assumed that violent behaviour, from playground bullying to first-degree murder, frequently stemmed from low self-esteem. Much of the school system's self-esteem emphasis stems from this belief. The problem is, that belief is entirely wrong.

It is the nature of social sciences that one can always find counter-examples. Yes, you can think of a bully you know who had low self-esteem. However, actual research into the issue shows that violent people do not, as a rule (and feel free to insert that disclaimer into any social sciences statement you ever encounter), have low self-esteem. They are instead narcissists, believing that their wants are more important than the needs of others. Any challenge to this unrealistic self-image can lead to terrible retaliation.

I believe it's possible that low self-esteem may be a factor in those people who get pushed too far - by the bullies with self-esteem to spare - and snap. Think, the kid who gets shoved around for years until one day they bring a rifle to school and settle some scores. Every time I hear about one of those cases, once the initial horror subsides, I hope that every bully who sees nothing wrong with shoving that smaller, weaker, nerdly kid around is thinking about it - and that they're scared. Unfortunately, I don't think the bullies are that thoughtful. Narcissism and introspection do not do not tend to peaceably co-exist.

I'd be very interested in seeing some well-done research into this aspect of the issue. This story on CNN is an interesting case study.

By trying to build self-esteem in students - a task for which they are simply not equipped - educators have instead been churning out legions of sociopaths. The worst part is, there are still an awful lot of people who do not understand this and are not interested in finding out the truth (because they're convinced that they already know the truth, and aren't interested in having their beliefs challenged - hey, we've come full circle!), and many of them are in positions of authority over children.

Oh, and if you'd prefer to see some of the research on this, instead of blindly taking my word for it (which you should never do), click on any of the coloured words in this sentence. Each of them links to a different article on this subject. If you have any influence whatsoever in the life of any child and you still think that bullying is caused by low self-esteem, please click on all of them.

So, to sum up this entry: I'm not sure what I think of the school's "awards assemblies". They may be benign or even beneficial, if handled extremely carefully, but if they're reinforcing the wrong behaviours, they could be very damaging. I'll need to look into their exact nature more closely.

It occurs to me that if I had just written that in the first place, this could have been posted a long time ago.

Part 3 is coming. There will almost certainly be some other stuff first.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of a snout.


HomeSchooler said...

A bit of Lewis seems apropos:

Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.

Don't imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call "humble" nowadays: he won't be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who's always telling you that, of course, he's nobody. Probably all you'll think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him, it will be because you feel a bit envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He won't be thinking about himself at all. There I must stop. If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realize that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you're not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.

A man who is eating or lying with his wife or preparing to go to sleep in humility, thankfulness and temperance, is, by Christian standards, in an infinitely higher state than one who is listening to Bach or reading Plato in a state of pride.

[God] is not proud...He will have us even though we have shown that we prefer everything else to Him.

YEAH YEAH Out Loud said...

RE: Self-esteem
The YEAH YEAH Out Loud theme helps the child realize the “cheer” leader lies within. The picture book story of Hur-Ray encouraging Kiddazy to grow into a flower and get a YYOL face (just like Hur-Ray’s) confirms that it is only after Kiddazy cheers on the other sprouts in a “pay it forward” fashion, the blooming of Kiddazy’s own self-esteem, and YYOL is actualized.