Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Celebrating mediocrity

I have served (in "mission field" sense) as a high school substitute teacher the past thirteen years. As an observer of people, I have an abundance of blog topics supplied on any given day. A recent lesson plan began, "These are all excellent students . . . They will be taking a test . . .  Watch closely for cheating."  Excellent students will cheat? Really? Why do we call them "excellent"?  

In Screwtape Proposes a Toast, C.S. Lewis wrote, "What I want to fix your attention on is the vast overall movement towards the discrediting, and finally the elimination, of every kind of human excellence—moral, cultural, social or intellectual . . . 'Democracy' . . .  is now doing for us the work that was once done by the most ancient dictatorships and by the same methods. The basic proposal of the new education is to be that dunces and idlers must not be made to feel inferior to intelligent and industrious pupils . . . All incentives to learn and all penalties for not learning will vanish . . . the teachers—or should I say nurses?—will be far too busy reassuring the dunces and patting them on the back to waste any time on real teaching. We shall no longer have to plan and toil to spread imperturbable conceit and incurable ignorance among men."

These chilling, prophetic words were first published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1959. The essay was an indictment against certain trends in public education. The short essay is often included as an addendum to Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, first published in 1942. That popular book takes the form of a series of letters from "Screwtape," a senior Demon, to his nephew "Wormwood," a tempter-in-training, learning the methods of securing the damnation of man, referred to only as "the Patient." In the upside down world of Screwtape and Wormwood, the goal is to guide the Patient toward "Our Father Below" (Devil/Satan) and away from "the Enemy" (God). 

The "self-esteem" movement has been tracked back to the 1960's. (It probably was conceived as early as the Enlightenment and the philosophy of Rousseau, but that is another very interesting story for another day.) The modern movement hit full speed in the 1980's. Experts in education reasoned that if we, parents and teachers, made children feel good about themselves, their school achievement and behavior would improve. Teachers would no longer write corrective comments on students' papers for fear of damaging the budding psyches of young students. They would allow the students to "invent" new spellings of words. They would no longer teach them what was right and wrong, but let the students come to their own conclusions. Parents would give their children a voice in all decisions, and explain their motives ("because I said so!" was no longer a valid response) so the autonomous Self of the children could fully develop. And they would no longer give out ribbons to reward excellence, but instead give everyone a certificate of participation, so no one's feelings would be hurt. 

As early as the mid 1990's, there were rumblings that the Self-Esteem movement was not producing the desired affect. Rewarding mediocre work was not only NOT helping the students study skills and behavior, but by inflating their out-of-control egos with unearned, or even false praise, we were creating entitled, self-absorbed, apathetic youth. Even with evidence mounting against the self-esteem initiatives, no change was made to eliminate or modify them.

Let me be perfectly clear here—I sub at a public high school because I love the students. We adults are the ones who have created this alternate universe; the kids are just trying to survive in it! And many are having a difficult time maneuvering through the fog. Suicide is rampant among teens. In my 13 years as a sub, at least TEN students or former students have taken their own lives.  

The dad in the 2004 children's movie, The Incredibles, classically lamented, "They keep inventing ways to celebrate mediocrity." Research that same year exposed, contrary to expectations, that higher self-esteem was not linked to better learning or better behavior. An international math test found that although American students ranked low on skills, they ranked number one in believing they were good at math. They were also most likely to report receiving good grades in math. But inflated grades are necessary in order to match inflated egos. Today's B was yesterday's C. 

One educator opined that we have taught them to think so highly of themselves, they hardly think of anyone else. They are becoming unteachable, so certain are they of their own worth and correctness.  

Self esteem for hard work and accomplishments is a powerful motivator. But praise for the sake of praise doesn't make any sense. The kids are smart enough to get it! No one values a "certificate of participation."

Praise, like money, doesn't mean much to us humans, unless it is earned. 

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