Dumbing Down Our Kids

by Charles Sykes, St. Martin’s Press, New York 1995

Could high self-esteem be both the basis of achievement and its result?

Bright students typically hold themselves in higher regard and perform better than do students who are less bright. Thus, self-esteem might be simply a by-product of ability status and may exert little influence on school performance.

What does research tell us about the effects of self-esteem on motivation. That failure depresses some, while it may stimulate others. Defeat may discourage one youngster, while providing the next with the necessary goad to greater effort.

“All of this indicates,” Moeller concludes, “that massive efforts to improve the global self-esteem of children (particularly in the early elementary school years) are misplaced. The research suggests that rather than worrying about developing programs to improve self-esteem, elementary teachers would profit more by focusing their efforts on devising better ways of teaching children basic skills and on helping young children develop higher levels of achievement motivation.

“Children who learn to lose without being devastated and use failure experiences to grow,” writes Rimm, “will achieve in the classroom and in society. Learning to compete is central to achievement in our schools.”  [Sylvia Rimm, educational psychologist in The Underachievement Syndrome]

Rather than beginning with the child’s obsession with himself and his feelings, confidence begins with effort and grows by overcoming challenges. In the great education debates, the alternative to “self-esteem” is not a callous disregard for children’s attitudes. The alternative to a vacuous obsession with feeling good about oneself is the idea of confidence built on achievement. Here we find one of the great cultural divides in American education. Schools that are intent on building confidence will insists on high academic standards; schools concerned with self-esteem will fear to ask too much.

By abolishing failure (or at least the recognition and consequences of failure) and redefining excellence to mean whatever anyone wants it to mean, we deprive success of meaning. In the ideal OBE [GL note: Outcome Based Education] world, everyone would feel like a success, without necessarily having to do much of anything to justify their self-esteem.

As author Rita Kramer noted after visiting schools of education, “the main concern is not inspiring good students but protecting the average and poor ones.”

Chall [Jeanne Chall, Harvard professor] attributed the resiliency of such ideas to the desire of Americans to avoid pain, hard work, and discomfort, and to shield the tender sensibilities of the young from the rigors of a demanding curriculum. Learning basics can be hard and might entail both effort and disappointment. But basics also imply a set of standards outside of the child himself, a standard that is uncompromising and to which the child must accommodate himself. This, of course, is anathema to the democratic, child-centered classroom.

[John Jacob, physician] Cannell, however, goes even further in his indictment. Educationists are quick to blame their own failures on social problems, but Cannel argues that the schools themselves may have to take some responsibility for those same maladies. “I am convinced,” he wrote, “that the current American epidemic of teenage pregnancy, depression, drug use, delinquency, and teen suicide is partially related to the low standards and the low expectations so evident in American public schools. School officials blame these problems on single parent families, parental apathy, and permissive child-rearing. Undoubtedly, many of these pre4sent day realities do detrimentally affect children, but so do present day school policies.

In 1893, the Commission of Ten, headed by Harvard’s Charles Eliot, laid out the traditionalist credo, with a firm emphasis on the pursuit of knowledge and the central place of the disciplines of liberal education. “As studies in language and in the natural sciences are best adapted to cultivate the habits of observation; as mathematics are the traditional training of the reasoning faculties,” the Eliot report declared, “so history and its allied branches are better adapted than any other studies to promote the invaluable mental power which we call judgment.”

Unless American parents raise those expectations, it is unlikely that America’s schools will ever raise them unilaterally. Mediocrity, unfortunately, is contagious. But so is excellence.

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