Two items I’ve read this week seem to me to interconnect.
One is an article in The Economist, “Children are drowning in self-esteem by James Still (October 24, 2016).
The other is a letter written by an unidentified school principal. The copy I read is reprinted in Business Insider (November 2017).
Downgrading academic achievement
The letter from the principal urges parents to comfort their children if they do badly on an upcoming examination. The gist of the letter is that parents mustn’t criticize their children if they “don’t make top marks.”
According to Business Insider writer Abby Jackson, the letter went viral because it “resonated with people.” Apparently many of the internet crowd share the unknown principal’s view that to criticize a child for doing badly on a test will “take away [the] child’s self-confidence and dignity.”
I’ll not deny that ever since the ravages of NCLB (No Child Left Behind), the US educational establishment has gone haywire when it comes to overly frequent and educationally detrimental standardized testing. But that’s fodder for another post.
The sentiments expressed by the unknown principal are not an indictment of indiscriminate testing. They reflect the notion that the only school subjects worth mastering are narrowly defined job skills, and that feeling good about oneself is more precious than rubies.
Self-esteem over academic achievement
The letter meshes with the article in The Economist by James Astill.
Astill is a British writer currently living near Washington DC. He compares the energy with which American children are urged to excel at sports with the “lack of intellectual ambition” encountered in the US classroom. He sums up the disparity this way:
At the heart of the problem is an educational ethos that prizes building self-esteem over academic attainment. This is based on a theory that self-confidence leads to all manner of other virtues, including academic achievement, because children who feel good about themselves will love learning – right?
Anti-intellectualism pervades US culture, including US education. A side-effect of the constant effort to “make children feel good about themselves” is the unrelenting insistence on shielding children from anything that might make them feel “uncomfortable.” One of the gifts of this dedication to making learning “easy and fun” is a method of beginning reading instruction that leaves more than half of the school population semi-literate.
Self-esteem derives from achievement
Children don’t need artificial boosts to their self-esteem. If they are given challenging tasks and adequate instruction, they will develop self-esteem and an interest in learning. If they are exposed to different subjects, both academic and pragmatic, they will discover their talents.
Children should not be subjected to exams for which they have not been adequately prepared. If they have been adequately prepared, and if the exams have been intelligently written, children should be able to pass them. If they don’t pass them, their parents should look for the reason. Not all children will receive “top marks,” but all should be able to demonstrate a competent level of learning.