Self-Esteem v. Standards

by Mark A. Signorelli on September 20, 2010 · 13 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low

ChildPiano(1)

Somerset, NJ. Consider the way one teaches a young person to play the piano properly.  We begin by drilling he rudiments – scales, chords, etc.  The goal is for the execution of these things to become instinctive.  At this point, repetition is truly the mother of learning, because there is simply no way for the student to attain proficiency in these fundamental skills without repeated practice.  Of course, the hours spent in performing such repetition will be tedious in the extreme, and very likely to discourage the student, so we will be compelled to exercise some measure of rigor in order to keep him practicing.

As the child continues in lessons, we will progressively demand more and more of the young pianist– the playing of more difficult pieces, with more sensitivity to their particular character – and we will inform the child of the ways in which he or she fails to satisfy those demands, while simultaneously encouraging a renewed effort.  We will be in possession of some standard of excellence in the performance of a Chopin etude or a Bach fugue – a standard we have derived from our familiarity with virtuoso performances of those pieces – and we will hold that standard before the student at all times, until the child himself learns to measure personal performance against that standard.

What should be obvious about such a form of instruction is that the good which we pursue is not simply the good of our student.  If we are teaching him properly, we are benefiting him, to be sure, be cultivating his talents.  But just as surely, we are benefiting future audiences who may gather in order to listen to his performances, and who will have certain expectations of their own.  And we are benefiting a certain tradition, a tradition of artistic craft, by preserving and transmitting the necessary skills and knowledge of that tradition, in order to maintain it in a flourishing condition.  So the good which is the end of our instruction is not the good of an individual merely.

I use the teaching of piano as an analogy for education in general, not because I am mindless of the many and complex ways in which the two modes of instruction must differ, but because their resemblance in a few key characteristics serves to remind us of some very basic truths about the teaching of the young, which our society has unfortunately forgotten.  And when we reflect on these truths a little, we will realize not only why the American education system is the unmitigated disaster which all intelligent people recognize it to be, but why, given our present culture, it could not be anything else.

The ends of true schooling are also not the good of an individual alone, but of a community as well.  When we educate the young properly, we transform them into thoughtful, civil persons, capable of understanding their duties in a well-ordered society, and capable of carrying out those duties.  A young person benefits from being so molded, but the rest of us benefit equally by receiving into our midst such virtuous citizens.  The traditions of the various learned disciplines are benefited too by true education.  Rational argumentation, principled politics, scientific knowledge – all of these things, and the goods that they entail, are preserved when we teach our young correctly.  And since the preservation of these traditions is one end of education, we must hold students to the standards derived from those traditions, demanding of them nothing less than the kinds of learned excellence embodied in the “best that has been thought and said in the world.”

We must often notify students when they fail to achieve that standard, and on occasion, conclude that there are some students who are likely to prove incapable of measuring up to that standard, no matter how much effort they put forth.  And because the work which is required to master these traditions is often of the most monotonous variety, we will need to handle students with some form of compulsion, to make them persist in a necessary labor, against which their natures will revolt in the most pronounced fashion.

Our individualistic culture, with its emphasis on self-esteem, self-affirmation, and self-fulfillment, is at enmity with each and every one of these principles, and will admit none of them into its pantheon of prevailing educational dogmas.  A near unanimity of American parents regard a school simply as an institution designed for the benefit of their child, and not also for the community as a whole.  As each and every negative appraisal of their child’s performance constitutes a threat to his self-esteem, they will allow his teachers to make no such appraisals.  They will allow his teachers to maintain no standards which are beyond the capacities of their child, even temporarily, for fear that the resulting failures will fracture his psychological placidity.  Such things confound their cherished conception of education, which is essentially therapeutic – the prolonged cultivation of their child’s emotional ease.  As a consequence, rather than holding the students to certain expectations, our schools now frame their expectations to the limits of their students; this is the process of “dumbing down” which has been an unmistakable feature of the American educational landscape for over three generations.

Anybody familiar with contemporary education knows how aggressively American parents impose their distorted and self-centered assumptions upon their children’s schools – how loudly they will remonstrate when their child receives low grades, how relentlessly they will harass his teachers and administrators, how wildly they will act in order to shield their child from the supposed adverse effects of the least negative judgment, in the form of a C or a detention.  What these things reveal is that such parents simply have no desire that their children be subjected to the process I have described above, a process which necessarily entails significant measures of negative appraisal, correction, and rigor.  And the reason why American parents do not wish their children to be subject to such a process is because our society engenders no other conception of a school’s purpose than such goods as belong exclusively to an individual.

This, then, is why our educational system is in its present catastrophic condition, because the American people have compelled their local schools to conform to their own expectations, and those expectations are incompatible with a flourishing form of education.  And this is also why most of the proposed remedies for our schools fail to address what is most basically problematic with those institutions.  The incompetence of teachers, the malign influence of teacher’s unions, the misallocation of enormous revenues by bureaucrats – these are all symptoms of an educational system which is rotten to its core, but they are not the underlying causes of the rot.  What is basically wrong with our schools is that there is simply no way to educate contemporary American children properly, given the cultural presumptions of their parents.  The fundamental reason why American children are not educated properly is simply because the American people do not want their children to be educated properly.  So they’re not.

Mark Anthony Signorelli is a poet, playwright, and essayist.  He currently serves as Contributing Editor for The New English Review.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Fatima September 20, 2010 at 7:16 am

Unfortunately, the standards have not only been lowered academically. As a fifth grade teacher, I had a parent who justified her son’s actions when he tried to strangle another student in the restroom. She told me that her reaction to his suspension from our school would be to reward him with some special games and movies to enjoy on his days off. Actions like these make teaching next to impossible.
On the other hand, there are many parents who, given the chance, are wonderful partners in education. Parents who take responsibility for their child’s education make all the difference.
I read this quote in another article this morning…
“I have never let my schooling interrupt my education.” ~ Mark Twain
Made me smile… Hope it does the same for you.

avatar Rob O. September 20, 2010 at 10:37 am

The problem you’ve described is what has led to so many Gen Yers who are rabidly self-entitled. These people waltz through the door in the morning with an overt “Well, I’ve arrived. What are you going to do for ME today?” attitude that just repulses us slightly older guys.

As a new parent, there are plenty of things I want to shield my child from, but responsibility is certainly not one of those. I’m working hard to ensure that he does understand that there are consequences for each action – both good and bad – and that he has to take ownership of that cycle. Now at 4, this is pretty rudimentary, but even at this age, I try to allow experience and results to be primary educators. Mistakes made at this age are cheap and tolerable, so they’re great learning opportunities. If you wait until kids are teens, this becomes much more costly in every sense.

avatar Sam M September 20, 2010 at 11:16 am

I am not so sure that the problem is “near universal.” I am even less sure that it can identified so specifically. For instance, the “helicopter” parents you are deriding here do exist, but in a very specific cohort of society. Upper-middle class parents do seem to behave this way a lot. The thing is, their kids seem to do just fine, going off to Stanford and MIT and CalTech and doing well competing against the best and brightest around the world. They might not be able to recite Chaucer like they might have 50 years ago, but they do appear to be learning something and putting it to some use.

I think a far more intractable problem surrrounds the parents who don’t complain at all, or say much of anything else. They just send junior off to school and expect not to get any calls.
Yes, this is a fundamental problem with American parenting, but it’s a separate one from the problem you identify here, I think.

Also, it’s important to note that parents are reacting to incentives in a rational way. For whatever reason, the system rewards students (and graduates) who master the SAT and attend “prestige” colleges. So… parents expect schools to teach the test and grant Johnny good enough grades to gain admission to a prestigious university.

Maybe my kids would be way better off if their teachers made sure they could recite ancient poems and gave them Cs all the time. But I am not so sure. The world is what it is. Is it wise to counsel them to buck the system? Sometimes, absolutely. But not always. I think it’s ridiculous that an 18-year-old kid can’t have a beer. So I can tell my kid to drink up, knowing that he’s in the right. Or I can tell him to do what he wants, but expect the world to react according to its whims.

Either way, public schools or not, I think it has ALWAYS been up to parents to make sure their kids get an education. It was that way in Walnut Grove, it was that way in 1950. And it remains so today.

avatar Chris_Harrison September 20, 2010 at 7:40 pm

While I can certainly appreciate your concerns with academic rigor (or the lack thereof), I think that there is a key element to education as a whole that you are missing here. In order to identify it, I’m going to quote John Dewey:

“Ultimately, people want to be engaged in cooperative doings with others.”

This should be one of the major end-goals of our educational process, because so long as the education centers on developing academic rigor in the individual student, it fails to develop his or her aptitudes as a member of a community. And, after all, is not one of the primary goals of education to prepare children to be members of their community?

Yes, there are some things that can only be learned through drilling. However, the mere drilling is only the beginning of the process. A truly good teacher finds ways to allow his or her students to actively use the skills they have learned in a context that has meaning for the student. Drilling and rote memorization cannot accomplish this goal by themselves.

avatar MC September 21, 2010 at 8:03 am

Regarding Chris Harrison’s comment, and to quote from the article: The ends of true schooling are also not the good of an individual alone, but of a community as well. When we educate the young properly, we transform them into thoughtful, civil persons, capable of understanding their duties in a well-ordered society, and capable of carrying out those duties. A young person benefits from being so molded, but the rest of us benefit equally by receiving into our midst such virtuous citizens.

Mr. Harrison’s comment is well taken, though seemingly missing the above quoted notion in the article.

avatar Marion Miner September 22, 2010 at 8:40 pm

Sam – as a young teacher, I’ve heard many stories from older teachers about such upper-middle class families and their children as you describe. One problem that you seem to overlook is that, at some point, a kid is going to get knocked on his ass. Is he going to be able to handle that if he’s been handed everything on a silver platter his entire life? One day, nobody’s going to be there to harangue the teacher or the employer or whomever into complying with the will of the child or stooping down to tend to his fragile self-esteem.

You also seem to overlook the central point of the article, which is that it is not simply the future of the child which is the point of education, but the benefit of society as a whole – and that encompasses much, much more than the child’s future as a producer/consumer. Raising self-entitled, arrogant children (some of whom I’ve had the distinct pleasure of having in my own classroom) benefits neither the child nor society.

avatar Sam M September 23, 2010 at 6:12 am

” Is he going to be able to handle that if he’s been handed everything on a silver platter his entire life?”

I think the short answer is, “Probably.” I went to one of those fancy-pants prestige colleges, and the kids I was there with had been helipter-parented within an inch of their privileged little lives. Right now, a very high percentage of them are heart surgeons and teachers and… otherwise productive members of society. Are they self-absorbed sometimes? Sure. But they are no more inclined to be so than the people I know who attended traditional parochial schools and more conservative colleges.

I think we often overestimate the impact the educational system, particularly higher education, has on people.

avatar Saint Louis September 23, 2010 at 2:38 pm

My wife is a high school teacher at a very expensive (~$25,000/year) private school and she would tell you this problem is worse there than probably anywhere else, especially worse than in the rural public school where she previously taught. The parents complain every time little Colton gets anything below a B. They think that since they pay so much money to the school that he should get all As. Worse yet is that the school adminstration always sides with the parents against the teacher because they don’t want to lose a tuition-paying student.

Does this help the students? The school brags that 100% of its students get into college. Of course they don’t tell you about the large percentage who drop out after a semester or two because they can’t hack it.

Does this help society? Most of these kids are insufferable brats (worse than the usual teen), and ignorant to boot.

avatar Lori September 23, 2010 at 2:59 pm

I would be more than happy to hand over my children to the education establishment, if they were to actually instruct in the fashion you demonstrate above. Lay the basic foundations and build on them, demanding more and more of the student as they master each level. But what I see from most schools is a lot of information thrown at kids, usually in the form of some kind of entertainment, and hope it sticks.

My daughter’s teacher told me that the reason my FIRST GRADER has so much homework is that “we just don’t have time to review in class, we’re required to cover so much for the tests.” So it becomes my job to do the “drill, baby, drill” routine at home, and I’m the bad guy, because school is just so entertaining.

avatar Chris_Harrison September 23, 2010 at 8:03 pm

In response to MC…

I did happen to note the final part of the article that you quoted, and I fully agree with that goal. My quibble was with the presumption on the part of the author that all you have to provide is academic rigor and they will arrive at becoming thoughtful citizens deux ex machina. The “A” and “B” aren’t as important here as the how-to-get-from-”A”-to-”B”, and that what what was omitted from the article.

Perhaps it appeared that things happened that way in the past, but it was probably a result of children having real-life experiences that enabled them to apply the skills that had been drilled into them. For instance, young boys may have applied basic mathematics toward helping in basic carpentry. Young girls had the opportunity to apply mathematics — especially fractions — helping out with cooking and baking. For a more detailed discussion of this phenomenon, I would recommend looking at any of the works of John Taylor Gatto.

One of the bigger problems we face is that children no longer have those real-life opportunities. Combine this with the fact that we have become exponentially more specialized over this same time period that we have removed real-life experience from children’s daily lives — and you’re setting up a recipe for disaster. In this scenario, good teachers can certainly play a role in setting up opportunities in the classroom for students to apply these drilled skills — and even to apply and combine them in novel ways. Unfortunately, such innovation is usually discouraged by onerous testing requirements that seek to measure a breadth of information but never can get to any depth of understanding.

avatar D.W. Sabin September 25, 2010 at 11:29 am

Worrying about “Self Esteem” in the United States of America is like fretting over whether or not there is malign intent amongst the always innocent inmates at your average lock-up.

Only a people that believe they are helpless morons would worry so much about the silly arts of the so-called “self-esteem” industry. It is the redoubt of that arch piff-paff, the Life Coach. Tell me, exactly how much cognitive dissonance can there be in a person who actually believes the compliments of a person they have paid to compliment them? The only Life coach I ever admired was Matt Foley. Now, he was original.

If the Dog always and only hears he is precious and swell, he will climb up on the sofa and sit their like a Pasha, shedding and slobbering away. Let him know he can be the recipient of a richly deserved kick in the slats at a moments notice, he will observe the rules of etiquette with greater alacrity and so “Good Dog” will continue to have meaning.

On the other hand, kick a dog too much and they become low and shifty. We are kicking the dog too much with idle notions of self esteem, something hard to achieve when one’s world is reduced to a push button and baby-sitting digital productions.

avatar Brighid September 28, 2010 at 12:39 pm

As a psych major and a mother of three children currently in the public school system, I have so much to say.

While I do not disagree with some of this opinion (especially the comments about “incompetence of teachers, the malign influence of teacher’s unions, the misallocation of enormous revenues by bureaucrats”)…his article is very hard on “American parents,” throwing us all into one big “agressive,” “distorted,” basket of placating waifs. I disagree. There are those among us who kids go to public schools who hold high standards and apply accountibility to our children and their performance, daily.

What of the outside endeavors of these families? What of the public school children who take piano lessons, ballet, hockey, art classes, drama school, etc beyond the walls of their public school? Are we then to assume that these parents do not value their child’s contribution in the greater world? Their responsibility and level of personal achievement??

avatar self esteem December 21, 2010 at 6:02 pm

I think something crucial in fostering self-esteem is that someone’s deeds must match their words… or it creates a very “mixed sense of self” in a person. For example, my parents were always TELLING me “how bright” I was, but berating me for any less than perfect grades; TELLING me I was “wonderful,” but often ignoring most of what I had to say… kids are not dumb– they can tell by people’s actions, what they really “mean.”Self Esteem Affirmations

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