Self-Esteem v. Standards

By Mark A. Signorelli for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

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.

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