2012-06-29 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

Putting Question Mark On The Self-Esteem Movement
Commentary By Howard Schwach

It took a teacher to finally question the movement that has devastated the psyches of an entire generation, the self-esteem movement that has permeated our schools and our sports, a movement that says that a child is special whether he or she is or not.

I have always believed that selfesteem comes not from being told that one is wonderful no matter what, but from working hard to achieve a goal and getting a reward, whether internal or external, for that achievement.

Listen to what 26-year teaching pro David McCullough had to say to a graduating high school class.

“You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless. In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another – which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality – we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.”

Wow! He is right on the mark, and I have personally been saying that for a decade or more.

Tina Brown, writing about the speech, which went viral on the Internet, in her Newsweek column said, “There’s a growing dystopian groundswell of opinion that we’ve given our children everything – except for the one thing they need most and the thing that nobody can provide, the ability to find their own core passion without artificial support. And the understanding of how much work, how much sheer effort it takes to succeed.

“Today’s kids inhabit a world where the cultural hype they have been fed at home and in school about how wonderful they are is about to meet a rude comedown [in the real world].”

What brings this on is not only the high school graduation speech that went viral, but what I see around me and what I saw in my last ten years of teaching.

Last week I was watching a little league game at Fort Tilden.

It was late in the season and the 13- year-olds were playing their hearts out for a chance at a good spot in the coming playoffs.

Despite the fact that the players have been told a hundred times over the season that they should watch their coaches when running the bases, one player ran through a stop sign from his third base coach and was thrown out at home, taking his team out of the game.

I yelled, “Watch your coach next time,” and was immediately ostracized by the parents at the game, who were busy yelling “Good hustle,” and “It was close,” and “You’ll make it next time.”

Why should that player get accolades for making a bonehead play that cost his team the game? Because we don’t want to hurt his self-esteem.

At the end of the season, every team makes the playoffs and every kid on every team gets a trophy.

Competition is bad, after all, because to lose is to deflate the all-important self-esteem.

As a famous colonel once said, “horsehockey.”

Self-esteem comes from doing a job, doing it well and getting rewarded not for attempting the job and failing, but for succeeding.

That reward might be intrinsic, that is from within – the feeling that you have really achieved something and deserve the reward.

Or, the reward might be extrinsic, from without – a trophy or an A grade.

As the man said, when everybody gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless, and don’t think that the kids don’t know it.

The same holds true in school.

Competition for grades went out the window because somebody at Columbia University thought that it was bad for self-esteem.

So, no more number grades. Instead of 95, a student would get a three or a four – proficient and above standards.

In addition, kids would learn in groups made up of disparate groups of students.

In every group of four, there was one student who did 90 percent of the work, two who helped and did the mandated oral report and a fourth who did little but pull the others backward.

Yet, the entire group got the same grade. None of that bad competition there. Everybody wins, except for the kid who did all the work and got an intrinsic reward for his work and then went home and complained that the others did little and got the same grade he or she did.

How about the New Math, where a student was rewarded for getting the wrong answer but showing his or her work so the teacher could see what was wrong, but a student who could do the work in his or her head was punished for getting the right answer by not showing how that answer was achieved.

Everybody has to be rewarded.

When I went to public school at PS 106 and then at Far Rockaway High School, we learned grammar from the beginning, eventually diagramming sentences.

I learned to write there, but when I started to write professionally for American

Education Publications in 1970 (Weekly Reader, Current Events), I was a mess.

My editor at Current Events and Urban World was an old hand from the Providence Journal.

The first piece I handed him he handed right back, telling me it wasn’t even good enough to discuss.

It took several tries to get him to even discuss my story.

That is how I learned to write, not in a group of other students who did “peer editing,” and turned it over to teacher who did not know English very well.

I never got a “good try” when I turned in a sloppy piece. It was always “not very good –try again.”

No self-esteem problems there. Now, I have achieved a small success as an editor and I am proud of what I have achieved. My self-esteem is just fine, thank you.

That came from taking on a difficult job and doing it well. And, in the real world, that is the name of the game. We should teach our kids just that.

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