(The following article appeared in the 4 January 1999 edition of the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch and is copyrighted by them. It is reproduced here only as a temporary measure for educational discussion purposes and will be removed as soon as the Post-Dispatch indexes it electronically for free public retrieval via the Internet.
Forget Self-Esteem; Set High Educational Standards
By J. Martin Rochester and David Rose
We make our living in higher education, teaching political science and economics. Last year, while visiting the University of Michigan, one of us discovered that a well-known international relations scholar required that his undergraduate students buy a pocket manual on grammar and punctuation. When asked why he had assigned such a low-level book, especially at a "top 25" institution with high admission standards, he responded that he had no alternative since his incoming students were becoming more illiterate by the year.
Such anecdotes are becoming commonplace. We have witnessed a similar decline in academic preparation on the part of students entering our own university. If the problem were limited to poor training in core academic skills - the ability to write well, think critically and do basic math - it would be serious enough. But the problem goes far beyond that. Increasingly students exhibit a poor work ethic, an aversion to reading and listening, an ignorance of history, an entitlement mentality regarding good grades and a lack of respect for traditional notions of scholarship and knowledge and for learning itself.
David Gelertner, the prominent Yale University computer scientist, captured the essence of the problem in an essay in Time: "Our schools are in crisis. Statistics prove what I see every day as a parent and a college educator ... students who can't write worth a damn, who lack basic math and language skills. Our schools are scared to tell students to sit down and shut up and learn; drill it, memorize it, because you must master it whether it's fun or not. Children pay the price for our educational cowardice."
Gelertner is no doubt guilty of hyperbole; we don't really want students to simply "shut up and memorize." Indeed, higher education would probably benefit from relying less on lectures and making greater use of the active learning techniques that have become fashionable in precollegiate education. But he is expressing the frustration many of us have with a K-12 reform movement that has gone from the one extreme of "drill and kill" to an opposite extreme, encouraging in students a "do your own thing," "I'm OK, you're OK" mentality uninhibited by any authoritative standards regarding grammar or other aspects of pedagogy.
Our education systems are being turned upside down. While precollegiate educators are pretentiously referring to their charges, including preschoolers, as "a community of scholars," we in higher education often feel we are surrounded by graduates of "South Park" and are having to devote ever more time and energy to remediation, euphemistically labeled "academic development." The U.S. Department of Education reports that more than 80 percent of all public colleges and 70 percent of all private colleges, including Ivy League institutions, now offer remedial instruction.
K-12 educators in Missouri and elsewhere claim they are making tougher demands on their students. How does one explain, then, the advent of gradeless report cards in many school districts, the use of "block time" to enable students to use the school day to do what we used to call homework, the unlimited amount of time students are now being given to complete the new statewide Missouri Assessment Project tests, and other such reforms that seem to reflect the growth of a standardless, dumbed-down culture calculated to give all students a false sense of achievement?
Most K-12 teachers understand fully the folly of what is going on but must abide by the dictates of the reform leadership - the curriculum supervisors and other administrators who live in an even taller ivory tower than we university types.
How did American K-12 education get into this mess? There is no single, simple answer, but many of the current difficulties can be traced to the "self-esteem movement" propagated by pop psychologists. Every teacher since Socrates has struggled with the temptation to give a grade that makes the child happy even if it does not accurately reflect his or her performance. Before the self-esteem movement, however, nearly all teachers viewed such grade inflation as dishonest and, more important, as harming the child in the long run.
The self-esteem movement that took off in the 1970s changed all of that, providing instructors with a rationalization for handing out grades in excess of what is actually earned.
Although grade inflation has spilled over into higher education, what still differentiates collegiate institutions from K-12 institutions is that the former do not consider the building of self-esteem an educational objective. Our capacity to uphold standards is, however, being sorely tested in an educational environment that is beginning to reveal the long-term effects of excessive emphasis on self-esteem.
In a study reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Brad Bushman of Iowa State University and Roy Baumeister of Case Western University found that college students have unrealistically high opinions of themselves and are often unable to tolerate criticism, sometimes becoming violent when their exaggerated self-image, cultivated by years of ego-stroking in grade school, comes up against someone who dares to say "you are wrong."
"Forget about self-esteem," Baumeister advises parents and teachers, "and concentrate on self-control."
We hesitate to make a sweeping judgment about all school districts - some, like our own districts (Clayton and Rockwood), have made good faith efforts to strike the right balance between academic and nonacademic concerns - but we believe our critique stands as a fair, accurate commentary on our educational systems as a whole. K-12 and higher education can each learn from the other. We would only point out, to those who believe colleges must adapt to the pedagogical practices of K-12 rather than vice-versa, that it is America's higher educational institutions that are the envy of the world, not its little red schoolhouses. If present trends persist, there may be little worth envying anywhere in American education.