Bill Muehlenberg

Students, Red Pens, and the State of a Nation

By now most of you would have heard of another example of madness in our public (taxpayer-funded) schools. An education kit in Queensland is encouraging teachers to throw out their red marking pens because using them might give little Johnny or Sarah a bad self-image. Here is how one news report puts it:

“Teachers are being warned to use bean bags to reduce student stress, organise ‘mind dumps’ to clear kids’ thoughts and even stop using ‘aggressive’ red pens. In a controversial suite of tips that has divided psychologists, a Queensland Health kit tells teachers to use blue or black pens to mark assignments because red is considered too confrontational. The effort to handle students with care – backed by Health Minister Stephen Robertson – also includes teachers being told to apologise to them when necessary and organise ‘check-ins’ at the start of each day to assess how they are feeling.”

“The Queensland Council of Parents and Citizens Associations last night demanded the kit be scrapped. ‘It is definitely over the top and quite unbelievable,’ council president Margaret Black said. ‘We’re calling for our children to grow up normally, including their work being marked with a red pen.’ The Good Mental Health Rocks kit – of which 1000 have been distributed – was revealed in State Parliament yesterday by the Opposition, which has labelled the red pen advice ‘kooky, loony, loopy, Left policy’.

Evidently the kit, which costs nearly $3,000, was distributed to 29 schools. Later reports said that the idea actually originated in 2000 with the Howard Government. Regardless of whether it is – or was – promoted by Labor or Liberal, it sounds like another idiotic idea to me. It is all part of this nonsensical notion that we must never damage the frail psyches of our students, but forever pamper them, mollycoddle them, and let them pretend they are all little gods and goddesses.

Indeed, it gets worse. A day later news reports were telling us of another bizarre example of self-esteem in the classroom: “Teachers at a Brisbane school were told to leave wrong answers by students blank, as marking it wrong would have hurt the child’s confidence.” I kid you not.

Of course such loony self-esteem programs in our schools are all the rage, and they have been going on for quite some time now. As columnist Bert Prelutsky notes, “These days, self-esteem has come to be a birthright. If you’re a teenager and you’re breathing, polls indicate that you have a doggone high opinion of yourself”.

Obviously with all this emphasis on self-esteem in the classroom there has come a lot of nonsense. And it is easy to document many more examples. In their 2008 book about American public education, From Crayons to Condoms, Steve Baldwin and Karen Holgate examine the self-esteem craze sweeping through the educational system. They offer a number of stories by parents who are at wits’ end over these ineffective and counterproductive programs. One father made this complaint:

“I’m angry, very angry. Our son is six years old and in second grade. Last year I fumed because he brought home written work with every word misspelled and then told me it was ‘creative spelling.’ According to ‘creative spelling,’ children must learn two, three, or even four different ways to spell before learning the correct way. The formative years should be spent learning how to spell words correctly the first time!”

Plenty of other horror examples are provided in the book. The attempt to make all students feel good about themselves, when they in fact may be not so good, is as counterproductive as it is silly. It is light-years away from what schools used to do, and it seems that the old way of doing things was a lot more effective. As columnist Ashley Herzog writes,

“Once upon a time – a time you probably don’t remember if you’re younger than 30 – American schools sought to teach children self-control, personal responsibility, and respect for others, especially adults. Students were corrected when they made mistakes and reprimanded when they slacked off or talked back. Most unfathomable to the current education establishment, teachers assessed students on qualities such as ‘gets along well with others’ – and some children actually flunked. In the eyes of schoolteachers and parents, shaping kids into productive and responsible citizens was more important than protecting their egos.”

Quite right. But today ego and self-esteem are everything. And in the process, we are raising a generation of kids who are going to have some major problems once they get into the real world.

But does it work?

Indeed, the real issue here is whether these self-esteem education programs in fact do any good. The resounding answer seems to be no. An article in the U.S. News and World Report found that there is “almost no research evidence that these [self-esteem] programs work.” It said this:

“[T]he obsession with self-esteem ultimately undermines real education. When the self-esteem movement takes over a school, teachers are under pressure to accept every child as is. To keep children feeling good about themselves, you must avoid all criticism and almost any challenge that could conceivably end in failure. In practice this means each child is treated like a fragile therapy consumer in constant need of an ego boost. Difficult work is out of the question, and standards get lowered in school after school. Even tests become problematic because someone might fail them.”

In Dr Jean Twenge’s 2007 book, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – And More Miserable than Ever Before, the case is clearly made for dumping the self-esteem movement in schools. Dr Twenge argues that most of these “programs encourage children to feel good about themselves for no particular reason” and that the research shows no relationship between high self-esteem and academic achievement, the ability to have harmonious relationships, and so on.

Indeed, numerous studies have found little or no connection between all these self-esteem programs and any positive academic performance. As but one example, “In 2004, 48 percent of American college freshmen – almost half – reported earning an A average in high school, compared to only 18 percent in 1968, even though SAT scores decreased over the same period.” Indeed, college entrance exams are being dumbed down while high school grades are being artificially inflated.

And employers are complaining about the recent crop of students entering the workforce. They are often illiterate, lacking in basic work skills, poorly motivated, and have an overly high estimation of themselves and what they have to offer the workplace.

Self-esteem is hard to come by in a meaningless world

But perhaps the final word can be given over to the question of worldviews. It seems to me that one’s worldview will make a great amount of difference to one’s self esteem. If our worldview teaches us that we are simply a cosmic accident with no meaning or purpose, no history or destiny, no significance or value, then yeah, blowing your mind on drugs or committing suicide may seem like a pretty good idea.

Worldviews matter and bad worldviews lead to bad consequences. As one commentator puts it, “Perhaps it is no wonder that there is a problem with self-image today when children and students are taught they are only animals (as biology teaches) or machines (as behaviorism teaches), or who exist only for pleasure and sex (as hedonism teaches), or for money (as crass materialism teaches). Where do people find inherent dignity and value if they are only end products of an ugly and impersonal process of materialistic evolution?”

It seems we could go a long way toward improving students’ self-image (and academic performance) if we freed them from the straightjackets of naturalism, materialism and anti-supernaturalism. Giving kids the awareness of something greater, grander, and more mysterious than only themselves might do their fragile egos a whole lot more good than chucking out all of our red marking pens.

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