Don't Flatter Your Honor Roll Student

I came across this book review last week in the Wall Street Journal, and thought it was interesting:

Now, in “NurtureShock,” Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman survey the newest new findings about child development. Little in the book is all that shocking, but given our enthusiasm for turning tentative child ­research into settled policy, the studies that the ­authors discuss are of more than passing interest.

A striking example is the latest research on ­self-esteem. As Mr. Bronson and Ms. Merryman remind us, the psychologist Nathaniel Brandon published a path-breaking paper in 1969 called “The Psychology of Self-Esteem” in which he argued that feelings of self-worth were a key to success in life. The theory became a big hit in the nation’s schools; in the mid-1980s, the California Legislature even ­established a self-esteem task force. By now, there are 15,000 scholarly articles on the subject.

And what do they show? That high self-esteem doesn’t improve grades, reduce ­anti-social behavior, deter alcohol drinking or do much of anything good for kids. In fact, telling kids how smart they are can be ­counterproductive. Many children who are convinced that they are little geniuses tend not to put much effort into their work. Others are troubled by the latent anxiety of adults who feel it necessary to praise them constantly.

The benefits of teaching tolerance and promoting ­diversity look equally unimpressive in the current ­research. According to “NurtureShock,” a lot of well-meaning adult nostrums—”we’re all friends,” “we’re all equal”—pass right over the heads of young children. Attempts to increase racial sensitivity in older students can even lead to unintended consequences. One ­researcher found that “more diversity translates into more divisions between students.” Another warns that too much discussion of past discrimination can make minority children over-reactive to perceived future slights. As for trying to increase emotional intelligence, the education fad of the 1990s, it doesn’t seem to ­promote “pro-social values” either. It turns out that bullies use their considerable EQ, as it is called, to ­control their peers.

The rest of the review is here. This is mostly common sense, of course, but, as Chesterton was fond of pointing out, common sense isn’t nearly as common as one would hope.

8 Responses to Don't Flatter Your Honor Roll Student

  • “too much discussion of past discrimination can make minority children over-reactive to perceived future slights.”

    Over-reaction? Compared to what? Indifference to injustice? 40 years ago, many dismissed the civil rights movement as an over-reaction. Charges of “over-reaction” is often how legitimate discrimination is dismissed.

  • foxfier says:

    restrainedradical -
    For example, assuming that the phrase “like little monkeys” is meant to be an insult, rather than a generic description of little kids climbing all over a jungle gym, when one of the kids appears to have any hint of African blood.
    See also, women assuming that a guy holding a door for them is somehow an insult.

    I know that having grownups tell me how smart I was when I knew I was failing badly at a learning project just made me distrust any other complements they offered.

    I am a bit surprised they didn’t mention the classic “if you ignore bullies, they’ll go away” lie. (If you ignore bullies, they’ll just keep doing more and more to try to get a response until you’re bleeding on the floor. Can’t really stop that response, y’know.)

  • cminor says:

    Well, I’ve encountered some of those overreactions to perceived future slights more often than I’ve cared to. Race aside, some people tend to interpret everything in the light of past insults. It’s an unhealthy behavior; why encourage it?

    The textbook example for me was a highly-publicized carjacking case in Maryland in the early ’90s. The driver of the car was killed under horrible circumstances, and the two suspects, young black men, were picked up in possession of the car shortly thereafter–red-handed, really. Within a few days, the mother of one of the two was making the rounds of the news programs asserting that her son was being accused of the crime “because he’s black.”

  • MacGregor says:

    This is an example of how theory and practice evolve over time. As a teacher I see that students have a great ability at assessing reality from b.s. as foxfier described, and it is no great news flash that actions speak louder than words. Saying “good job” is relatively unimportant compared to giving students real responsibilities and situations to achieve – not just in a classroom situation or a football field but also in real life.

    It is natural for theorists to claim some model of behavior and then over-enthusiastically try to implement policies base on that model. That is called science and it happens all of the time and it is how we learn more. It is how science changes over time, though it is disconcerting for a general public who always wants a simple answer. Unfortunately social sciences and especially psychology is far more complex and based upon behavior that is a mix of nature and nurture and can not be simplified in a way that a chemical experiment can be constrained.

    I believe California over-reacted in creating a self-esteem task force, because it was overly simplistic and didn’t involve actual students.

  • John Henry says:

    Charges of “over-reaction” is often how legitimate claims of unjust discrimination are dismissed.

    I think that’s correct, restrained. But there are mistakes in both directions; sometimes people see racism when it isn’t there or accuse people of racism to advance a particular agenda. Other times, racism is present, and people try to dismiss the victim by saying they are ‘over-reacting’. I haven’t read the book that is the subject of the book review, and so I am not sure what studies that conclusion is based on. I’m inclined to take the claim at face value because, in my (limited) experience, academic research is generally sympathetic to claims of racism, and is unlikely to conclude an ‘over-reaction’ is taking place without a good reason. At the same time, you may be right; the studies in question may be dismissing legitimate racial discrimination.

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