Monday, January 16, 2012

Empty Praise

More and more educators are falling out of love with self-esteem. Years of experience have taught them that empty praise does not enhance performance. It detracts from it.

None will admit that they are following in the footsteps of the Tiger Mom, but they are.

The Washington Post reports: “For decades, the prevailing wisdom in education was that high self-esteem would lead to high achievement. The theory led to an avalanche of daily affirmations, awards ceremonies and attendance certificates — but few, if any, academic gains.

“Now, an increasing number of teachers are weaning themselves from what some call empty praise. Drawing on psychology and brain research, these educators aim to articulate a more precise, and scientific, vocabulary for praise that will push children to work through mistakes and take on more challenging assignments.”

Happily, this new trend also aims at building character by inculcating better values: “A growing body of research over three decades shows that easy, unearned praise does not help students but instead interferes with significant learning opportunities. As schools ratchet up academic standards for all students, new buzzwords are ‘persistence,’ ‘risk-taking’ and ‘resilience’ — each implying more sweat and strain than fuzzy, warm feelings.”

It’s a good day when therapy culture values are being overthrown in America’s schools.

The cultural transformation has been fueled by the free market. Increasingly, parents and teachers are seeing that American children are falling behind children from other countries.

Self-esteemism has been reality-tested. Now, more and more people are seeing that it has failed.

The Post writes: “Underlying the praise backlash is a hard seed of anxiety — a sense that American students are not working hard enough to compete with students from overseas for future jobs.”

Empty praise is a lie. Young children will accept it uncritically but adolescents know that it is patronizing. They know when they are being lied to.

Moreover, if you are being told that you are great when you aren’t, why bother to strive to do better. Worse yet, if you know that you are being lied to you will be less likely to take a risk that might show the world the truth.

We must, however, temper our optimism. Today, one of the major recipients of empty praise, a veritable monster of high self-esteem, is residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

He will be there for at least another year, and, perhaps even for four more years. If that does not cause you to temper your optimism, nothing will.

This morning Newsweek reminded us how far Barack Obama has gotten on empty praise. Apparently desperate to create buzz, the newsweekly published a cover story in which Andrew Sullivan showering Barack Obama with empty praise.

Sullivan does not think the praise is empty, but, in truth, his article is more campaign literature than serious essay. It has no place on the cover of a so-called news magazine.

In many ways Barack Obama is the product of a culture that tried to run on empty praise. He was elected president on the grounds that he was too smart to have ever accomplished anything.

Now, after three years of watching Obama flounder in his job and do everything in his power to divide the American people, most of his supporters have come to their senses and offered their mea culpas.

You do not need exceptional intelligence to see that the Obama administration has failed. You do need a modicum of integrity.

Having long since overdosed on therapy, Sullivan has none left. So, he falls back on his love for Obama.

Only someone who has been blinded by love could claim that Obama’s failures are successes, that his inadequacies are tactical, and that he is smarter than everyone else. 

In order to support his claim that Obama is smart, Sullivan is obliged to claim that all of Obama’s critics are “dumb.”

Inadvertently, Sullivan is revealing one of the more appalling consequences of the self-esteem, i.e. empty praise, movement.

When you praise mediocrity, what happens when you encounter true intelligence? Sullivan shows us that you will need to dismiss it, disparage it, or demean it.

The victims of the self-esteem movement have been those children who really are exceptional.

Take a classroom. If everyone is called brilliant or if everyone’s answers are declared to be insightful, regardless of whether they are right or wrong, the child who is truly brilliant will decide that working hard is not worth the trouble.

If his effort or his talent is not recognized, why bother.

When teachers fail to differentiate between brilliance and mediocrity they are demoralizing those children who have real brilliance.

In addition, a teacher who wants to raise the self-esteem of mediocre children might well be led to demean the achievements of the bright children.

If a teacher knows that Johnny will always have the right answer, she might decide not to call on Johnny. She might keep calling on Jimmy even though Jimmy rarely has the right answer. She might even make it her mission to praise Jimmy regardless of whether his answer is right or wrong.

Clearly, the tactic will tell Johnny that he is being punished for being smarter. He will figure out that having the right answer is wrong because it makes Jimmy feel bad for being a dolt. 

The self-esteem movement punishes people harshly for making others feel bad.

The teacher might believe that she is leveling the playing field and producing greater classroom equality. She will, in fact, be victimizing the children who have true talent, teaching them that the system is rigged against them. .

If you want to make Obama look smart, you can skew the evidence, as Sullivan does. But you also need to label all of his critics as dumb, because if you compared his intelligence to theirs, his would not withstand judgment.  


n.n said...

The self-esteem campaign was a mass social experiment with known flaws and predictable consequences. The people involved were either at best ignorant, or at worst malicious, when they intentionally sabotaged character development. The outcome of this grand experiment is a large number of people who are forced to confront reality without the means to compensate for the disparities between the illusion they were sold and the order that governs our world. Our society has, and will continue to, suffer from the fallout.

It's ironic, but the self-esteem campaign failed for the same reason we're experiencing a fiscal, moral, etc. crisis: leverage. Without a material foundation for individual development, their self-esteem was, in fact, equivalent to unsecured leverage (i.e. debt without collateral). The educators ignored the obvious limitations of our world and they ignored individual dignity.

Progress is an ambiguous concept. They were never required to qualify their ambitions. They promised and, for a short time, delivered instant gratification. This was and continues to be the drug of choice to escape the bounds of reality. Followed closely by drugs, alcohol, promiscuous and deviant relationships, etc.

Unmerited self-esteem and entitlement are the key ingredients to construct a decadent society in decline.

While it has been profitable to observe and treat effects, it is long overdue to start observing and treating causes.

This is yet another ridiculous showcase of the sheer incompetence demonstrated by generational rebels as they strive to outdo their predecessors. Not even the Soviets were so vain or delusional. If it wasn't for the large conservative minority to temper their "well-intentioned" dreams, then this nation would have collapsed a long time ago.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Excellent comment, n.n. I agree wholeheartedly.

n.n said...

I really don't think there is any other way to interpret your observations, and the latest revelations only serve to confirm both traditional knowledge and experience.

I appreciate your agreement, Mr. Schneiderman. I think it is imperative that we identify and resolve causal factors which contribute to the development of a dysfunctional individual and society. We must recognize that it was our dreams of instant gratification (e.g. physical, material, ego) that have contributed to our current state of affairs. It is unsustainable and the consequences are being transferred through the generations.

All the evidence suggests that they were conducting an experiment. It's possible that they possessed good intentions and acted in good faith. Perhaps their greatest flaw can be attributed to their stubborn resistance to acknowledge that our ancestors and predecessors did not live materially different lives. That their experiences and acquired wisdom from 100 years, 1000 years, and earlier, are equally legitimate and relevant today.

Well, only time will tell. It is cause for optimism that people are recognizing and resisting authoritarian and expert intrusions. Hopefully, we have not reached critical mass, and we will have an opportunity to correct our path.

The American experiment is great because it recognized individual dignity as its foundation. Now we need to recognize and appreciate its significance.

Dennis said...

The more rewards one passes out the less value they have to the individual receiving them. At some point they become another piece of paper on the wall or in storage some where.
They become counterproductive because they ask very little from the person and never challenge he/she to meet the real exigencies of life. I suspect that is why so many drop out of life when they come up against that first "wall." They have not developed the strength of character or nor do they have the wherewithal to know they can find ways to defeat that "wall."
There is nothing I have seen that denotes that life is not going to " kick" one in the teeth a few times. One of the most telling bumper sticker I have seen states, "My German Shepard is smarter that your honor roll student."
We all need a standard that challenges us to be the best we can be. Without is we never become the person we could be. We give up as soon as things get tough.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Good point, Dennis. Empty praise is like inflated currency. You end up having more and more and it buys less and less.

Does this mean that we should return to an academic gold standard? It would be an interesting extension of the analogy.

tyree said...

I work with a group of people who host monthly game days for the public where we play old fashioned, face-to-face boardgames. When I tell parents that we support competition and that the children need to learn to win with grace and lose with honor, their eyes light up. The most common response, "Thank you".

Dennis said...

We cheat our children, others and ourselves by not expecting the best from them. I know of no person who cannot be better.
This lack of expectation contributes to poor politics, poor racial relationships, et al. The academic institutions have done a lot of damage to every person who spends time in them. The disease that is extent in these institution permeate all of our society.
The real thrill of living life is knowing that one has all of the attributes and wherewithal to succeed. What is given is almost always not respected. What is earned is priceless.

Dennis said...

The art of teaching is NOT in the students who do well. It is found in teaching those who do not do well. In many cases those who do well would have done so with almost any knowledgeable person.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you all for the great comments.

I just noticed that the Washington Post published a comment to the effect that this story, as I said, vindicates the Tiger Mom.

One cannot help but recall how often Amy Chua was attacked in the media over the way she was raising her daughters. It's an interesting lesson to see that after the initial mindless wave of criticism many thoughtful people are seeing the value in her approach.