Saturday, September 15, 2018

Indulging High Schoolers' Anxiety

If you are like me and are not conversant with the agony of being in high school today, you will find this shocking.

Granted, most Americans have given up on the Millennial generation and are expecting great things from today’s high schoolers.

And yet, are today's high schoolers stronger, more resilient, harder working than their older siblings? Apparently not. By the evidence of Taylor Lorenz’s article in The Atlantic they are a bunch of whiners who expect to be coddled in school. They do not respect the authority of classroom teachers but have mounted a campaign to make school requirements reflect their mental health issues. It’s not just about coddling. It’s about allowing students to identify themselves by their emotional frailty.

The problem, Lorenz points out, is the dread moment when a child has to stand up in front of his or her class and make an oral presentation. For today’s anxiety-ridden students this is torture. Thus, it should not be allowed. More delicate students must be given a pass and excused from the painful task.

Such presentations must be suppressed, Lorenz notes, even though they highlight skills that most employers consider to be highly valuable.

According to a recent survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, oral communication is one of the most sought-after skills in the workplace, with over 90 percent of hiring managers saying it’s important. Some educators also credit in-class presentations with building essential leadership skills and increasing students’ confidence and understanding of material.

Such considerations have not penetrated adolescent minds. Thus, they have created something of a social media movement to ban these presentations as “discriminatory.” Thus they manifest bigotry toward anyone who cannot do them well. If you fail a test, few other children need to know. If you stand up in front of an audience and babble about nonsense, everyone will know that you are an idiot. And we cannot have that.

Lorenz identifies the phenomenon:

But in the past few years, students have started calling out in-class presentations as discriminatory to those with anxiety, demanding that teachers offer alternative options. This week, a tweet posted by a 15-year-old high-school student declaring “Stop forcing students to present in front of the class and give them a choice not to” garnered more than 130,000 retweets and nearly half a million likes. A similar sentiment tweeted in January also racked up thousands of likes and retweets. And teachers are listening.  

Astonishingly, we can see how a certain form of reasoning has infected these adolescent minds. It’s a function of the self-esteem movement, but it also reflects the notion that children are going to be irreparably damaged psychologically by undergoing the trauma of having to stand up and speak for themselves, or better, for being exposed as imposters:

Students who support abolishing in-class presentations argue that forcing students with anxiety to present in front of their peers is not only unfair because they are bound to underperform and receive a lower grade, but it can also cause long-term stress and harm.

“Nobody should be forced to do something that makes them uncomfortable,” says Ula, a 14-year-old in eighth grade, who, like all students quoted, asked to be referred to only by her first name. “Even though speaking in front of class is supposed to build your confidence and it’s part of your schoolwork, I think if a student is really unsettled and anxious because of it you should probably make it something less stressful. School isn’t something a student should fear.”

You see, all children are equal. None are more equal than others. And if classroom lectures show that some children are better than others, more confident, better informed, more articulate, then we must abolish the practice that makes some of them feel bad… and that will traumatize them for life:

“It feels like presentations are often more graded on delivery when some people can’t help not being able to deliver it well, even if the content is the best presentation ever,” says Bennett, a 15-year-old in Massachusetts who strongly agrees with the idea that teachers should offer alternative options for students. “Teachers grade on public speaking which people who have anxiety can’t be great at.”

“I get that teachers are trying to get students out of their comfort zone, but it’s not good for teachers to force them to do that,” says Henry, a 15-year-old also in Massachusetts.

As for the latest in psycho science, cognitive therapists have long determined that one of the best ways to treat anxiety is to face one’s fears. We, however, prefer to coddle children and to reinforce their anxiety.

So, high school is no longer about learning. It is no longer about developing skills that will be valuable in adult occupations. It’s all about therapy. It’s all about feelings. And it’s about refusing to accept that some students are just plain better than some others. Because any indication of inequality produces more mental illness:

These students want more options. They say that every student has unique strengths and abilities and that they should be allowed to present their work in ways that speak to those strengths. This might mean presenting alone in front of the teacher, or choosing between several alternatives like producing a piece of art or an essay for private judgment instead of presenting their work orally.

Lorenz quotes a high school teacher who has bought into the new way:

Kathleen Carver, a high-school history teacher in Texas, says teaching has changed since the days when she grew up. “I think in this day and age there [are] different pressures. We expect different things from our students,” she said. “We’re in a day and age where we have to acknowledge our students’ feelings. I have to listen to them and hear their feedback and respond to that. That’s how I can be a more effective teacher. If I ignored their feelings I don’t think they would like me or my class or walk away learning things.”

Whatever makes her think that these children are learning anything at all? That is the question.


Webutante said...

Good but discouraging post, Stuart. Am currently reading The Codding of the American Mind which features three bad ideas parents and schools are teaching children today: the myth of fragilism, thinking with feelings rather than critical thinking using a higher part of the brain, and the bi-polar world view of us good guys verses them baddies. Blame fills the gaps.

Sadly, I see this cult of safetyism and emotional centered living in my own family and it often reaches levels of unbelievable ridiculousness unheard of a generation ago. I had a small town, more hard scrabble upbringing and glad I have. Because when reality bites, it can have very sharp teeth.

Sam L. said...

I have no faith in The Atlantic, as well as their writers. Still, the dumbing-down of what is taught, and how little is taught, and the education of teachers in the last 20-40 years... Well, it ain't good. This all sounds terribly progressive to me; and as I've said before, the word "progressive" always makes me think of cancer.

Ares Olympus said...

I saw the article yesterday, and Jonathan Haidt's new book "The Codding of the American Mind" seems clearly relevant, seeing CBT as an answer. I've not read it, but seen lots online:

And in regards to public presetations, it does seem like the rise of texting and the smart phone that keeps the world at a distance, so perhaps kids now have fewer chances for direct communication and the skills that take practice. I recall a few years ago going to an Amusement park with friends and invited my 20yo niece, and she spent 2/3 of her time glued to her phone, and missed chances to interact with the other kids.

It show the problem of opportunity and choice, the choices we make in a world of unlimited choices (like how to communicate) we tend to be the ones we feel most comfortable with, so when we're sometimes forced to go outside of our comfort zone, it feels like "pain" rather than just discomfort. And perhaps "empathetic" parenting is more reluctant to prod a child into that discomfort. That doesn't mean empathy is bad, but it has to be put into a larger context of longer term goals.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Somehow I don't think David Hogg experienced anxiety when giving a classroom presentation. And look at how society has benefited.

The Egyptian said...

good grief, i was in FFA in high school (1977) public speaking was a hoot, served me well for the rest of my life. Thankfully the FFA still promotes public speaking, You should see the young people standup and go at it, there is a future, just not from the run of the mill whiners, find the kids in vocational training they'll knock your socks off