Commentary Magazine


Education Blues

To the Editor:

Kay S. Hymowitz is mostly on the mark in “Tales of Suburban High” [June], but she brushes off too easily what she refers to as “the woeful influence of the religion of self-esteem” in America’s schools. The indoctrination of educators in the self-esteem movement is at the heart of the problem.

When I became a public- high-school teacher a couple of years ago, I was told right off that raising student self-esteem is not merely a goal of education but the primary goal. There is no quicker way for a teacher to run afoul of (even well-meaning) administrators than to be accused of diminishing a student’s self-esteem. This explains in large part why teachers waste time chatting up their charges. How better to make students feel empowered, while at the same time staying clear of the potentially hazardous exercise of actually teaching them something?

To my mind, there can be no meaningful school reform so long as the cult of self-esteem remains entrenched in our education establishment.

Jonathan F. Keiler
Bowie, Maryland

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To the Editor:

I wish to thank Kay S. Hymowitz for expressing what I have long observed in suburban high schools and for articulating the frustration felt by many dedicated teachers who try to instill a modicum of purposeful learning in their classrooms.

During the 32 years I taught in both public and private high schools, I witnessed the disintegration of respect both for education itself and for educators who could not compete with MTV. Teachers who set high standards were undermined by administrators who, in turn, were afraid of lawsuits by parents. One principal told me to think of students as our “clients” and to give them full latitude when they were tardy to class. Parents, meanwhile, acted as “helicopters,” swooping in to rescue their children at a moment’s notice when assignments were deemed too challenging or rigorous.

Though I agree with Kay Hymowitz that “the ultimate culprits no doubt lie in our national character,” I suggest that there is a specific cause of the chaos one encounters in the suburban high school: the perception that public education is “free” and therefore of little value. One does not value what one perceives to be getting for nothing.

Jenene Stookesberry
Denver, Colorado

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To the Editor:

In her insightful and troubling article, Kay S. Hymowitz catches the paradoxical nature of high-school life in a status-obsessed age. As she notes, the trend in pedagogy is toward treacly “edutainment” and meaningless affirmations of self-esteem, while curricula tend toward dumbed-down mediocrity. Yet the most promising students are overscheduled and overstressed, racing from one extracurricular enrichment to another in a world that seems to them viciously competitive. How can these seemingly contradictory phenomena coexist?

To begin with, as America’s top universities became national institutions, and as standardized testing made it easier to identify the nation’s best students, elite colleges began to monopolize the enrollment of America’s most intelligent young people, thus increasing the pressure for achievement in high school—but only for the very best students.

The ordinary student who slacks his way through high school and matriculates at Southwest State is performing as expected. But the exceptional student will miss out on real opportunities if he does not amass the course credits, grade-point average, and résumé needed to gain admission to a top college. Given the benefits of graduating from such colleges, these high-potential students inevitably feel intense pressure to perform.

It should be added that many of today’s brightest students are the offspring of high-achieving parents produced by the postwar American meritocracy. A dad with an engineering degree from Michigan and a mom with an MBA from Penn State quite naturally hope that one or more of their offspring will attend Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. The parents’ socioeconomic advantages lend a certain weight to their expectations, and they are likely to react harshly if anything seems to threaten those expectations. Having paid top dollar for a home in a community with supposedly good public schools, they feel shortchanged if the school itself appears to impede the fulfillment of their dreams, and they distribute blame accordingly.

Robert Stacy McCain
Washington, D.C.

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Kay S. Hymowitz writes:

My correspondents accept the sorry picture of our “good” schools that emerges from the two books discussed in my essay, but offer three entirely different explanations for it. For Jonathan F. Keiler, the culprit is self-esteem; for Jenene Stookesberry, it is the fact that education is free; and for Robert Stacey McCain, it is that a brutally meritocratic system separates the high-achieving Ivy League wheat from the slacker, Southwest State chaff.

To begin with this last point, though I find Mr. McCain’s description of a two-tiered student body basically correct, I wonder how it explains the dumbed-down curriculum many of our suburban children are snoozing through these days. For one thing, even elite students are getting a heavy dose of “edutainment.” (In my article I mentioned one example from the book Doing School, where an AP American-history student receives an A+ for a multi-media extravaganza owing more to Hollywood than to the historian Richard Hofstadter.) For another, why is it not possible to give students a serious education even if they are not going to Princeton? Is there some reason students headed for Southwest State should not be required to read The Scarlet Letter instead of watching the movie?

Jenene Stookesberry contends that people will not respect education as long as it is free. This strikes me as simply untrue. People often have and still do take a free education seriously; think of the legion of immigrants who saw the public schools as the only sure route into mainstream American society. Moreover, some of the problems she confronted in her decades of teaching—the tendency to treat students as clients and the intrusive over-protectiveness of parents—surely would not be solved simply by having people pay for their children to go to school. In fact, one could imagine they might even get worse, especially if parents felt they were not getting their money’s worth.

As for Mr. Keiler, far be it from me to underestimate the disastrous effects of the dogma of self-esteem. It is a scourge. Still, do we really want to make it the sole explanation for our education ills? The list of causes behind the poor state of our schools is already copious: lawsuits, “edutainment,” a mediocre teacher pool, American pragmatism, unsupportive parents, MTV, poorly socialized children, multiculturalism. These, I fear, are enough to keep us busy for a long time to come.

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Correction

In David Gelernter’s “Judaism Beyond Words: Part 2” (September), a statement by Rabbi A. I. Kook on page 42, column 2 was wrongly dated to 1967; in fact the statement was made decades earlier. We regret the error.

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