Education: Doing Bad and Feeling Good

A standardized math test was given to 13-year-olds in six countries last year. South Koreans did the best. Americans did the worst, coming in behind Spain, Britain, Ireland and Canada. Now the bad news. Besides being shown triangles and equations, the kids were shown the statement I am good at mathematics. Koreans came last in this category. Only 23% answered yes. Americans were 1, with an impressive 68%in agreement.

American students may not know their math, but they have evidently absorbed the lessons of the newly fashionable self-esteem curriculum wherein kids are taught to feel good about themselves. Of course, it is not just educators who are convinced that feeling good is the key to success. The Governor of Maryland recently announced the formation of a task force on self-esteem, a 23-member panel created on the theory, explains the Baltimore Sun, that drug abuse, teen pregnancy, failure in school and most other social ills can be reduced by making people feel good about themselves. Judging by the international math test, such task forces may be superfluous. U.S. kids already feel exceedingly good about doing bad.

Happily, some American educators are starting to feel bad about doing bad. Early voice to the feel-bad movement was given by the 1983 Nation of Risk study, which found U.S. schools deteriorating toward crisis. And President Bushs education summit did promise national standards in math and science. The commitment remains vague but does recognize that results objectively measured, not feelings, should be the focus of educational reform.

Now the really bad news. While the trend toward standards and testing goes on at the national level, quite the opposite is going on in the field, where the fixation on feeling is leading to the Balkanization of American education.

The battle cry is inclusion in the teaching curriculum for every politically situated minority. In California, for example, law that textbooks not just exclude adverse reflection of any group but include equal portrayal of women, minorities and the handicapped requites it. In texts on history or current events, or achievements in art, science or any other field, the contributions of women and men should be represented in approximately equal numbers.

Says a respected female historian: Im beginning to think that in the future it will become impossible to write a history textbook and satisfy these kinds of demands. After all, how do you write a history of the Bill of Rights giving equal time to the contribution of women?

In New York State, a report from the Task Force on Minorities (A Curriculum of Inclusion) has launched a fierce attack on Euro centrism in the schools. It begins, African Americans, Asian-Americans, Puerto Rican/Latinos and Native Americans have all been the victims of an intellectual and educational oppression that has characterized the culture and institutions of the United States and the European-American world for centuries. Result: Terribly damaging to the psyche of minority youth. Recommendation: Prepare all curricular materials on the basis of multicultural contributions to the development of all aspects of our society.

This is ideology masquerading as education and aspiring to psychotherapy. It demands outright lying. Not all groups in America have contributed to the development of all aspects of our society. There is little to be said, for example, about the Asian-American contribution to basketball, about the Jewish-American contribution to the Pequot War or about the contribution of women to the Bill of Rights. Some connection could, of course, be found manufactured if one pushed it. But pushing it would be entirely in the service of ideology, not truth. American history has not been smoothly and proportionately multicultural from the beginning. Honesty requires saying so.

But honesty is not the object of the inclusion movement. Psychic healing is. The fixation on inclusionary curricula is based on the widespread assumption that the pathologies afflicting many minorities, from teen pregnancy to drug abuse to high dropout rates, come from a lack of self-esteem. Which, in turn, comes from their absorbing (as the New York task force puts it) negative characterizations of themselves in school books.

This argument is wrong on its face. This is the era of affirmative action. If todays high dropout rates, drug abuse and teen pregnancy stem from negative characterizations of minorities, then 40 years ago the era of parks with no dogs or Negroes signs self-esteem should have been lower and social pathology worse. Of course, the opposite is true. In 40 years negative characterizations have decreased and social pathologies have increased.

The real tragedy of this obsessive preoccupation with Euro centrism is that it is a trap and a diversion. Of all the reasons for the difficulties encountered by the minority kids in the bottom that New York State, in the midst of an education crisis, should be devoting its attention to cleansing the grade away from real problems.

The attack on Euro centrism did not start in the New York public schools. It started at elite U.S. universities. Last year Stanford University changed its course on Western civilization into a curriculum of inclusion by imposing a kind of ethnic and gender quota system for Great Books.

Stanford can afford such educational indulgences. Its graduates will get jobs even if their education is mildly distorted by this inclusionary passion. Not so inner-city third-graders, whose margin of error in life is tragically smaller. And for whom any dilution or diversion of education to satisfy the demands of ideology can be devastating.

The pursuit of good feeling in education is a dead end. The way to true self-esteem is through real achievement and real learning. Politically Balkanized curricula will only ensure that U.S. schools continue to do bad, for which feeling good, no matter how relentlessly taught, is no antidote.

Charles Krauthammer, Times, February 5, 1990


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