Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Beautiful and the Confused

California is like the shockingly gorgeous woman at a party who desperately wants people to think she's not just a pretty face with cleavage a lovely landscape and so is always coming out with the polysyllabic words (the production of which seems almost painful) in the hopes that someone will finally take her seriously and stop staring at her cleavage Sierra foothills.

Someone needs to tell her that she really doesn't need to try so hard. Although maybe it is time she figure out the difference between correlation and causation.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was the self-esteem campaign with a task force and everything. (You can read the full report here.) Even though all the other states like to make fun of California and New York (she being so pretty and he being so cool and rebellious), as they go, so goeth the nation. The promotion of self-esteem in children snowballed into almost a religion. Praise became as constant and unrelenting as it was--I'm sure--meaningless to the intended beneficiaries.

As with any method of symptom-mowing, that didn't quite work out as anticipated:
The long-term impact of this rah-rah mentality is already apparent. In 2004, according to Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me, 70 percent of American college freshmen reported their academic ability as “above average.” But, once ego-inflated students get to college, they’re more likely to drop out, says Twenge, when their skewed sense of self and overconfidence affects their ability to make decisions.
Because they got it backwards. Although self-esteem and high student achievement may be correlated, the cause-and-effect sequence is more likely to be that high student achievement promotes self-esteem, rather than the reverse. *Oops. Dang. How much did we spend on that report again?*

(Oddly enough, in a six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon six-degrees-of-separation kind of coincidence, just when this self-esteem campaign was a little sparkly idea glimmering on the horizon, I was working as a secretary at an automobile repair shop that was owned by John Vasconcellos's brother. There simmered family tensions, is all I have to say about that. Also, such work did not enhance my self-esteem, as the owner's wife was in the habit of remarking that how interesting that I was a college graduate--she had never attended college--and yet I didn't know how to load paper into a printer. I didn't blame her; no amount of praise could have convinced me I was even a minimally adequate secretary. I was a terrible secretary, maybe the world's worst secretary, with deplorable office skills that were on a par with my knowledge of auto repair. One of my duties was to translate the mechanics' notes on the service orders into descriptions of labor  for the customers' bills. Once, after replacing a part, a mechanic scribbled "lower radiator hose" on the service order. I wrote "lowered radiator hose" on the final bill, which ignorance sort of rendered everyone, from the high school kid who pushed a broom around to the owner, speechless. )

I would like to point out that it's antithetical to serious intellectual inquiry to hijack such a discussion by misrepresenting the "basic premise" in order to promote a political and social agenda:
The basic premise is that racism and discrimination cause minorities to feel bad about themselves, and that this low self-image translates into women avoiding "hard" fields like engineering and blacks and Hispanics doing poorly in school.
Well, no, not exactly. The basic premise is that people--and let's leave race and gender out of it, shall we, because neither has much to do with the main point--who feel bad about themselves for whatever reason, tend to self-destruct--and take others with them--which can only have negative effects on not just society, but the economy, so how might it be possible to kill the snake when it is young address this problem in children so that they are able to become self-sufficient adults who are well-equipped to function and thrive, which will mean less crime, fewer teen-age pregnancies, less substance abuse, and more productivity, which will mean more money for big companies and the local and federal governments that tax them. The means may have been ill-advised, but the goal seems like one we could all get on board with to some degree of enthusiasm, if indeed it be based in fact.

Similarly, the motivation driving the California Department of Education (and those of Michigan and Oklahoma and others) to dissect creativity in order to figure out how it works and thus build it into school curriculum has to do with money business productivity. This isn't a new idea:
The world community recognizes that progress in the arts, in the professions, and in science and technology relies exquisitely on the creativity of people in these professions.
This came from Carl A. Leopold (Boyce Thompson Institute, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York), who went on to suggest
. . . the art of scientific thinking be taught by allowing students to experience all the thrills--and missteps--of an actual science program or research.
Which indicates that independent exploration and direct experience and willingness to fail are essential to creativity. It's an orientation from which to teach, rather than a framework for a curriculum.

Once creativity is allowed in, students may gain mastery, thus building self-esteem without anyone heaping on piles of praise--praise that the students are surely smart enough to recognize as false. Everything is everything.

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