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One Nation Under Therapy
The Myth of the Fragile Child
In 2001, the Girl Scouts of America introduced a "Stress Less Badge" for girls aged eight to eleven. It featured an embroidered hammock suspended from two green trees. According to the Junior Girl Scout Badge Book, girls earn the award by practicing "focused breathing," creating a personal "stress less kit," or keeping a "feelings diary." Burning ocean-scented candles, listening to "Sounds of the Rain Forest," even exchanging foot massages are also ways to garner points.1
Explaining the need for the Stress Less Badge to the New York Times, a psychologist from the Girl Scout Research Institute said that studies show "how stressed girls are today."2 Earning an antistress badge, however, can itself be stressful. The Times reported that tension increased in Brownie Troop 459 in Sunnyvale, California, when the girls attempted to make "antianxiety squeeze balls out of balloons and Play-Doh." According to Lindsay, one of the Brownies, "The Play-Doh was too oily and disintegrated the balloon. It was very stressful."3
The psychologist who worried about Lindsay and her fellow Girls Scouts is not alone. Anxiety over the mental equanimity of American children is at an all-time high. In May of 2002, the principal of Franklin Elementary School in Santa Monica, California,sent a newsletter to parents informing them that children could no longer play tag during the lunch recess. As she explained, "The running part of this activity is healthy and encouraged; however, in this game, there is a 'victim' or 'It,' which creates a self-esteem issue."4
School districts in Texas, Maryland, New York, and Virginia "have banned, limited, or discouraged" dodgeball.5 "Anytime you throw an object at somebody," said an elementary school coach in Cambridge, Massachusetts, "it creates an environment of retaliation and resentment."6 Coaches who permit children to play dodgeball "should be fired immediately," according to the physical education chairman at Central High School in Naperville, Illinois.7
In response to this attack on dodgeball, Rick Reilly, the Sports Illustrated columnist, chided parents who want "their Ambers and their Alexanders to grow up in a cozy womb of noncompetition." 8 Reilly responds to educators like the Naperville chairman of physical education by saying, "You mean there's weak in the world? There's strong? Of course there is, and dodgeball is one of the first opportunities in life to figure out which one you are and how you're going to deal with it."
Reilly's words may resonate comfortably with many of his readers, and with most children as well; but progressive educators tend to dismiss his reaction as just another expression of a benighted opposition to the changes needed if education is to become truly caring and sensitive. This movement against stressful games gained momentum after the publication of an article by Neil Williams, professor of physical education at Eastern Connecticut State College, in a journal sponsored by the National Association for Sports and Physical Education, which represents nearly eighteen thousand gym teachers and physical education professors. In the article, Williams consigned games such as Red Rover, relay races, and musical chairs to "the Hall of Shame."9 Why? Because the games are based on removing the weakest links. Presumably,this undercuts children's emotional development and erodes their self-esteem.
In a follow-up article, Williams also pointed to a sinister aspect of Simon Says. "The major problem," he wrote, "is that the teacher is doing his or her best to deceive and entrap students." 10 He added that psychologically this game is the equivalent of teachers demonstrating the perils of electricity to students "by jolting them with an electric current if they touch the wrong button." The new therapeutic sensibility rejects almost all forms of competition in favor of a gentle and nurturing climate of cooperation.
Which games, then, are safe and affirming? Some professionals in physical education advocate activities in which children compete only with themselves such as juggling, unicycling, pogo sticking, and even "learning to ... manipulate wheelchairs with ease."11 In a game like juggling there is no threat of elimination. But experts warn teachers to be judicious in their choice of juggling objects. A former member of The President's Council on Youth Fitness and Sports suggests using silken scarves rather than, say, uncooperative tennis balls that lead to frustration and anxiety. "Scarves," he told the Los Angeles Times, "are soft, nonthreatening, and float down slowly."12 As the head of a middle school physical education program in Van Nuys, California, points out, juggling scarves "lessens performance anxiety and boosts self-esteem."13
Writer John Leo, like Reilly, satirized the gentle-juggling culture by proposing a stress-free version of musical chairs:
Why not make sure each child has a guaranteed seat for musical chairs? With proper seating, the source of tension is removed. Children can just relax, enjoy the music and talk about the positive feelings that come from being included.14
Leo was kidding. But the authors of a popular 1998 government-financed antibullying curriculum guide called QuitIt! were not.15 One exercise intended for kindergarten through third grade instructs teachers on how to introduce children to a new way to play tag:
Before going outside to play, talk about how students feel when playing a game of tag. Do they like to be chased? Do they like to do the chasing? How does it feel to be tagged out? Get their ideas about other ways the game might be played.16
After students share their fears and apprehensions about tag, teachers may introduce them to a nonthreatening alternative called "Circle of Friends" where "nobody is ever 'out.'" If students become overexcited or angry while playing Circle of Friends, the guide recommends using stress-reducing exercises to "help the transition from active play to focused work."17 Reading through Quit It!, you have to remind yourself that it is not satire, nor is it intended for emotionally disturbed children. It is intended for normal five- to seven-year-olds in our nation's schools.
Our Sensitive and Vulnerable Youth
But is overprotectiveness really such a bad thing? Sooner or later children will face stressful situations, disappointments, and threats to their self-esteem. Why not shield them from the inevitable as long as possible? The answer is that overprotected kids do not flourish. To treat them as combustible bundles of frayed nerves does them no favors. Instead it deprives them of what they need.
Children must have independent, competitive rough-and-tumble play. Not only do they enjoy it, it is part of their normal development. Anthony Pellegrini, a professor of early childhood education at the University of Minnesota, defines rough-and-tumble play as behavior that includes "laughing, running, smiling, jumping ... wrestling, play fighting, chasing, and fleeing." 18 Such play, he says, brings children together, it makesthem happy and it promotes healthy socialization. Children who are adept at rough play also "tend to be liked and to be good social problem solvers."19 Commenting on the recent moves to ban competitive zero-sum playground games like tag, Pelligrini told us, "It is ridiculous ... even squirrels play chase."
The zealous protectiveness is not confined to the playground. In her eye-opening book The Language Police, Diane Ravitch shows how a once-commendable program aimed at making classroom materials less sexist and racist has morphed into a powerful censorship regime.20 "Sensitivity and bias" committees, residing in publishing houses, state governments, test-writing companies, and in groups like the American Psychological Association, now police textbooks and other classroom materials, scouring them for any reference or assertion that could possibly make some young reader feel upset, insecure, or shortchanged in life.
In 1997, President Bill Clinton appointed Ravitch to an honorary education committee charged with developing national achievement tests. The Department of Education had awarded a multimillion-dollar contract to Riverside Publishing, a major testing company and a subsidiary of Houghton Mifflin, to compose the exam. Ravitch and her committee were there to provide oversight.
As part of the process, the Riverside test developers sent Ravitch and her fellow committee members, mostly veteran teachers, several sample reading selections. The committee reviewed them carefully and selected the ones they considered the most lucid, engaging, and appropriate for fourth-grade test takers.
Congress eventually abandoned the idea of national tests. However, Ravitch learned that several of the passages she and her colleagues had selected had not survived the scrutiny of the Riverside censors.
For example, two of the selections that got high marks from Ravitch and her colleagues were about peanuts. Readers learnedthat they were a healthy snack and had first been cultivated by South American Indians and then, after the Spanish conquest, were imported into Europe. The passage explained how peanuts became important in the United States, where they were planted and cultivated by African slaves. It told of George Washington Carver, the black inventor and scientist, who found many new uses for peanuts.
The Riverside sensitivity monitors had a field day. First of all, they said, peanuts are not a healthy snack for all children. Some are allergic. According to Ravitch, "The reviewers apparently assumed that a fourth-grade student who was allergic to peanuts might get distracted if he or she encountered a test question that did not acknowledge the dangers of peanuts."21
The panel was also unhappy that the reading spoke of the Spaniards having "defeated" the South American tribes. Its members did not question the accuracy of the claim, but Ravitch surmises, "They must have concluded that these facts would hurt someone's feelings."22 Perhaps they thought that some child of South American Indian descent who came upon this information would feel slighted, and so suffer a disadvantage in taking the test.
Ravitch's group had especially liked a story about a decaying tree stump on the forest floor and how it becomes home to an immense variety of plants, insects, birds, and animals. The passage compared the stump to a bustling apartment complex. Ravitch and the other committee members enjoyed its charm and verve. It also taught children about a fascinating ecology. But the twenty sensitivity panelists at Riverside voted unanimously against it: "Youngsters who have grown up in a housing project may be distracted by similarities to their own living conditions. An emotional response may be triggered."23
Ravitch presents clear evidence that our schools are in the grip of powerful sensitivity censors who appear to be completely lacking in good judgment and are accountable to no one but themselves. She could find no evidence that sensitivity censorshipof school materials helps children. On the contrary, the abridged texts are enervating. "How boring," she says, "for students to be restricted only to stories that flatter their self-esteem or that purge complexity and unpleasant reality from history and current events."24
The idea that kids can cope with only the blandest of stories is preposterous. Staples like "Little Red Riding Hood," "Jack and the Beanstalk," and "Hansel and Gretel" delight children despite (or because of) their ghoulish aspects. Kids love to hear ghost stories on Halloween and to ride roller coasters, screaming as they hurtle down the inclines. Therapeutic protectiveness is like putting blinders on children before taking them for a walk through a vibrant countryside.
Excessive concern over imagined harms can hinder children's natural development. Moreover, in seeking to solve nonexistent problems, it distracts teachers from focusing on their true mission--to educate children and to prepare them to be effective adults. Commenting on Ravitch's findings, Jonathan Yardley, columnist and book critic at the Washington Post, wrote, "A child with a rare disease may have to be put in a bubble, but putting the entire American system of elementary and secondary education into one borders on insanity."25
Many American teachers seem to believe children must be spared even the mildest criticism. Kevin Miller, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has studied differences between Chinese and American pedagogy. In one of his videotapes, a group of children in a math class in China are learning about place values. The teacher asks a boy to make the number 14 using one bundle of ten sticks along with some single sticks, and the child uses only the bundle. The teacher then asks the class, in a calm, noncensorious tone, "Who can tell me what is wrong with this?" When Miller shows the video to American teachers, they are taken aback. They find it surprising to see an instructor being so openly critical of a student's performance. "Most of the teachers in trainingwe've shown this to express the worry that this could be damaging to children's self-esteem," Miller reports.26 Even the minority of American student teachers who don't disapprove of the practice agree that the practice of giving students explicit feedback in public "contravenes what we do in the U.S."
Rossella Santagata, a research psychologist at LessonLab in Santa Monica, California, has studied how American and Italian teachers differ in their reactions to students' mistakes. Italian teachers are very direct: they have no qualms about telling students their answer is wrong. In so doing, they violate all of the sensitivity standards that prevail in the United States. Santagata has a videotape of a typical exchange between an American math teacher and a student. An eighth grader named Steve is supposed to give the prime factors of the number 34; instead he lists all the factors. It is not easy for the teacher to be affirmative about Steve's answer. But she finds a way, "Okay. Now Steve you're exactly right that those are all factors. Prime factorization means that you only list the numbers that are prime. So can you modify your answer to make it all only prime numbers?" (Emphasis in original.)27
Santagata told us that when she shows this exchange to audiences of Italian researchers, they find the teachers strained response ("exactly right") hysterically funny. By contrast, American researchers see nothing unusual or amusing--be--cause, as Santagata says, "Such reactions are normal."28
Even college students are not exempt from this new solicitude. Students in universities like Columbia, Duke, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Kansas, and the University of Buffalo can visit "stress-free zones" or attend "stress buster" workshops that include activities and palliatives once limited to young children or mental patients.29 Wisconsin offers anxious undergraduates a safe space during finals where they can partake in a "napping event," get a backrub, or draw pictures with a box of crayolas.30 Alas, not all students take the mental health offerings in the right spirit. Duke University providesmassage therapy to tense undergraduates; but the facilitator found it necessary to post a warning on the Web site: "No 'hooking up' with a partner at the program."31
The Kids are All Right. Get Used to It
One reason there is so much concern over the mental health of the nation's young people is that some well-respected and widely read psychologists claim to have convincing evidence of a general malaise. In Reviving Ophelia, Pipher described girls as "crashing and burning" and warned that adults fail to appreciate "how universal and extreme the suffering is."32 Nearly ten years later, in a 2003 interview on the Web site WebMD, Pipher reported that the situation had worsened--and not only for girls: "Whether we look at incidence rates for suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, children on prescribed medication, and children involved in antisocial behaviors, all of those show children are having a much more difficult time today than even 10 years ago."33
In his 1999 book Real Boys, William Pollack claimed that the rates of depression and suicide among boys were "frighteningly on the rise."34 In a follow-up book in 2002, Real Boys' Voices, Pollack warned that "our nation is home to millions of boys who ... are cast out to sea in separate lifeboats, and feel they are drowning in isolation, depression, loneliness, and despair."35
If the youth of America were truly suffering psychological meltdown from stress, anxiety, anger, and depression, then, perhaps, from the earliest age we should be doing our best to calm them down and to bolster their self-esteem. Perhaps then it might make sense to consider eliminating all games with losers and winners and to take special care not to expose children to teachers who correct students by telling them in front of the whole class that the answers they have given are wrong. We might then also be grateful to the Girl Scouts for distributing merit badges to stress-free girls and to colleges for providing "napping events" for anxious undergraduates.
In fact, none of the assumptions about young people's vulnerabilities and infirmities withstands the light of day. The vast majority of American children is mentally sound and will remain so. Contrary to the claims of Pipher, Pollack and other alarmists, the empirical evidence indicates that the prevalence of depression among children and adolescents has not significantly changed in the past thirty years. In fact, one highly respected, large-scale study of college freshman, carried out by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, reports that "rates of depression are on the decline." In 2003 (the fifth consecutive year showing a decline) it found that a "record low" number of students (7.4 percent) reported being frequently depressed, an impressive improvement from the record high (10.6 percent) in 1988.36 As for suicide, in June 2004, the Centers for Disease Control reported that in the past decade, suicide among persons aged ten to nineteen years decreased by 25 percent.37 To be sure, an unchanging small percentage of youth, some 5 percent, have severe mental problems, and an additional 6 percent have serious ones, according to the U.S. Surgeon General. An additional 10 percent have some kind of moderate or mild affliction that may or may not require clinical attention.38 But this still means that at least 80 percent are psychologically fit, and do not appear to inhabit the stark and desolate inner world that Pipher and Pollack so poignantly describe.
Daniel Offer, professor of psychiatry at Northwestern, has referred to a "new generation of studies" that finds that most teenagers are normal and well-adjusted.39 The Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan (in 2000) polled a scientifically selected sample of three thousand high school seniors on the question: "Taking all things together, how would you say things are these days--would you say you're very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?" Slightly more than 87 percent of students responded that they were "pretty happy" or "very happy."40
Of course, if as many as 6 percent of American children havesignificant psychological problems, and another 15 percent are mildly or moderately disturbed, this adds up to a large number of children who may benefit from some clinical attention. Promising new therapies and drugs might spare such children and their families much suffering. It is true that we need better mental health screening in pediatric clinics and in schools. On the other hand, young people who are in genuine need of attention could easily get lost in an environment where a majority of children are regarded as infirm. If nearly everyone is crashing and burning, no one is.
Each year, the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics publishes a compendium of data on the status of the nation's children entitled America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being. This survey is a synthesis of data from twenty federal agencies and it is considered a state-of-the-art profile. According to the survey, in the past few years there has been marked, indeed remarkable, improvement in the lives of American children. "One of the striking things is how many of these indicators are 'best evers,'" said Duane Alexander, the primary author of the study and director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.41
Child poverty is down significantly from its recent high in 1994.42 Birth rates for teens are at a record low for recent decades. According to them 2003 Monitoring the Future survey, the government's annual survey of high school students, there have been declines in the use of alcohol and most drugs since the midnineties (offset, unfortunately, by a steady gain in nonmedical use of painkillers over the last decade).43
Most unexpected is the dramatic drop in juvenile crime. In its December 2003 Juvenile Justice Bulletin, the U.S. Justice Department reported "Juvenile arrests for violence in 2001 were the lowest since 1988."44 According to the same report, "Juvenile arrests for property crimes in 2001 were the lowest in at least three decades."
The Horatio Alger Association, a fifty-year-old organizationdevoted to promoting and affirming individual initiative and "the American Dream," found no evidence of pervasive misery in its annual teen survey in 2002--2003.45 On the contrary, in its commissioned poll on teen attitudes it found widespread optimism. The poll looked carefully at young people's confidence about the future, particularly after the events of September 11. A significant majority of teens (73 percent) were "hopeful and optimistic in thinking about the future."46 Family members (mostly their own parents) topped their list of role models.47 Child doomsayers depict teens as lonely and isolated, but only 8 percent of those polled "felt lonely or left out."48 These results reinforce the positive findings of Northwestern's Offer, the University of Michigan study, and the Federal Interagency Report.
In the spring of 2002, two new girl-crisis books appeared. Rachel Simmons's Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls and Rosalind Wiseman's Queen Bees and Wannabes claimed that our daughters are struggling with a cutthroat, hypercompetitive, viciously cruel, appearance-obsessed girl culture.49 To its credit, Newsweek challenged the myth of the girls' cult of cruelty. But that magazine was the exception.50 The Oprah Winfrey Show, NBC'S Today, and National Public Radio took the alleged crisis seriously.51 Even on ABC's Nightline, the usually skeptical Ted Koppel told his audience, "Girls, it seems, have developed the evolution of social nastiness into an art form, to a point at which it is almost dangerous."52
Unlike Newsweek, no one from Nightline thought to seek out the evidence-based expertise of someone like William Damon, director of the Stanford Center on the Study of Adolescence. Damon told us that there are no grounds for saying girls are more cruel today than in the past: "Whenever teenagers congregate in same-sex groups, there is and always has been a certain amount of cliquishness, teasing, and unfriendly in-group/out-group behavior."53
So why are we so quick to accept alarmist findings? Perhapsit is because of a legitimate concern over the high levels of obscenity and violence in popular entertainment. Sadistic video games, lurid rap songs and grotesquely violent movies are everywhere available--even to very young children. This debased popular culture may be creating an epidemic of incivility and insensitivity. But there is no evidence of a psychological breakdown described by the child alarmists. On the contrary, the relative soundness and balance of today's kids could be taken as testament to their good sense and resilience.
Some parents, apprehensive about their children's self-esteem and anxious to spare them any hurt feelings, have lost the sense of their children's vital need for character development. A recent controversy involving an old-fashioned and "tough" high school athletic coach is a case in point.
Billy Fitzgerald--"Fitz"--has been the baseball coach for more than thirty years at Isidore Newman School, a private secondary school in New Orleans. Fitz's coaching style is not unlike that of the proverbial boot camp sergeant. He pushes the students in his charge to their limits. He expects absolute dedication and when a player disappoints him, he lets him know it in ways that fall far short of "sensitive." Nevertheless, generations of boys have flourished under his guidance and they never forget the life lessons he taught them.
Writer Michael Lewis interviewed twenty Isidore Newman alumni who had been coached by Fitzgerald. In a moving article in the New Tork Times Magazine, he summarized their collective reaction in these words: "Fitz changed my life."54 Lewis himself had attended Newman in the late seventies and he credits the coach with miracles. "In the three years before I met Coach Fitz, the only task for which I exhibited any enthusiasm was sneaking out of the house at two in the morning to rip hood ornaments off cars ... . Now this fantastically persuasive manwas insisting, however improbably, that I might be some other kind of person. A hero."55
Fitzgerald's philosophy could not be more remote from therapism. Fitz is not interested in protecting his players from hurt feelings or from stress. He is concerned with their lack of youthful passion. He worries that they have been overindulged and insufficiently challenged; he deplores their tendency to blame others for their own inadequacies and failings, which he feels inevitably confines them to lives of mediocrity. Lewis, the former student, paints a portrait of a coach who is somehow able to enter the minds of undersocialized, disengaged adolescent males and to persuade them that there might be some greatness in them.
That someone like Fitzgerald can still be found in schools suggests that "the triumph of the therapeutic" is not yet complete. But while the alumni of Isidore Newman High School are looking for ways to honor Coach Fitzgerald, a vocal group of parents whose children are currently on the school team are actively working to get him fired. Why? They think he is too strict, too uncompromising. And they accuse him of being unacceptably insensitive.
"Fitz called my kid fat," complained one parent to the school. The coach had not called him fat, but had reminded the boy that he had agreed to lose fifteen pounds but instead had gained ten.56 When several members of the team broke rules prohibiting drinking and then lied about it, Fitzgerald told them: "I'm going to run you until you hate me." Complaining phone calls followed from worried parents. One mother said that it was not fair that her son should have to run laps--he had only "one sip of a daiquiri."57
It's an open secret among school officials and teachers that if they hold students to high standards, punish them for bad behavior, or even disappoint them in some mild way, there will be visits from parents who will accuse the school of being unfair to Junior. The headmaster of the Isidore Newman School, ScottMcCleod, told Lewis, "The parents' willingness to intercede on the kids' behalf, to take the kids' side, to protect the kid, in a not healthy way--there's much more of that each year ... . It's true in sports, it's true in the classroom. And it's only going to get worse."58
Overprotected children are denied essential life lessons. Healthy young people are shortchanged, even endangered, when the adults in their lives take the view that what is most important is to keep them free of stress, free of self-doubt, and happy in the conviction that they should be judged by no one's standards but their own.
The Homework "Crisis"
In December 2002, CBS Evening News broadcast a story about frazzled children overwhelmed by their homework. "In every town in America, parents ... are watching their kids struggle," said reporter Jim Axelrod. He spoke of "the end of childhood." In one of his interviews, a sixth-grade girl named Cindy told him that on a bad day she worked as long as two and a half hours. Cindy recalled an earlier time when she could bike to the store for an ice cream, "but now I can't." Said Axelrod of her workload, "She's literally swallowed up by it." As proof that Cindy's plight was typical, Axelrod cited a statistic: "Studies show ... since 1981 ... homework for six- to nine-year-olds [has] tripled."59
But what does that mean? Researchers at the University of Michigan reported in 2000 that in the early eighties, only about one third of children aged six to eight had any homework at all; by the late nineties, about half did.60 In 1981, those six to eight-year-olds who had homework spent an average of seven minutes per night doing it; by 1997, this had increased to eighteen minutes--not exactly drudgery.61
The fact is American students, on average and across all grade levels, do less than one hour of homework per night.62Only about 10 percent do more; and even these children may not be doing work that appreciably improves their academic skills. It is now the fashion for teachers to assign "creative projects." Students spend their evenings struggling with inane assignments: write a suicide note from Lady Macbeth to her husband; use bread dough and other common kitchen staples to make a map of Italy--parents have heard it all.63
The CBS report presented a conventional but misleading picture of overworked, overburdened children at risk of being cheated out of their carefree childhoods. A 2003 Brookings Institution study debunking the homework overload myth ("Do Students Have Too Much Homework?") reports that "Since 2001, feature stories about onerous homework have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Sun-Times, Los Angeles Times," and others.64 According to Brookings education scholar Tom Loveless, "The stories are misleading. They do not reflect the experience of a majority--or even a significant minority--of American schoolchildren."65
The Public Agenda is a distinguished education research organization founded by Daniel Yankelovich (sometimes called the "founding father of public opinion research") and Cyrus Vance (Secretary of State under Jimmy Carter). In 1997, it published the results of its survey of teen attitudes toward school.66 Among its findings: "Students from across the country repeatedly said that they could 'earn' acceptable grades, pass their courses, and receive a diploma, all while investing minimal effort in their school work."67 It reported, "Half say their schools don't challenge them to do their best."68 Students were not suffering from an intensely demanding or stressful academic environment. The report concluded, "They hunger for structure, discipline, and more rigorous standards. They complain bitterly about lax instructors and unenforced rules."69 Many educators, however, do not see structure, discipline, or standards as pressing educational needs, and this appliesespecially to many professors of education who train the nation's teachers.
The Heart and Mind of a Therapistic Educator
Dr. Denise Clark Pope, an education scholar at Stanford University, recently published a critically acclaimed book entitled Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Kids.70 The former education editor of the New York Times, Edward B. Fiske, praised it as a book that "should inform any discussion of what it means to be an educated person in the twenty-first century."71
It is worth taking a careful look at Pope's credo, because many education professors--a clear majority, according to a study we shall cite--share her convictions. Pope says, "In the American capitalist system, students learn to compete; the goal is to win, 'to beat the others,' ... even if this means acting in ways that are personally frustrating and dissatisfying ... . One may ask, is it worth it?"72 Pope, herself, is convinced it is not worth it and calls for a "new vision of what it means to be successful in school and what it means to be successful in America."73
Pope rejects the focus on grades, test scores, and honors. These, she says, "ignite feelings of competition." She recommends that students be judged by standards that are less frustrating and upsetting. In preference to traditional measures of success, she endorses "mastery exhibitions" where students "choose to perform a dramatic piece, write a report, field questions from teachers and peers, complete a project, or create other 'exhibits.'"74 In this way, all students have a chance to "feel as'smart' as [their] peers."75
Pope bases many of her recommendations on her yearlong observations and interviews with five high-achieving students in a Northern California high school. These kids appear to be exemplary: they get high grades, take part in extracurricularactivities and community service, and win awards and honors. However, behind the achievement, Pope sees unhappiness, emotional tumult, and compromised integrity. The students' quest for academic glory--perfect grades, high SAT scores, admission to elite colleges--makes them anxious, frustrated, and subject to "undue stress," even nauseous and fearful. Pope asks: "Are we fostering an environment that promotes intellectual curiosity, cooperation, and integrity, or are our schools breeding anxiety, deception, and frustration?"76
For Pope the answer is decidedly grim. She believes kids today are just "doing school" as a means to material success. They are captive to an "ideology of achievement." She reports, "Passion and engagement were rare, and the daily grind of the school took its toll on their 'health and happiness.'"77 In her opinion, success in school has become a dog-eat-dog contest where "academic success for some must necessarily be accompanied by academic failure for others."78
In condemning competition in the schools, Pope has a lot of company. In 1997, Public Agenda polled a random sample of nine hundred professors of education about their educational philosophy--focusing on their views of academic hierarchies and competition. The results, released under the title Different Drummers: How Teachers of Teachers View Public Education, found that "64 percent [of education professors] think schools should avoid competition."79 Almost half preferred a system where grades go to teams of students for group effort rather than to individuals.80 (One wonders how these same professors would react if their individual salary increases were based on "group effort.")
In any case, it is not at all clear that the public wants the celebratory, standard-free style of education Pope and her colleagues favor. The idea of grades for "group effort" will strike many as bizarre: it ignores the students in the Public Agenda Survey who were asking for traditional standards and structure. Pope urges adults to listen to students' "voices." But shenever explains why the voices of the five anxious students who were the focus of her study should be taken as representative of millions of American schoolchildren.
Where Pope and Her Colleagues Go Wrong
Pope and like-minded educators wish to spare students the emotional stresses that come from competing. Yet the desire to achieve--to be among the best and the first--is part of human nature. Competition fuels achievement in academics as in sports. Pope does report high levels of cheating among today's students, and she is right to be alarmed. But the solution is for adults to teach children the value of honesty and to hold them firmly to its standards. Within the constraints of morality and law, competition is a powerfully creative and animating force that drives the advancement of knowledge, art, and invention. Also, it can be fun.
E. D. Hirsch Jr., professor of English at the University of Virginia and president of the Core Knowledge Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to educational reform, opposes the drive to do away with competition and rewards. Hirsch wisely says, "Instead of trying fruitlessly to abolish competition as an element of human nature, we should try to guide it into educationally productive channels."81
Parents and teachers must work hard to instill a code of ethics in children. But extinguishing the drive to compete and achieve is not the way to do it, not if we wish to prepare them for the real world. Pope speaks disapprovingly of "the American capitalist system [where] students learn to compete." But the responsible teacher must prepare her students to cope with this reality. No one, not the parents nor the state, has given educators a mandate to abandon their mission of educating children for the world in which they will actually live.
In 2000, Suzanne Hidi and Judith Harackiewicz, psychologists at the Universities of Toronto and Wisconsin, respectively,published an article in the Review of Educational Research (2000) summarizing the accumulating literature on the value of competing for academic prizes.82 Children, they say, may undertake a new scholastic activity simply to get good grades, or to outshine friends, but in the course of pursuing these external goals, they often become competent, interested, and eventually, internally motivated.83
These conclusions will probably seem self-evident to anyone who has not been trained at a school of education. Common sense also tells us that in competing and striving to succeed, students learn self-discipline, concentration, and good work habits. But the response to the Hidi and Harackiewicz article from some professional educators was horror. In one published reaction, two education scholars questioned the ethical orientation of researchers who would even entertain the idea that "besting others and extrinsic rewards are worthy and valued purposes."84 Harackiewicz was taken aback by the criticism of her research. When we talked to her she told us that she was "just doing science." These critics, she said, "want to change the world."85
It is ironic that the movement in the lower and secondary schools to eliminate competition is thriving at the very time that the competitive battle for admission to elite colleges is fiercer than ever. But that battle is limited to an extremely small number of superior students. These high achievers should not be confused with typical high school seniors--one third of whom do not go to college at all.86 The Public Agenda study of student attitudes and prospects noted that among high school seniors, "Only a quarter will obtain an undergraduate degree. The rest are likely to be disappointed, and ... genuinely 'clueless' about how to organize their futures."87
The anticompetition movement will do nothing to narrow the gap between low and high achievers. Unmotivated students and underperforming students can now be complacent aboutnot entering the fray; by contrast, ambitious students do not for one moment let up in the pursuit of prizes.
The Myth of High Self-Esteem
The crusade against games with winners and losers, the sensitivity monitoring of classroom textbooks, the antipathy to competition, are all part of a national effort to enhance the self-confidence of American children. Yet, it has never been shown that "high self-esteem" is an essential trait for students to possess.
High school dropouts, shoplifters, burglars, car thieves, and even murderers are just as likely to have high self-esteem as Rhodes Scholars or winners of the Congressional Medal of Honor. As a 2001 article in Scientific American pointed out, "Saddam Hussein is not known as a modest, cautious, self-doubting individual."88 Hopeful Americans continue to buy thousands of books each year with titles like The Self-Esteem Companion and Hypnosis for Self-Confidence and Self-Esteem. Still, no one seems to know how to define it, how to measure it, or whether it can be taught. Now, several studies suggest that inflated self-esteem may even be dangerous.89
In May 2003, four prominent academic psychologists published the first comprehensive review of the supposed benefits of self-esteem in a journal published by the American Psychological Society called Psychological Science in the Public Interest. Roy F. Baumeister of Case Western Reserve University and his colleagues looked at all the existing studies on self-esteem and found no significant connection between feelings of high self-worth and academic achievement, interpersonal relationships, or healthy lifestyles.90
On the contrary, high self-regard is very often found in people who are narcissistic and have an inflated sense of popularity and likeability. Such self-aggrandizing beliefs, said the authors,exist "mainly in their own minds."91 Furthermore, those with exaggerated estimates of self-worth often become hostile when others criticize or reject them. "People who have elevated or inflated views of themselves tend to alienate others," the authors concluded.92
If high self-esteem does not improve academic performance, if it does not make people kinder or less likely to engage in self-destructive behavior, then why encourage it at all? The review article did find one significant advantage that seems, at first glance, highly attractive. People with high self-esteem are happier. According to Baumeister's team, "People with high self-esteem are significantly, substantially happier than other people. They are also less likely to be depressed."93
Baumeister and colleagues were careful to say that further research is needed to establish the positive link. Nor do researchers know precisely how to determine that someone is happy or in which direction the causal story goes (that is, happiness may lead to high self-esteem, not vice versa). For the moment, self-reports ("I'm happy. I feel great.") are the only source. But self-reports from those with very high self-regard are suspect. It is well-established that persons with inflated self-confidence tend to exaggerate their own positive qualities; they may well be overstating their levels of happiness. 94
But suppose we were somehow able to establish that high self-esteem promotes happiness. What parent or teacher would not want to confer such felicity on a child? This finding alone would appear to justify the self-esteem movement. Or would it?
For one thing, what it is that makes us happy matters greatly. As we already noted, bullies and sociopaths often score very high on self-esteem tests and claim that they are very happy. Happiness, without a foundation in ethics, can characterize a smug, unfeeling person, and such people are often exploitive and dangerous. As the great nineteenth-century philosopher John Stuart Mill famously said:
No intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs ... better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.95
Those who encourage children to "feel good about themselves" may be cheating them, unwittingly, out of becoming the kind of conscientious, humane, and enlightened persons Mill had in mind.
The American philosopher and psychologist William James, a contemporary of Mill, noted that there is little or no connection between a man's self-esteem and his objective merits: "[A] very meanly-conditioned man may abound in unfaltering conceit, and one whose success in life is secure and who is esteemed by all may remain diffident of his powers to the end."96
What should schools be doing about self-esteem? They should not be addressing it directly at all. Self-esteem comes to some of us when we have an objective record of accomplishment in which we take pride. Even then, as the example of many other wonderful humble people teaches us, there is no guarantee it will come at all. If so, we must make do without it.
Self Esteem and the Violation of Privacy
John Hewitt, a University of Massachusetts sociologist, has examined the morality of the self-esteem movement from a different direction. In his 1998 book, The Myth of Self-Esteem, he points to the ethical hazards of using the classroom for therapeutic purposes.97 In a typical classroom self-esteem exercise, students complete sentences beginning "I love myself because ..." or "Yes, I love myself even though I sometimes ..."98 Hewitt explains that children interpret these assignments as demands for self-revelation. They feel pressed to"correctly" complete the sentences in ways the teacher finds satisfactory.
As Hewitt observes:
Teachers ... no doubt regard the exercises as being in the best interest of their students ... . Yet from a more skeptical perspective, these exercises are subtle instruments of social control. The child must be taught to like himself or herself ... . The child must confess self-doubt or self-loathing, bringing into light the feelings that he or she might well prefer to keep private. [Emphasis in original.]99
Teaching children to moderate their emotions is helpful to them. Forcing them to obsess over feelings and to share them with others, on the other hand, is meddling. Recall the exercise extolled by Daniel Goleman where, during roll call, children identify their current emotional state rather than saying "here." Suppose some of the children have serious problems at home--a depressed mother or alcoholic father? Should they feel compelled to disclose their true feelings? Or, alternatively, to present a false picture of themselves?
The roll call exercise was developed by "Self Science," a program started in 1978 by education researchers at the Neuva Learning Center in Hillsborough, California. Goleman's support and praise infused it with new life and in 1998 a second edition of the center's curriculum was published, entitled Self-Science: The Emotional Intelligence Curriculum.100 The text, as befits a "scientific" treatise, is full of charts and graphs with names like "confluence models," "sequence spirals," and "affective education index." The course includes sixty-two lessons and requires children to meet for forty-five minutes, twice a week for an entire school year. It is intended for children in grades 1--8 and can be incorporated into social studies, language arts, and even math classes. One typical activity is the "Hot Potato Feeling Experiment."101 It instructs schoolchildren in the art of"inventorying their feelings." Students, called "learners," toss a bean bag back and forth, and when they catch this "hot potato" they shout out their current emotion. Later, in a group or in their journals, they answer these questions:
"How does it feel to say what you are feeling?"
"How do you feel when you can't say anything?"
"Is there anything you would like to have said but censored instead? What 102
The participants have to promise to keep everything said in the self-science sessions a secret. Parents are not allowed to be present. The book explains, "Confidentiality is important to the children."103 The authors of the curriculum are unfazed by student resistance. Opposition only proves the program is working! As they say:
Somewhere during all this, there is a point where members need to rebel and test. (This testing is called 'storming' in the group development process of 'forming, norming, storming, performing.') Be listening for expressions of hostility ... it's your clue that the process is working.104
What would it take to persuade the self-scientists that their process isn't working? Hostility could be regarded as a sign that students find the program absurd, tedious, intrusive, or just a waste of time. They may be "rebelling" because they resent the requirement that they must bare their feelings or suspect that their classmates will not respect the secrecy pledge. Goleman and other self-scientists who are in the business of promoting self-esteem education need to consider the possibility that their pedagogy is based on a false assumption. They take it for granted that open, emotional self-expression is necessarily a good thing for children. But what if it is not?
In a report called "Is Repression Adaptive?" a team ofpsychologists studied a group of high school students, dividing them into three types: repressors (those who suppress unsettling thoughts); sensitizers (those keenly aware of their emotional states); and intermediates.105
The students were then asked to evaluate themselves and others using these distinctions; so were their teachers. The repressors were rated as more successful academically and socially. "In their day-to-day behavior it may be good not to be so emotional," said the researchers. "The moods of repressed people may be more balanced."
Though these data do not establish a cause-and-effect relationship between repression and success, they suggest that efforts to turn healthy repressors into nervous sensitizers may be injurious to them. School officials should be leery of "feelings" exercises, and curricula that demand that students bare their souls. Indeed, they should consider dispensing with them altogether.
Pushing Children Deeply into Their Own Experiences
In 2003, New York City adopted a self-focused, city-wide literacy program developed by Lucy Calkins, an education researcher from Columbia University. The New York Times Magazine writer James Traub, in a lengthy article about Calkins's curriculum, described her as a "leading guru" in New York City literacy instruction who pushes children "deeply into their experience."106
Calkins believes that "Young people need to be invited to put themselves on the line, to bring themselves into the classroom." 107 In her writing workshops, she shows teachers how to encourage personal revelation. The day Traub observed her, she asked participants to disclose their happiest and least happy memory of writing. One teacher reported that her least happy experience was writing a term paper in college; the most happy was keeping a journal when her father was dying. An exhilarated Calkins seized on this comment, "What works for us is writing that is personal." She then told several poignantstories about how children trained in her program had written about their deepest feelings and yearnings. "It does not have to be a book report. It doesn't have to be about Ancient Greece."108
Perhaps New York City's Mayor Bloomberg and Joel Klein, the chancellor of the New York City school system, should have taken a closer look at Calkins's influential book The Writing Workshop: A World of Difference and the video that goes along with it.109 Both make clear the philosophy of education she is promoting in New York City schools.
Calkins says in the video, "Most of all, we write to make sense out of our lives." The camera then pans to a twelve-year-old boy, Jesse, who says, as if on cue, "When I write, I get a lot of madness out of me."110 But it is Erica who is the star of the film, offering proof to Calkins that her workshops are making a "world of difference." In a final, highly emotional scene, we see this eleven-year-old girl reading aloud from her essay about her great-grandfather's funeral. Near tears, she describes her shame at having never told him how much she loved him:
I was ashamed because I was afraid of him ... I loved him so much but I didn't have the courage to tell him ... Let me tell you something. Never lose your courage to tell someone you love them because if you do you're making the same mistake I did. I love you, Great-Grandfather, I really love you.111
Erica's story is moving, but why should teachers be encouraging such intense personal revelation from eleven-year-olds in an English class? It is quite possible that Erica felt subtle pressure to make extravagant disclosures. In this case, the scene she describes is highly improbable. For we learn that she was only two years old when her great-grandfather died and that she hardly knew him.
Has it occurred to Calkins that asking children to probe their deepest emotions is invasive? Or that such intrusion inevitably invites some children to prevaricate, invent, anddramatize? Why should young people who are in school to learn skills and become knowledgeable be asked to "put themselves on the line?" Reading and writing about ancient Greece is exactly the sort of thing they should be doing.
Calkins says, "Most of all we write to make sense of our lives." But how can young people make sense of their lives without at least a tenuous grasp of things outside themselves? In a letter reacting to Traub's article, a teacher from Staten Island, New York, pointed out that the new curriculum encourages children to be narrowly self-preoccupied: "Children who learn to read and write by reflecting on their friends, their pets, and their trips to Disney World can rapidly come to assume that their own experiences are much more valid and interesting than anyone else's."112
A classroom is where children should be getting out of themselves as they learn about the great world that surrounds them. The purpose of education is not to find yourself, but to lose yourself.
Happy Talk History
Even the study of history, and especially American history, has been radically transformed by the requirement that school materials should help children find themselves and feel good about themselves. In too many classrooms historical content is sacrificed for therapeutic goals: the primary emphasis is on feeling, personal growth, and validation.
The State of California, for example, requires that all instructional materials used in its classrooms "contribute to a positive educational experience for all students."113 It therefore subjects prospective textbooks to a "social content review" to determine whether or not they "promote individual development and self-esteem" and "instill in each child a sense of pride in his or her heritage [and] develop a feeling of self-worth."114 Because California is one of the largest markets in the country, textbook publishersmarketing to other states tailor their books to its specifications. As Diane Ravitch abundantly shows, it is not just California. Sensitivity committees are everywhere.
What happens when social studies textbooks aim at boosting self-esteem and providing the student with a "positive experience?" Gilbert Sewall, director of the American Textbook Council, an organization dedicated to improving history and civics education, aptly sums up the effects: "Students and teachers alike are sedated by textbook happy talk."115
Publishers and educators now take great care to avoid giving the impression that the United States is in any way exceptional or superior to other societies; to single it out for praise could hurt the feelings of children born in other countries. According to the special logic of the sensitivity monitors, immigrant youth might feel diminished or marginalized by readings that extol American traditions. A fact-based history curriculum that highlights the founding doctrines, the great wars, and the traditional heroes of American history might valorize America at the expense of other nations and cultures.
Martin Rochester, Distinguished Teaching Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri--St. Louis, points out that history education now requires teachers to be "sensitive to student emotions and feelings, and that [their] role is that of psychologist and problem solver as much as purveyor of knowledge and comprehension."116 Rochester says that today's history curriculum has become "nonhierarchical, nonjudgmental, [and] nonacademic." The net result is something unprecedented. Young people, by design, are kept ignorant of much of their own history and of the virtues of its unique institutions.
There is in fact no evidence that immigrant children or their parents would feel in any way insulted or diminished by reading texts praising the nation's democratic tradition and its heroes. What we do know suggests the very opposite. An important study by Public Agenda, carried out with the support of the two largest teacher's unions, the National EducationAssociation and the American Federation of Teachers, finds that "parents of all demographic groups--white, black, or Hispanic, immigrant or U.S.-born--clearly and resoundingly want the schools to teach children the traditional ideals and stories of what it means to be an American."117 Two-thirds of them feel strongly that schools should "teach kids to be patriotic and loyal toward the nation."118
Benjamin Barber, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, notes that historical knowledge is the ground of patriotic sentiment:
[We] derive our sense of national identity [from] the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the inaugural addresses of our presidents, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, and Martin Luther King's ["I Have a Dream"] sermon at the 1963 March on Washington--not so much the documents themselves as the felt sentiments tying us to them.119
This feeling of national identity presupposes familiarity with these documents--a presumption that is not generally warranted. Many young Americans today draw a blank when asked elementary questions about history. In 1995, when the Department of Education released the dismaying results of its National History Assessment, Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper's Magazine, spoke of the low scores as a "coroner's report." Students, he said, are in a "state of mortal danger." He noted, "More than 50 percent of all high school seniors were unaware of the Cold War. Nearly six in ten were bereft of even a primitive understanding of where America came from."120 The results of the 2001 history assessment were no better.121 Fifty-seven percent of twelfth graders scored "below basic" in their knowledge of U.S. history.122
In 2002, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni commissioned a Roper Survey measuring the historical knowledge of seniors from fifty elite colleges and universities.123 Among the findings: "College seniors could not identify Valley Forge,words from the Gettysburg Address, or even basic principles of the U.S. Constitution."124 The report corroborated the findings of the Department of Education. The Council's survey concludes, "Given high-school-level questions, 81 percent of the [college] seniors would have received a D or F."125
Students in the past may have been ignorant of the fine points of American history, but they carried around in their heads a crude outline of our national story. Their history textbooks showed them that they were part of a highly unusual culture of liberty, and they were acquainted with and took pride in the heroes of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. That prideful perspective is fast becoming obsolete. Today's textbook writers take pains not to give students the impression that there is anything especially admirable or virtuous about the American experiment. Stanford's William Damon has written about the adverse effects on young Americans:
Students are not learning much of what they need to know ... there's another problem that may be even closer to the heart of the matter. This has to do with the capacity for positive feelings towards one's society, with a sense of attachment, a sense of affiliation, a sense of love for noble purposes larger than oneself, and a sense of inspiration fostered by one's role as citizen ... since the time of the ancient Greeks, [this sentiment] has been known as patriotism.126
The very mention of the word patriotism, says Damon, provokes an argument: "If you think it's hard to talk about morality and values in the schools, try talking about patriotism."
How Therapism and Multiculturalism Circumvent Morality
One effect of the ignorance and confusion is that many students are reluctant or unable to condemn atrocities committed byother cultures no matter how heinous. In many world history classes, it is now the fashion to present all cultures and civilizations as morally equivalent.127 To do otherwise is deemed intolerant and demeaning to "the Other." In one typical high school text, American Odyssey: The United States in the Twentieth Century, the Anasazi Indians, who inhabited large regions of the South-west between A.D. 900 and 1300, are praised for their "egalitarian culture in which people functioned as equals."128 Students do not learn about recent evidence that strongly suggests that Anasazi "egalitarians" were cannibals. A 1997 newsletter from the Archeological Institute of America reports on an Anasazi burial ground:
The remains of 12 people were discovered at the site ... but only five were from burials. The other seven appear to have been systematically dismembered, defleshed, their bones battered, and in some cases burned or stewed, leaving them in the same condition as bones of animals used for food ... . Patterns of burning indicate that many were exposed to flame while still covered with flesh, which is what would be expected after cooking over a fire.129
Such information is routinely suppressed in K-12 textbooks and classrooms because revealing it would be disrespectful of the Anasazi and because a discussion of cannibalism might distress some students. It would inevitably raise questions about the moral status of another society, possibly implying that our own modern society might be superior. As Ravitch has pointed out, no hint of any such suggestion would ever get past the sensitivity police.
In California, the Department of Education explicitly requires that "when ethnic or cultural groups are portrayed, portrayals must not depict differences in customs or lifestyles as undesirable and must not reflect adversely on such differences." 130 The state of Connecticut requires that all classroom materials "present the rights, goals, and needs of all groups as worthwhile and authentic."131
A doggedly uncritical attitude to cultures other than our own demands a great deal of forgiveness on the part of the student. Inevitably, it requires that they approach exotic cruelties and barbarisms in a spirit of tolerance and forbearing. In a 2000 commencement address, the president of Wake Forest College, Dr. Thomas K. Hearn Jr., reported visiting a Wake Forest class whose students were "reluctant to denounce Hitler as a monster." One student defended Hitler as "a man of his own time. We cannot judge him by our different standards."132
Today, such no-fault history is common in American classrooms. Robert Simon, a professor of philosophy at Hamilton College, finds increasing numbers of students telling him "they accept the reality of the Holocaust, but they believe themselves unable morally to condemn it, or indeed to make any moral judgments whatsoever." Simon calls their moral paralysis and relativistic stance "absolutophobia."133
Phobias that inhibit moral judgment have found their way into all subjects, including English classes. Professor Kay Haugaard, a creative writing teacher at Pasadena City College, wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education about her class's reaction to Shirley Jackson's story "The Lottery." This story describes a village that holds an annual lottery that all are obliged to enter. Each year the loser of the lottery is stoned to death. The villagers, who are otherwise moral and decent people, continue this practice because they sincerely believe it brings good fortune to the community as a whole.
Haugaard's students did not condemn the villagers. Instead they strained to understand them, to defend them and, in the end, to exculpate them. Haugaard sought in vain to find even one student who would react with moral indignation to the villagers' grisly custom of stoning an innocent person, but she failed. "At this point I gave up. No one in the whole class of more than twenty ostensibly intelligent individuals would go out on a limb and take a stand against human sacrifice."134
What can explain the moral timidity of today's students?Students equate adverse moral judgment with intolerance and insensitivity. And though some professors are dismayed by their students' no-fault ethic, few appear to be doing anything to discourage it. On the other hand, not a few endorse and foster just this kind of moral agnosticism.
In July 2002, Zogby International released the results of a poll on moral education on the American campus. In a survey of four hundred randomly selected college seniors, Zogby found the overwhelming majority (97 percent) said that they expected to be ethical in their future undertakings. However, 73 percent said they had learned from their professors that "what is right and wrong depends on differences in individual values and cultural diversity."135
Professors, teachers, and textbook writers who promote relativism and nonjudgmentalism are, no doubt, sincerely and earnestly trying to instill in their students a tolerant and empathetic understanding of exotic societies. Paradoxically, such efforts can also undermine a student's capacity for empathy.
An Immense Human Idea
Pluralism is an American tradition, but moral relativism is not. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson asserts the universal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. He does not add, "At least that is how many of us feel about it here." The assertions of Abraham Lincoln, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Martin Luther King are in that same spirit: they affirm transcendent moral ideals true for all mankind.
To be sure, the idea of "moral truth"--to say nothing of self-evident moral truth--is controversial, indeed. The theoretical debate over the ultimate status of moral judgments goes back to the very beginnings of philosophy in ancient Greece, when Plato (a moral absolutist) first challenged the Sophists (the upstart relativists). However fascinating and contentious the philosophical debate may be, we do not have the luxury of waiting to seewhich side finally prevails before we teach our children about right and wrong and good and evil. We must live in this world here and now where there is no choice but to take a committed stand on basic moral questions.
It is no great achievement for a teacher or textbook publisher to induce skepticism in American students about the truth or legitimacy of Jefferson's assertions. After all, many parts of the world today, and certainly, most societies in history, do not take it as self-evident that human beings possess basic inalienable rights.
What American students badly need to understand is how fortunate they are that the nation's founders had such unusual ideas about personal liberty and individual rights, and how blessed we are to live in a society that takes them as self-evident and incorporates them into its constitution and strives to live by them.
The Nobel Laureate author V. S. Naipaul is struck by the originality, power, and sheer beauty of America's founding ideals. He is particularly enraptured by the right of each individual to pursue his happiness:
The pursuit of happiness is ... an elastic idea; it fits all men ... . So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.136
American students need to appreciate and to cherish this "immense human idea." They must understand what it is they have inherited--especially at a time when free societies are under assault. Naipaul, who wrote before September 11, 2001, is confident the formidable influences opposed to democratic ideals will wither away, because he never doubts that democracies willconfidently defend their principles of freedom. Such confidence assumes a lot. In particular, it assumes that children today are being educated to take pride in their country's way of life. But it ignores the effects of therapism.
As long as censorship and misguided sensitivities are allowed to constrain how and what our children are taught, civic education in America will fall short of its mission. For too many young people, the fear of being judgmental, categorical, and insensitive is paralyzing and quite literally demoralizing.
After several decades of therapeutic relativism, many of our young people are unable to speak with confidence in support of the moral ideals that have made their own way of life possible. Too many have been rendered incapable of standing up for the moral ideals that ground our constitutional democracy. Liberty? What of it? Some may not be sure whether our way of life is especially worth defending.
Then and Now
Several months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, the National Education Association published a slim volume titled The Education of Free Men in American Democracy.137 Written by Columbia Teachers College Professor George S. Counts, the book discussed the role of teachers in the war effort. Here is how he described our enemies:
Today the threat to democracy comes from a barbaric banditry, marked by cynical duplicity and outrageous violation of the ordinary rules of human decency ... . This new threat to freedom comes from ruthless men of force who care nothing for civil liberties and who mock at all appeals to humanity.138
Counts saw teachers as frontline defense in the centuries-old battle against tyranny and injustice. Their job was to imbue students with a sense of history and a philosophical understandingof the principles of American democracy. According to Counts, students must be made fully familiar with "the long struggle to liberate the human mind and civilize the human heart."139 To that end, the public schools "should fashion an education frankly and systematically designed to give to the rising generation the loyalties, the knowledge, the discipline of free men."140
September 11, 2001, has evoked comparison with Pearl Harbor Day. But today's National Education Association no longer publishes books like The Education of Free Men in American Democracy. Indeed, its policies and educational philosophy are in many ways antithetical to the idea that education should "frankly and systematically ... give the rising generation the loyalties, the knowledge, the discipline of free men." On the first anniversary of the terrorist attack, the NEA produced a special Web site advisory titled "Remember September 11."141
The NEA saw the attack mainly in terms of the threat it posed to children's mental health. In one typical lesson, the guide suggests that teachers, "Have students draw a picture of the tragic event using colors they have chosen that represent the way they feel."142 Children could also construct a "moving memorial" by expressing their feelings through movement, or send "patriotically-themed stuffed bears across the nation" along with a letter relating the class's feelings about September 11.143 High school students were invited to join a "circle of feelings" where they "discuss and have validated their feelings about the events of September 11 in a nonjudgmental discussion circle."144 They could also soothe themselves with recordings of rushing water and rustling trees. Parents and teachers were encouraged to provide students with "a low-key day" and, if possible, to "integrate healthy snacks." When Chester Finn, former Assistant Secretary of Education, examined it he said, "As one browsed its recommended lessons and background guidance for teachers, the dominant impression was one of psychotherapy via the Internet."145
The NEA materials were designed to help the nation'sschoolchildren cope with what the authors of "Remember September 11" called the "anniversary effect." However, apart from those directly victimized by the attack, there is no evidence that children en masse needed psychological comforting one year later. On the other hand, almost all children needed to understand the political and ethical significance of September 11. That kind of orientation, so natural to educators of yesteryear, is altogether unnatural to educators steeped in the therapism of today.
The current NEA was not alone in viewing the anniversary of September 11 as an opportunity for therapeutic healing and self-discovery. The Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit research organization that focuses on family, community, and the workforce produced a curriculum called "9/11 As History." According to its president, Ellen Galinsky, entire school districts, including Dallas and Phoenix, have used it.146
The sponsors of the curriculum could not be more mainstream. Corporate supporters of The Families and Work Institute include General Electric, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, and AT&T. CNN's senior correspondent Judy Woodruff and Pulitzer Prize--winning journalist/novelist Anna Quindlen are on its board. Philanthropies like the Red Cross and The Anti-Defamation League, joined by leading educators, made substantial contributions to the anniversary curriculum. Bank One was the Institute's partner in launching the "9/11 As History" Web site.147
The stated goal of "9/11 As History" is admirable: "To help children understand what would be lost if American values were lost to the world."148 Jamie Dimon, president and chief executive officer of Bank One, wrote the foreword to a 2003 book summarizing and celebrating the sixteen lesson plans. He speaks of the importance of making children "more committed than ever to the values that make this country great."149 According to Galinsky, "We decided that the most important lessons to impart should focus on teaching the skills of DEMOCRACY." (Emphasisin original.)150 So far, at least programmatically, these sentiments are not very different from those of George Counts.
But there the comparison abruptly ends. Little in the curriculum would lead children to believe there is anything unique or precious about American ideals; nor do children learn much about how these ideals are threatened or under attack. The actual purpose of "9/11 As History" is not to enlighten or inspire children, but to improve their emotional self-awareness and to help them like themselves more.
The first lesson, "All Kinds of Feelings," developed by the Anti-Defamation League, is intended for children in prekindergarten through second grade. Soon after school opened in September 2002, teachers were to ask children a series of questions: "How did you feel about meeting new children in your class this year? How did you feel about already knowing some of the children in your class? How did you feel about having a new teacher? How did you feel about already knowing some of the teachers you have this year? How did you feel coming to a new place for school?" And so on. There are no direct inquires about the terrorist attack. But, out of nowhere, the teachers are supposed to ask: "How do you feel if someone knocks down the block tower you just built? What might you do?"151
The answers the children give to these questions are listed on the chalkboard and serve as the basis for a class "feelings collage." The collage, in turn, is to serve as a catalyst for a "feelings dance." If time allows, the guides suggests a "feelings book" and "feelings masks."152
The "feelings" drumbeat is unceasing. The authors of the curriculum never explain how such emphasis on children's emotions will help them understand and commemorate September 11. They do not tell us why children as young as three or four need special lessons and activities in the first place. Nor do they make a case for the need for a schoolwide program. No doubt, there were some young people who were distressed on the anniversary of the attack. But they were very much in theminority and could have been helped individually by parents or school counselors.
The teachers themselves are not spared the therapeutic ministrations. The "All Kinds of Feelings" lesson plan includes a warning: "NOTE TO TEACHERS: During the discussions about feelings ... prepare yourself to handle comments about feelings that children may raise about September 11. Before you are able to help children, you will need to assist yourself with coming to terms with your own feelings."153 To this end, the Families and Work Institute offers a workbook, "Helping People Who Work with Kids Prepare for the 9/11 Anniversary," written by two trauma experts from Morristown, New Jersey. The workbook takes teachers through the process of "Reconstructing Life Assumptions." It acknowledges that this may be the "the last thing" teachers wish to do over their summer vacation. All the same it reminds them, "Adults can't help kids with their reactions until we've first been helped with our own."154
Once the students have completed the "All Kinds of Feelings" unit and the teachers, presumably, have successfully restructured their life assumptions, the class is ready for Lesson 2, on "Everyday Heroes." Developed by the PBS literacy program Reading Rainbow, this lesson was designed to help children understand heroism "within themselves and others." Students are prompted to see heroism in "people who raise money for causes" or in "a tree planter who makes a home for birds." If a child defines a hero in a "negative" way--an example is "a soldier who kills bad people"--she should be encouraged to find a more affirmative characterization.155
Conspicuously absent from the parade of heroes are such figures as George Washington (himself a soldier who killed bad people), Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and others who helped make America the "land of the free."156 Children in K-2 are fully capable of understanding, enjoying and being morally instructed by examples of such stock national heroes, yet they are never mentioned.
The Families and Work Institute has reduced September 11 to an occasion for self-preoccupation. After exploring their feelings and learning how to be their own heroes, the children are ready for "What's Special About Me?" Teachers are supposed to tell the class:
Last year, as we watched the events of September 11th, one of the things most people felt very good about were all the people who helped in the rescue and recovery. We saw the police and the firemen, and we liked them because they were so brave. One of the things we don't often pay much attention to, though, is liking ourselves. [Emphasis in original.]157
The teacher then draws a large outline of herself on the board, and says, "So today we're all going to take some time to think about what we like about who we are ... . I'm going to draw all the things on this picture of me that I like about myself." And each student in the class is expected to follow suit. The idea behind the lesson plan, assumed but never proved, is that students who really like themselves will cope better with stress and trauma.158
"Building Strength Through Knowledge" is the title of Lesson 10. It was developed for children in junior high school by a professor at the University of Oklahoma Health Science Center. Here, finally, is a lesson with intellectual substance--or so the title of the lesson would lead us to expect. In fact, by "knowledge" the professor does not mean information about the world, but rather the students' "knowledge" of--what else?--their own feelings. "Explain that you are going to be discussing emotions or feelings." The guide informs teachers that students need to recognize "there are no rights or wrongs when it comes to feelings and opinions."159
One of the explicit central aims of "9/11 As History" is "helping children become critical thinkers."160 In practice, however, the curriculum indiscriminately celebrates all differencesof opinions and points of view, thereby discouraging all and any critical evaluations. In Lesson 10, the child continues to confront the large, vacuous, happy face of therapeutic pedagogy.
Not all of the sixteen lesson plans are about feelings. Lesson 15 discusses some historical antecedents of September 11; another looks at some of the new civil liberties dilemmas we now face. But, with few exceptions, the curriculum has no intellectual content. It is full of gimmicks and amateur psychology and in no way does it fulfill its stated promise to help children understand "what would be lost if American values were lost to the world."
Only one of the curricula has a clear patriotic slant. In Lesson 11, students study the American flag, design a community banner, and are asked to complete the phrase, "Being an American today means ..." But the authors of "9/11 As History" seem very uncomfortable with this topic, and so they post a warning to teachers: "Discussing the events of 9/11, as well as themes of being 'American,' may raise emotions and uncomfortable questions ... . You may also wish to consider inviting a guidance counselor or other trained professional to take part in the discussion and activity." (Emphasis added.)161
This is just one curriculum guide. However, those who would dismiss these lessons as marginal and atypical need to explain why, after an event like September 11, leading educators, school administrators, child development experts, and major corporations and philanthropies are offering lesson plans like "9/11 As History" to American children. Why, in a nation that has been attacked by implacable and ideologically hostile forces of terror, are school systems like Phoenix and Dallas teaching that "there are no right or wrong when it comes to feelings and opinions" and not teaching lessons that incorporate the perspectives of educators like George S. Counts? With the generous help of Jamie Dimon and Bank One, "9/11 As History" has been published as a book so it can be used for further anniversaries and commemorations.
During the Second World War, the focus was not on "validating feelings" but on teaching students about the moral dimensions of the fight in which all, including children, were engaged. A book about American children during World War II (Children of the World War II Home Front, by Sylvia Whitman) quotes a man looking back at his wartime childhood: "We saw ourselves as good guys who were united against the bad."162 That simple and necessary perspective is lost in a nonjudgmental pedagogy that is preoccupied with feelings.
American children badly need moral clarity. But our education establishment is too uneasy about the idea of moral judgment to meet this elementary need. Feelings of helplessness and disorientation are thoroughly, even compulsively, canvassed, elicited, discussed, and promoted; by contrast, feelings of moral indignation and condemnation are deflected and downplayed. This leaves children defenseless, clueless and unprepared to meet real and grave threats to their own and the nation's future.
There are many who believe that therapism in the schools is a benign, constructive influence that comforts children, calming their fears and enhancing their feelings of self-acceptance. The evidence, however, does not bear this out. On the contrary, the therapeutic regime pathologizes healthy young people. It encourages remedial measures for nonexistent vulnerabilities, wastes students' time, and impedes their academic and moral development. American students are, with few exceptions, mentally and emotionally sound; they are resilient. They need more, not less, homework. They can cope with dodgeball.
ONE NATION UNDER THERAPY. Copyright © 2005 by Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.