The Unteachables: A Generation that Cannot LearnAs some have said, character is discriminatory; it's just too hard for some people. So it must be ignored. The "pedagogy of self-esteem" has destroyed entire generations of newly minted narcissists who have perfect self-esteem, and who need, not education, but affirmation of their perfection.
The greatest tragedy of progressive education is not the students' lack of skills, but of teachable character.
"“The honeymoon is over.” Instructors who award low grades in humanities disciplines will likely be familiar with a phenomenon that occurs after the first essays are returned to students: former smiles vanish, hands once jubilantly raised to answer questions are now resentfully folded across chests, offended pride and sulkiness replace the careless cheer of former days. Too often, the smiles are gone for good because the customary “B+” or “A” grades have been withheld, and many students cannot forgive the insult.When everyone gets a blue ribbon for merely existing, the concept of excellence is made moot. Even the concept of trying is made moot. Because why should I? I get the prize without even doing anything, much less putting in the effort to do something well. In this way no child is left behind; even a brain-dead child is equal to all other children.
The matter doesn’t always end there. Some students are prepared for a fight, writing emails of entreaty or threat, or besieging the instructor in his office to make clear that the grade is unacceptable. Every instructor who has been so besieged knows the legion of excuses and expressions of indignation offered, the certainty that such work was always judged acceptable in the past, the implication that a few small slip-ups, a wrong word or two, have been blown out of proportion. When one points out grievous inadequacies — factual errors, self-contradiction, illogical argument, and howlers of nonsensical phrasing — the student shrugs it off: yes, yes, a few mistakes, the consequences of too much coffee, my roommate’s poor typing, another assignment due the same day; but you could still see what I meant, couldn’t you, and the general idea was good, wasn’t it? “I’m better at the big ideas,” students have sometimes boasted to me. “On the details, well … ”.
Meetings about bad grades are uncomfortable not merely because it is unpleasant to wound feelings unaccustomed to the sting. Too often, such meetings are exercises in futility. I have spent hours explaining an essay’s grammatical, stylistic, and logical weaknesses in the wearying certainty that the student was unable, both intellectually and emotionally, to comprehend what I was saying or to act on my advice. It is rare for such students to be genuinely desirous and capable of learning how to improve. Most of them simply hope that I will come around. Their belief that nothing requires improvement except the grade is one of the biggest obstacles that teachers face in the modern university. And that is perhaps the real tragedy of our education system: not only that so many students enter university lacking the basic skills and knowledge to succeed in their courses — terrible in itself — but also that they often arrive essentially unteachable, lacking the personal qualities necessary to respond to criticism.
The unteachable student has been told all her life that she is excellent: gifted, creative, insightful, thoughtful, able to succeed at whatever she tries, full of potential and innate ability. Pedagogical wisdom since at least the time of John Dewey — and in some form all the way back to William Wordsworth’s divinely anointed child “trailing clouds of glory” — has stressed the development of self-esteem and a sense of achievement. Education, as Dewey made clear in such works as The Child and the Curriculum (1902), was not about transferring a cultural inheritance from one generation to the next; it was about students’ self-realization. It involved liberating pupils from that stuffy, often stifling, inheritance into free and unforced learning aided by sympathy and encouragement. The teacher was not so much to teach or judge as to elicit a response, leading the student to discover for herself what she, in a sense, already knew. In the past twenty years, the well-documented phenomenon of grade inflation in humanities subjects — the awarding of high “Bs” and “As” to the vast majority of students — has increased the conviction that everyone is first-rate."
"More than a few students know that something fishy is going on. The intelligent ones see their indifferent, mediocre, or inept counterparts receiving grades similar to their own, and the realization offends their sense of justice. Moreover, there is little satisfaction in consciously playing the system. The smart student with his easy “A” knows that he has not been challenged to develop his intellect. I remember once walking in the hallway behind a student who had just picked up her final term essay; as she joined her friends, she flipped to the back of the paper without reading any of the instructor’s comments. “An A,” she said jubilantly, but with a strong undertone of derision. “And I didn’t even read the book!” As the paper thudded into the trash basket, her friends joined in the disdainful laughter.It would be interesting to follow the lives of these fully entitled yet unteachables. Do they ever acquire a thirst for learning, an appreciation of accomplishment? How well do they survive the realities of a world for which they are totally unprepared? Perhaps they become perpetual victims, or victim/messiahs whose entire value is self-derived, and maintained by deprecating the Other as inferior to their own self-perception of abused glory. I personally suspect that to be the case.
In contrast, the weak student who believes in his high grades has also had a disservice done him. He has been misled about his abilities, falsely persuaded that career paths and goals are open that may be out of reach. Eventually, the fraud will be revealed: by an employer who finds him inadequate, by his own dawning recognition that he cannot achieve what he hoped. The reckoning will likely be bitter; evidence exists that the pedagogy of false esteem can even cause psychological harm. When students who have always been praised must confront the reality of their low achievement, their tendency is, as researchers James Coté and Anton Allahar report, not to confront the problem directly but to hit back at its perceived source — the teacher who has given them the bad news, the employer who does not renew a contract. Far more than their adequate peers when faced with difficulties, these students experience a range of negative reactions, including anger, anxiety, and depression.
Even more seriously, such students have not only been misled but fundamentally malformed. They have never learned to listen to criticism, to recover from disappointment, or to slog through difficulties with no guarantee of success except commitment. The person who is never challenged is also never refined, never learns to cope with the setbacks that come on the way to high endeavor. And it is not only in the academic realm, of course, that they may be hampered: a full life outside of university also requires the ability to confront one’s weaknesses and recover from defeat. Despite the admittedly important emphasis on character formation in our schools — on tolerance, anti-racism, refusal of bullying, and so on — it seems that we have failed to show students what real achievement looks like and what it will require of them."
At the risk of making this far too long, consider the following from another article by Fiamengo:
"That many of my colleagues seemed sincere in their commitment to history’s underdogs cannot excuse the damage caused by their policies and by their skewed teaching practices — for their ideological convictions were often imported into the classroom, where a balanced overview of course material was sacrificed to the politics of “race, class, and gender.” Students learn quickly enough in such courses that success requires them to adopt approved positions: to be skeptical of Western nations’ claims to equality and justice, to understand their country’s history as a record of oppression, and to look with ready admiration at non-Western cultures, which they are taught to see as superior. Young white men learn early on that history’s villains are usually white men. Lesbian identities, Aboriginal culture, and Sharia law are protected from critical appraisal by charges of homophobia, genocidal racism, or cultural imperialism. Instructors often choose the texts on their syllabus not to represent the traditional scholarly consensus on the important and best literature of the period but rather to represent a range of victim groups presented in noble conflict with the forces of social prejudice. Literature is taught not because it is valuable in itself but because it teaches students to denounce inequality and to empathize with victims, and to feel appropriately empowered in grievance or guilty by association.
Indeed, some students become so immersed in Leftist ideology — a kind of secret society whose code language they have learned in fear and trembling and now exercise with pride — that they believe it the only possible view of the world and have never seriously considered alternatives except as the deplorable prejudices of the hateful unwashed. Their conviction of rightness has revealed itself in a multitude of anti-intellectual and repressive behavior on university campuses across the country.
What is to be done? De-radicalizing the Humanities will be no easy task, for the ranks of the professoriate are filled with instructors who see their primary responsibility to be that of advancing ideological goals. True believers as they are, they will not be easily dissuaded from their cause, and dissenters from Left orthodoxy often feel overwhelmed, beleaguered, and under threat. Yet saving the Humanities for genuine scholarship has never been more urgent, and it is heartening to know that articulate champions of reform such as Horowitz and others, including Richard Cravatts, Stanley Fish, and David Solway, continue to raise their voices in dismay and stalwart hope. Some day, perhaps, if the decline is not irreversible and if more courageous professors will stand against the corruption of the academic enterprise, departments of English might once again become places where professors and students pursue a love of literature."