Pomposity and circumstance

Posted: Feb 26, 2003 12:00 AM
Hemet High School in Hemet, Calif., is considering eliminating the traditional valedictorian award for the graduating senior with the highest grade point average. Otherwise, some delicate students may suffer a damaging blow to their self-esteem. When you read crazy things like this you have to wonder whether society itself is going insane or just that a significant number of influential elites dominate our cultural institutions. We must pray it's the latter. Seriously, do any people you know really buy into these "modern" ideas that permeate our public education system, like the self-esteem movement, which appears to be more concerned with experimenting with flawed psychological theories than academic achievement? I don't know to what extent many of these kooky ideas from inventive spelling to fuzzy math have been implemented in our public schools, but I do know that strong forces in the educational establishment are working hard at them. And they seem to succeed in direct proportion to the weirdness of their schemes, because the zanier the ideas, the less likely parents will believe they are really happening. Hemet is just one of many high schools that have joined this particular trend to dispense with the valedictory honor. Some contend that the valedictory system causes students to take easy courses to boost their grade point averages, rather than classes that have greater academic merit. That argument is at least tenable, but far from convincing. It is most likely just an excuse to deflect attention from the real reasons, which won't stand up to scrutiny. Hemet Principal Bill Black revealed the true motivation behind his school's idea when he suggested that competition leads to an unhealthy educational environment. "If they are not No. 1, it could get their feelings hurt if they are self-motivating and high-achieving students," said Black. Since I learned about this story on the FOX News Web site, I know it's not a spoof and Black actually made that comment and wasn't kidding. When Black says, "it could get their feelings hurt," is he suggesting that those who vie for the spot and lose will be disappointed? So what? Is it the business of our schools to shield students from disappointment? How will that help prepare them for life itself, of which disappointment is a regular part? And if competition leads to an "unhealthy educational environment," why not just do away with the grading system altogether, because it casts a much wider net than the limited valedictory competition? Surprise, surprise -- some educators believe we ought to do just that. The preservation of our students' self-esteem is more important to them than subject matter learning. Of course, they don't explain how the students' self-esteem will be enhanced merely by telling them what they want to hear (including lies) or by dissociating rewards from achievement. It is simply common sense that competition leads to better performance in education the same as it does in other fields of endeavor. Renowned educator William Holmes McGuffey came to this conclusion when working with children in the 1800s and experimenting with educational methods. McGuffey was the author of the legendary "McGuffey Readers," which were in widespread use in American schools for 60 years beginning in 1836, and which many educators believe did more to improve elementary education than any other book ever printed. McGuffey taught children in his home and in his backyard, where he arranged a number of logs, one each for reading, spelling, arithmetic and grammar. To introduce competition into his classes he placed the children who performed the best in each subject on the big end of the log for that subject, finding that competition improved the educational process for all. Modern educators who promote such theories as outcome-based education and the self-esteem curriculum know exactly what they're doing when they try to eliminate competition, bit by bit, from the educational system. They are downplaying individuality, promoting group thinking and letting children "discover" answers for themselves. If you really look into some of the trends being advanced by the educational establishment, you will be horrified at what you find. In the bureaucracy's zeal to achieve conformity and nurture self-esteem, it is lowering the common denominator for everyone and dumbing down education overall. We can only hope teachers and local school districts will resist these efforts by the pompous educational elite. But stories like Hemet are not encouraging.