The Schools' Feel-Good Racket

July 02, 1995|By PHIL GREENFIELD

As the year's final report cards are being mailed out in Anne Arundel County, we can ponder the news that 99.5 percent of our public school students are about to be promoted from one grade to the next.

A reason to puff out our chests with pride over all our kids have accomplished? No, for the obvious reason that children across the state are being allowed to play tennis with the net down. The Maryland Department of Education has mandated -- mandated, mind you -- that any elementary school aspiring to a rating of "EXCELLENT" must pass 98 percent of its students. How's that for an incentive to play hardball with the kids and hold them accountable for what they know? Fortunately, the state is rethinking this lunacy.

The truth is that everyone passes, save for those youngsters whose parents march indignantly down to the schoolhouse and demand that their child repeat a grade so that requisite skills are mastered before Junior ascends to the next rung. And even then, they have to beg the authorities to allow their kids to fail. As far as Maryland's educational establishment is concerned, the only requirement for academic advancement is a pulse.

And how is this pathetic state of affairs justified by the state's "ed-hocracy"? What else? It's all a matter of self-esteem. Students who fail do so because they don't feel good about themselves. And flunking them -- holding them accountable for what they don't know -- will only make them feel worse. Since only an untoward brute would want children to feel bad about themselves, they must -- as a matter of emotional justice -- be allowed to "succeed" by rising to the next level. All of God's children, advance one space! Never mind that you can't read. Never mind that you can't write or even grunt out an intelligible sentence. Never mind that being further behind next year is going to wreak even more havoc on your sense of self. Advance! Inherent in all this feel-good blather is the idea that, somehow, we are all entitled to high self-esteem whether we've earned it or not, and that when we cease to feel good about ourselves, it is society's duty to prop us up and make us feel better. Why else would anyone go to school?

But the truth, of course, is that social promotions rest on an

absurd premise. We do not have an inherent right to feel good about ourselves. Yes, schools and other societal institutions should aspire to be welcoming, pleasant, cooperative places, but, in the end, we can't guarantee self-esteem any more than we can guarantee happiness.

For self-esteem is not an end in and of itself. Like happiness, it is a by-product of the way we live our lives. It is the residue of deeds and thoughts; the sum-total of time well spent and jobs well managed.

Despair, not happiness, comes to those who believe they have a right to be happy and spend their lives waiting for others to extend them that right. Jefferson's Declaration gives a crack at the "pursuit of happiness," not the real thing, remember?

You want high self-esteem? Earn it, because self-esteem must be actively pursued if it is to exist. Take responsibility for your life. Accomplish meaningful things for yourself and for others. Become excellent at something. Think meaningful thoughts. Read meaningful books. Want to cheat a little? Go to a museum or a concert and bask in the reflected glory of the human race.

So as we contemplate Johnny's and Susie's report cards this summer, let's affirm that true self-esteem doesn't come from misguided bureaucrats, inflated grades or the empty self-aggrandizing slogans being hawked by America's burgeoning self-esteem industry. As out-of-control government handouts are on the verge of being pared down in the political arena, let's willingly slash the entitlement program that demeans education in Maryland even as you open your child's report card: the right to self-esteem.

A high school teacher in Annapolis and an arts critic for The Sun for Anne Arundel County, Phil Greenfield feels very good about himself for having written this article.

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