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Students, red pens, and the State of a Nation

By Bill Muehlenberg - posted Monday, 8 December 2008


By now most of you would have heard of another example of madness in our public (taxpayer-funded) schools. An education kit in Queensland is encouraging teachers to throw out their red marking pens because using them might give little Johnny or Sarah a bad self-image. Here is how one news report puts it:

Teachers are being warned to use bean bags to reduce student stress, organise “mind dumps” to clear kids' thoughts and even stop using “aggressive” red pens. In a controversial suite of tips that has divided psychologists, a Queensland Health kit tells teachers to use blue or black pens to mark assignments because red is considered too confrontational. The effort to handle students with care - backed by Health Minister Stephen Robertson - also includes teachers being told to apologise to them when necessary and organise “check-ins” at the start of each day to assess how they are feeling.

“The Queensland Council of Parents and Citizens Associations last night demanded the kit be scrapped. “It is definitely over the top and quite unbelievable,” council president Margaret Black said. “We're calling for our children to grow up normally, including their work being marked with a red pen.” The Good Mental Health Rocks kit - of which 1,000 have been distributed - was revealed in State Parliament yesterday by the Opposition, which has labelled the red pen advice “kooky, loony, loopy, Left policy”.

Evidently the kit, which costs nearly $3,000, was distributed to 29 schools. Later reports said that the idea actually originated in 2000 with the Howard government. Regardless of whether it is - or was - promoted by Labor or Liberal, it sounds like another idiotic idea to me. It is all part of this nonsensical notion that we must never damage the frail psyches of our students, but forever pamper them, mollycoddle them, and let them pretend they are all little gods and goddesses.

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Indeed, it gets worse. A day later news reports were telling us of another bizarre example of self-esteem in the classroom: “Teachers at a Brisbane school were told to leave wrong answers by students blank, as marking it wrong would have hurt the child's confidence.” I kid you not.

Of course such loony self-esteem programs in our schools are all the rage and they have been going on for quite some time now. As columnist Bert Prelutsky notes, “These days, self-esteem has come to be a birthright. If you’re a teenager and you’re breathing, polls indicate that you have a doggone high opinion of yourself.”

Obviously with all this emphasis on self-esteem in the classroom there has come a lot of nonsense. And it is easy to document many more examples. In their 2008 book about American public education, From Crayons to Condoms, Steve Baldwin and Karen Holgate examine the self-esteem craze sweeping through the educational system. They offer a number of stories by parents who are at wits’ end over these ineffective and counterproductive programs. One father made this complaint:

I’m angry, very angry. Our son is six-years-old and in second grade. Last year I fumed because he brought home written work with every word misspelled and then told me it was ‘creative spelling’. According to ‘creative spelling’, children must learn two, three, or even four different ways to spell before learning the correct way. The formative years should be spent learning how to spell words correctly the first time!

Plenty of other horror examples are provided in the book. The attempt to make all students feel good about themselves, when they in fact may be not so good, is as counterproductive as it is silly. It is light-years away from what schools used to do, and it seems that the old way of doing things was a lot more effective. As columnist Ashley Herzog writes:

Once upon a time - a time you probably don’t remember if you’re younger than 30 - American schools sought to teach children self-control, personal responsibility, and respect for others, especially adults. Students were corrected when they made mistakes and reprimanded when they slacked off or talked back. Most unfathomable to the current education establishment, teachers assessed students on qualities such as “gets along well with others” - and some children actually flunked. In the eyes of schoolteachers and parents, shaping kids into productive and responsible citizens was more important than protecting their egos.

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Quite right. But today ego and self-esteem are everything. And in the process, we are raising a generation of kids who are going to have some major problems once they get into the real world.

But does it work?

Indeed, the real issue here is whether these self-esteem education programs in fact do any good. The resounding answer seems to be no. An article in the U.S. News and World Report found that there is “almost no research evidence that these [self-esteem] programs work”. It said this:

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About the Author

Bill Muehlenberg is Secretary of the Family Council of Victoria, and lectures in ethics and philosophy at various Melbourne theological colleges.

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