The soft bigotry of low expectations

Admittedly it’s been more than a decade since I’ve been inside a public school classroom — not as a guest or guest speaker — but as the holder of the grade book.

True, after retirement, I taught a smattering of classes at Luna Community College and the United World College, but that doesn’t qualify me as one with all the answers. I wonder how much has changed since I taught high school, for example, and even more specifically, what’s changed since the ‘40s and ‘50, when my presence (and that of others) probably made the nuns at Immaculate Conception School clutch their rosaries tighter in anticipation of retirement.

What caught my attention on this topic was an article written a few months ago by a Kevin Donnelly, director of the Education Standards Institute in Perth, Australia.

Donnelly’s premise is simply that students today are laden with so much praise that when they enter the real world, brushes with failure disillusion them. Donnelly writes that at St. Hilda’s Anglican School for Girls, “the self-esteem, care, share, grow movement in education has had its day and . . . students must be taught how to cope with failure.”

That’s brilliant! Why hasn’t anyone else thought of (or at least articulated) that? The writer argues that “too much praise means children have an inflated and unrealistic sense of their own ability. After never experiencing failure at school or being told that near enough is good enough, many students, on entering the real world, don’t have the resilience and strength to cope.”

When did this everybody-gets-a-trophy-just-for-showing-up philosophy grasp our American educational system, making the academic voyage unrealistically smooth?

Did we at I.C School get patted, petted, praised and promoted merely because we happened to turn in our homework on time? No, the aftermath of failing to do the minimum often resulted in our being pinched, put-down, pulverized and penalized.

Realize, please that I’m not trying to equate public and private schools today with those of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Rather, I’m expressing what I recall as realistic expectations among the teaching staff and the consequences for failing to get the picture.

And though writing lines ­— that tedious procedure that requires 100 copyings of words we missed on a test ­— re-writing whole articles out of encyclopedias, and penning letters of apology to the manager of Newberry’s (ask me about that some time), such routines aren’t meant to suggest a form of education that we used to read about in Dickens novels in junior high.

No, I don’t imply we were abused or unnecessarily belittled in those days. However, few people could have expected Mom and Dad to coddle them, back them up, and the next day “put that mean teacher in his (or her) place.”

Kids have it easy today. Helicopters abound. On the playground at Cuba High School, where my wife and I both taught in the past, I noticed a teacher giving a well-deserved reprimand to a boy who’d been bullying a female classmate.

The boy’s mother, who just happened to be married to a school board member, ran out to the playground with the celerity that would have made the track team proud. The teacher aide-mother was ready to belt the teacher who dared discipline her ‘Jito, before other staff intervened, with the strong lesson that whatever the teacher on duty said to the boy was justified.

The boy’s mother didn’t drop the matter right away; instead, she made sure each member of the board learned about her version.

And on Facebook, someone posted a cartoon (of yesteryear’s vintage) showing parents railing their child in front of his teacher. The father asks his son, “And how do you explain these miserable grades?”

The second panel, representing education today, features the parents, the child and the teacher, and the speaker and the words are the same. The only difference is that the father is directing the venom toward the teacher, as if the teacher needed to do the shaping up.

At the risk of being repetitious, let me emphasize that misbehavior on our part, in our youth, invariably led to two punishments: one at school, and something more severe at home. “Wait till your father gets home” was indeed fear-inducing.

And it meant something.

Donnelly’s article concludes with, “In schools, teachers need to be hard-headed and make sure that students and parents are given a realistic and honest assessment of strengths, weaknesses and level of ability.”

It would be great if somehow this country returned to a time of realistic expectations among our students.

I wonder how many of our students fail to achieve those goals because of the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

• • •

Heard on radio Monday: Irregardless (twice).

Irregardless goes under the heading of NSW: No such word. The root word “regardless” already indicates a negative, as in “regardless of what he says, I don’t believe him.” And those who place “ir” at the beginning are flirting with a double negative. It’s like saying “Not regardless.”

To this, the resident wordsmith, whom you may call Tio Frillo, asks, Where does that silly prefix come from? There are a few words with similar beginnings, like “irrespective,” “irresponsible” and “irreverent.”

Sorry, but irregardless doesn’t qualify . . . irregardless of how many times we hear it on radio.

• • •

My long-time friend Judee Williams sent me a dozen atrocious puns. To temper the groan factor, I’m releasing them only a few at a time. And remember: A sincere groan is the only appropriate response to a wretched pun.

  • Ancient orators tended to Babylon.
  • A tardy cannibal gets the cold shoulder.
  • Never play cards in the Serengeti. There are too many cheetahs.

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