Is Teaching Someone They’re A Failure A Good Thing?

Something recently triggered a bad memory and I was looking over an article on a site that I generally avoid (the site’s tendency towards gossip and bad science is what deters me – the very same article authored by comedian Charlie Pickering says “polio, measles and smallpox are no longer a threat“, for example… while somehow not noticing the given link in their very article demonstrates why they are still a threat), about self-esteem as a basic skill that needed to be taught:

I don’t expect parents to know how to do this. We don’t expect parents to know how to teach literacy and numeracy. That job is done by skilled and brilliant teachers who have benefited from centuries of improvements to our education system.

Over more than a millennium we have built an education system that, for all it’s flaws, is capable of teaching a common language, complicated communication and mathematical processes to millions upon millions of children. There is no reason why it cannot teach indelible self-esteem.

Actually, I do expect parents to teach literacy and numeracy – it’s called “reading to and with your kids via modelling good reading habits” and “working on homework with them” and “discussing real world problems in casual situations that scaffolds what they learned in class” and “having an interest in their schoolwork and educational development” with a helping of  “education systems may very well not be all they’re cracked up to be despite your claim of brilliant teachers, but thanks for the compliment I guess”.

So, could an educational system teach indelible self-esteem? And here I am, on the other hand, reading endless complaints about some kind of plague of narcissistic younger generations who are ruining everyone’s lives, including their own, and how bolstering their self-esteem is the last thing they need. I was starting to think that the DSM-5 must have a extra appendix on the disorder with named-and-shamed culprits, photo gallery and home addresses or something (although Google Trends indicates that “narcissism personality” was more of a “big thing” around mid-2011. Goddamned narcissists, driving traffic to themselves…).

I remember being “taught a lesson” in school once. It involved improving everyone’s spelling scores. The teacher announced that they were going to have a cumulative punishment for students who made a mistake in the spelling quiz: a spelling mistake meant writing out the word twenty times during a meal-and-play break. The next day, if you got another mistake? You wrote it out forty times. Then eighty the next day if you still got words wrong. Then one hundred and sixty times… and so on.

This geometric sequence of hell made my stomach drop. I knew that no matter how often I practiced my spelling, I’d screw up. I’d reverse “i” and “e”. I’d sit there twiddling a pen thinking “Um, okay, there’s a c in it… and perhaps a g…” while the teacher blithely romped through the rest of the list and then counted blanks or rushed efforts to fill in the words as mistakes that added to the punishment.

At the point that I was spending my fourth day with no food break during the daytime due to writing out spelling errors (the scene in Mean Girls where Cady is munching on a sandwich in a toilet cubicle – due to social ostracisation not lack of meal breaks, however – was a particularly nasty reminder of those times), the teacher produced a spelling list entirely made of homophones.

Gorilla, guerilla. Palate, palette, pallet.

This was apparently to teach us all humility. Maybe the teacher was working on their own future book on narcissism in the younger generation or something. What a bunch of brats we must have been.

I think the lesson I came away with was how much I hated the person giving the lesson, how much I hated any fellow classmates who had more right answers than me, how tired and hungry I felt and what “learned helplessness” meant before I ever learned the term.

You could have popped me in a shock box with a laboratory dog and given us both spelling lists to learn and we would have just looked at you equally as dumbly and braced for the next inevitable electrical jolt.

So, is there a middle ground between pointing a smug finger at a younger generation and decrying that they’re all narcissistic losers who deserve to have their failures pointed out to them in order to teach those arrogant upstarts a firm lesson (in what exactly? How to hate you back just as hard?) – and bolstering the esteem of those who get driven to dangerous practices due to feeling like the world despises them?

And is it all the job of educational systems to do so?

Maybe I just need to get a sandwich, work on something different that doesn’t make me think about being stuck in a shock box with a piece of paper telling me how stupid I am for a while.

About Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is a Philosophy teacher, media and psychology student, blogger at Patheos and podcaster at Token Skeptic. She has conducted over a hundred interviews including artists, scientists, politicians and activists, worldwide.
She’s the author of the ‘Curiouser and Curiouser‘ column at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry website and travels internationally lecturing on feminism, skepticism, and science.

  • Jo

    I hope the school you went to shut down or the teacher got a job doing something else.
    I also think that any teaching resource that tells learners that they’re dumb kids is going to get anyone onside. Maybe there is a balance between teaching someone well and teaching them that they can’t get answers right because they’re stupid, but I think it’s more than a matter of self-esteem building and narcissism.

    • Kylie Sturgess

      I don’t know what happened to the teacher, but I wasn’t the only student who had issues with how they treated kids.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X