The Oil Spill And Our Educated Citizenry

CJW, May 28, 2010 1:23 PM


 "To educate a man in mind and not in morals is 
to educate a menace to society."
                                                 - Teddy Roosevelt

Is Our Competitive Educational System
 Inadvertently Fueling A Culture Promoting 
 Shortcuts, Shrewdness, Egotism & An
Every-Person-For-Themselves Behavior?

By C.J. Westerberg

One can't help but make larger connections to the enormity of events unfolding in the Gulf.  The environment, the economics, the immorality of those in a position to make the decisions that led to this debacle - all create a narrative beyond the scope of comprehension.
As yet another blow to our collective trust regarding "those in charge", it makes one think about the role of education, the power wielded by those who have/had access to great education, and to question whether we have, as a society, conveniently "forgotten" the responsibilities that are inextricably bound with the gift of education.  While we are a culture that celebrates individualism (unlike the East's ancient "chop down the tallest tree"), whatever happened to the notion of "the greater good"?  Is it now truly "whatever"?

Let's see how the dog-eat-dog behavior is played out in our schools.  High-stakes standardized testing and the system of rewards in schools contribute to strategies of how "to beat the system".  (See Stephen Colbert's fun truthiness on this subject: How To Ace The SAT's).  

This excerpt is authored by Alfie Kohn, from "Who's Cheating Whom?" in Phi Delta Kappan:  

" . . .One major cause of cheating, then, is an academic environment in which students feel pressured to improve their performance even if doing so involves methods that they, themselves, regard as unethical.   But when you look carefully at the research that confirms this discovery, you begin to notice that the worst environments are those in which the pressure is experienced in terms of one's standing relative to others. 

 . . . Competition is perhaps the single most toxic ingredient to be found in a classroom, and it is also a reliable predictor of cheating. Grades are bad enough, for example, but the practice of grading on a curve -- or ranking students against one another -- is much worse. . . .

 . . .And while using rewards to "motivate" people is generally counterproductive,[16] the negative effects are intensified with awards -- which is to say, the practice of making rewards (or recognition) artificially scarce so that students must try to triumph over one another.

Competitive schools are those where, by design, all students cannot succeed.[17] To specify the respects in which that arrangement is educationally harmful may help us understand its connections to cheating.  Competition typically has an adverse impact on relationships because each person comes to look at everyone else as obstacles to his or her own success. Competition often contributes to a loss of intrinsic motivation because the task itself, or the act of learning, becomes a means to an end -- the end being victory. . ."

One could argue competition is a part of life so get used to it.  Using a sports analogy, have you ever seen kids completely turned off to a sport because it was forced down their throats with one goal in mind: achievement?  Or, as another example, at what price does competition fail our kids? 

Last week I was privy to the antics of a mom who was coach of a school tennis team (with two of her own children on the team), and who pulled an adult tantrum about having to follow the protocol of providing a team line-up prior to match play.  She essentially wanted to see how the first rounds played out to re-jigger the next line-up last minute to her team's advantage.  Not only could the kids see this horrid role-modeling behavior, but they were also learning to "break the rules when it suited them" and press the rules when it fell to their advantage.  No different than schools "juking the books" to make their test scores look good, teachers doing extensive test-prep to bring up test numbers, or the myriad of other ways schools and individuals have gotten away with something not quite "right" simply because they can get away with it.

FireDogLake has an interesting post related to this discussion.  From  "A Plutocratic Universe" post:

"Autocrats, plutocrats, authoritarian ideologues and elitists of all stripes speak often of the people's inability to govern themselves in a complex world that requires expertise - namely, the self-justifying expertise of the elite themselves. With surprising frankness, federal appeals court Judge Richard A. Posner summed up the elite's paternalistic rationale:

'Few citizens have the formidable intellectual and moral capacities (let alone the time) required for the role that [popular democracy] assigns to the citizenry . . .'

The anti-democratic sentiment is hard enough to stomach. But what really galls is the blindness to an indisputable fact of history:  it's the autocrats, plutocrats, dictators, duci, fuhrers, imperial presidents and corporate barons who have lacked the necessary 'intellectual and moral capacities' to cope.

Even historically exalted leaders are usually only those who've succeeded in cleaning up the messes of their predecessors
. . . ."

This site has also been following the Gulf tragedy, one of the most painful illustrations of companies and apparently also the regulators getting away with something 'because they could', not because it was the right thing to do. And why be motivated to find alternatives, when just getting by "works".  From the post, "The Looming Economic Conditions In The Gulf":

The latest gambit by BP to plug the underwater volcano in the Gulf has "hit a snag," according to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. The President has sent in a ragtag bunch of scientists, engineers and MacGruber to brainstorm the mess. It's depressing that the long-awaited, much-anticipated Apollo Project for energy has been reduced to coming up with a way to stop a fountain of oil at the bottom of the sea. . . ."

What do you think?  As a nation, have we become far too clever for our own good?


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