Teacups and Teachability
July 15, 2016
Perhaps you are already aware of this problem, but college professors today are, in large part, displeased with the students that today’s primary education system (and today’s parents) are producing. The reasons for this are not strictly academic. The character of students is a growing concern to college professors today. Professor Janice Fiamengo says in one article that the “real tragedy” of our educational system is “not only that so many students enter university lacking the basic skills and knowledge to succeed in their courses–terrible in itself–but also that they often arrive essentially unteachable, lacking the personal qualities necessary to respond to criticism.” Apparently, a large percentage of college students are simply unable to learn in the college environment, irrespective of their level of academic preparedness. Professors have described today’s college students as unteachable, wimpy, fragile, infantilized, anxious, worrisome, perpetually adolescent, “teacups” (teacups meaning that you have to be very careful with them, lest they break). While this obviously is not true of all college students, some professors and child development professionals seem to believe it is accurate to describe the generation at large this way. In addition to the Fiamengo article above, further evidence of this fact can be found here. And here. (And each of these articles cites further evidence.)
The belief of these professionals is that the net effect of efforts to sanitize the upbringing of children is actually the opposite of the desired effect. Marano’s article (the third article linked to above) describes “the cyclist in the park, trim under his sleek metallic blue helmet, cruising along the dirt path… at three miles an hour. On his tricycle.” And she describes today’s playground, with its “all-rubber-cushioned surface where kids used to skin their knees.” She goes on to describe the mommies and daddies who “coplay” and “play-by-play coach” their kids, sparing them the difficulty of having to figure out on their own just what in the world they are going to do on that big playground, anyway. In this kind of world, children are protected from tough falls, scraped knees, and even overwhelming decisions like which slide they should go down next. The apparent problem is that such sanitization results in a weak immune system. Since children have been too long and too much protected from all manner of difficulty, they have no tools for coping with it when it happens to them–whatever “it” might be. Today’s far-reaching efforts to protect children from the emotional and physical trauma of hardship is robbing them of what our grandparents called “character.”
Fiamengo describes the unteachable student; the product of the sanitized upbringing, observing that she “has been told all her life that she is excellent: gifted, creative, insightful, thoughtful, able to succeed at whatever she tries, full of potential and innate ability.” Thus, when the student arrives at university and receives a less than satisfactory grade, she believes that she can approach and challenge the professor “with the belief that nothing requires improvement except the grade.” Sadly, the unteachable student has had this damaging (even if well-meaning) message reinforced at every turn. The idea that every kid is excellent, creative, insightful, thoughtful, able, and gifted is endemic to American culture. A local soccer organization has made a cash cow out of this ideology by treating it as meritorious and pointing prospective parents to their league, where “every player receives a really cool trophy that shows how valuable they are,” and where “we ensure that each player rotates to every position and plays equally in every game,” and where there are “no tryouts or all-star teams and all teams are balanced,” and where parents can “ignore the mistakes and enjoy their child’s playing,” and where “every child wins.” One would expect the children of such an ideology to believe themselves to be the next superstar of…well…whatever they set their hand to. There is, however, a perception among some that this kind of ideology is dangerous, and thatparents need to let their children fail sometimes. College professors are seeing first hand the results when carefully crafted and unrealistic expectations are dashed–the teacup is too often dashed along with them.
A uniquely modern Western manifestation of the sanitized childhood is the tendency to prefer a false sense of equity over the reality that not all things are always equal, much less the reality that this is as it should be. Not surprisingly, this tendency finds its way into the schoolhouse. France’s president, François Hollande, has recently floated the idea of removing homework from the picturealtogether. After all, the kids whose parents are involved with their schoolwork might gain an unfair advantage over those students whose parents are not. If that sounds insane, I want to suggest that the popularity of programs like the soccer organization mentioned above are an indication that we are operating from the same ideology here in America. Hardship does not have such a negative connotation in all cultures, however. Sticking with the classroom motif, a recent piece from NPR does an excellent job of highlighting the fundamental difference in the way two different cultures view struggle. Evidently, in some cultures, “it’s just assumed that struggle is a predictable part of the learning process. Everyone is expected to struggle in the process of learning, and so struggling becomes a chance to show that you, the student, have what it takes emotionally to resolve the problem by persisting through that struggle.” Wait a minute–did she really just say that struggle is a chance to show you have what it takes!? It would appear that some operate off of such crazy assumptions as the idea that struggle is a routine aspect of learning and, more that that, actually represents an opportunity.
One such person was the apostle Paul, who wrote in his letter to the Romans that we should “rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3-5 ESV). Obviously, this verse is speaking of the spiritual benefits of enduring suffering and persecution for the sake of Christ, so I do not want to de-contextualize it. Surely it is not a stretch, however, to say that the concept has application in this context. After all, we observe the same process in the strictly physical realm. An athlete has to endure–even inflict upon himself–tremendous amounts of pain for extended periods of time in order to produce the endurance required in his profession. So it is that the concept has meaningful application across multiple realms of human existence. Suffering produces endurance, endurance character, and character hope. It seems clear, then, that hardship is of indispensable value for our children.
In short, the toil and hardships that our children endure should have an edifying, and for the Christian student, sanctifying effect. Far be it from us to deny them the opportunities provided therein. The pendulum has swung far too far in the direction of coddling and pampering until children grow up (sort of) and are shattered by all the hardness and nastiness of the “real world,” for which they have been ill prepared. But, as with any exhortation, we must be cautious not to swing the pendulum too far in the opposite direction. We do not seek or relish suffering for our children–we are not sadists. We have an obvious duty to protect them from unnecessary harm. We don’t push them down on the pavement, for example, just so they learn how to deal with it. But, when the natural consequences of childhood occur, and our kids fall on the playground and scrape their knee, we do–we must–teach them how to wipe the blood off with their shirt tail and decide, for themselves, which slide to go down next. So to speak.
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