Tag Archives: risk aversion

Speculations on the Culture of Fear


I wondered aloud, in my last post, how we could have gotten to the point where, in direct contradiction of some very clear, very scary, not-at-all-obscure-or-complex evidence of the consequences of our actions, we have become so terrified of risk that we are actually killing our kids, after making them miserable. All in the name of love.

This is not an easy question to answer. Certainly, it won’t help to oversimplify, as Tim Gill points out in this little diagram, from his website ‘Rethinking Childhood’:




This is a tempting shorthand for what’s been going on in kids’ lives and in the minds of parents, culminating in what I believe is a real crisis in kids’ physical and mental health. But a more thoughtful approach looks for the roots of problems, and is not distracted or satisfied by proximal causes. Here’s Gill’s proposed ‘rethinking’ of the problem:

Of course, as he admits, there’s more to it even than that. Where do all these gadgets come from? Whence all the traffic? Why are parents working such long hours? And are these fears, in fact, well grounded? These questions need answers, and I’ll try to provide a few, in a minute.

But in the meantime, parental anxiety has been identified over and over again as the most proximal cause of the inactivity of our kids. Why has parental worry seemingly exploded since the days of our pragmatic, capable, depression-era parents or grandparents? A lot of the answers to this question actually intersect significantly with the answers to Tim Gill’s questions, above.

Margaret K. Nelson, author of ‘Parenting Out Of Control’, looks at the phenomenon of parental anxiety and its consequences, both to anxious parents themselves, and of course to their offspring. In an impressive two paragraphs near the beginning of the book, she summarises some if the prevailing theories for its genesis, and then provides additional research of her own, which expands on those theories. Briefly (with shorthand names I’ve given them), some of them are:

The “Culture of Fear” argument: Due to media exaggerations and obsessions with violence, terrorism, and sexual predation, parents are hyper-aware of potential dangers that lurk in what they perceive as an increasingly violent, risky world.

The “Only Child” argument: Because (partly due to increasing urbanisation), parents are frequently having only one child, they will never have the perspective that comes with experience, and remain anxious “new parents” the whole time they raise their first – and only- child. This is so common that in families with multiple children, the eldest child often ends up bearing some resentment to his younger siblings, who because their parents were more relaxed and experienced by the time they had them, grow up with fewer anxiety-induced restrictions on their activities, and often receive privileges at earlier ages than the first-born.

The “Little Emperor” argument: Related to the Only Child, this argument suggests that parents’ adulation of, and anxiety for, their offspring is exaggerated to unhealthy levels because of the uniqueness of a child without siblings. My name for the argument is taken from the “one child” policy of China, which has been popularly blamed for creating a generation of ‘little emperors’ – spoiled children who are treasured by their parents because the state forbids their having siblings.

The “Erosion of Adult Solidarity” argument:  Suggests that, as our society becomes more and more individualistic, we have transferred the burden of rearing a child to the sphere of the family, or in many cases, single individuals, whereas in more cohesive cultures around the world, this job is seen as the collective responsibility of the whole community.
The “Risk Society” arguments: (Broken down into sub-categories):

The “Amnesiac argument”: Anthony Giddens and others suggest that the erosion of any strong cultural or historical link to the past creates an overemphasis on, and anxiety for, the future, including notions of safety.

The “Master of My Fate” argument: As danger is redefined, from “fate”, or “chance”, to “manageable risk”, the emphasis is placed squarely on personal responsibility. The idea that the natural world is complex and fundamentally unmanageable is replaced with legal notions of ‘due diligence’ that retroactively assign blame whenever an event takes place that is deemed, in retrospect, to have been avoidable.

The “No Social Net” argument: As governments increasingly retreat from what many see as their fundamental duty to provide for their citizens, more and more responsibility for the health and safety of their kids are placed on individual parents.

To these, Nelson, based on her research, adds some nuance in the form of:

The “Social Class” argument:   Having noticed significant differences in the ways intensive parenting manifests itself between the lower- and “professional-middle” classes, Nelson suggests that ideas about the future financial security of their offspring motivates parents of different classes to ‘helicopter’ in different ways. What is constant, though, is the basic assumption of an uncertain economic future, which the Boomer generation did not share, and the desire of parents to see their kids replicate or exceed their own social class, which is no longer seen as being guaranteed.

But there’s more! Lenore Skenazy, in her book ‘Free Range Kids’, suggests a number of other reasons, namely:

The “Opportunistic Vendor” argument: Recognising the immense opportunity for lucrative businesses that pander to the health- and security-obsessed, whole markets spring up that attempt to sell ‘solutions’ to so-called problems that would have been laughable even a generation ago (baby knee-pads, anyone? How about tracking devices for your teenagers? You get the idea.)

The “Know-it-all Expert” argument: Related to the one above, this argument questions the rise of the “one size fits all” brand of so-called “Parenting Experts”, whose primary function seems to be to sell books and magazines telling parents what they are doing wrong and how it will permanently damage their children. They make their money by claiming that there is a ‘right’ way to raise a child, and that only they have the secret – which they will impart to you for a price!

The “Social Pressure” argument: Caught in a media firestorm when she allowed her son to take the NYC subway on his own, and dubbed “America’s Worst Mom”, Skenazy certainly felt the pressure to conform to the new social norms. Luckily, she educated herself about the origins and viability of those norms, and stood her ground. Many parents succumb. My own sister was upbraided by a stranger in a car-park outside a bank, where she had briefly left her 10-year-old daughter in charge of her toddler-aged brother in order to run in to make a deposit. She wasn’t gone more than a few minutes, and though the day was warm, my niece was perfectly capable of opening a window at age ten! The stranger actually called the police, apparently having read in the media one of the many stories of tragedy involving infants or dogs left in hot cars, and being unable to make the distinction in context. Though my sister is still adamant that she did nothing wrong, the experience was unpleasant enough that she has never repeated it. The intense pressure that mothers face from Nosey Parkers and busybodies is real – nobody wants to be called a Bad Parent. Especially when – as is increasingly the case – being branded such is likely to bring you under the cruel scrutiny of the law – which brings me to the next point, viz:

The “Legal Pressure” argument: Laws are often reflexions of social norms, and when those social norms become bugshit crazy, so often do the laws. The ‘Free Range Kids’ blog is full of anecdotes about draconian, blinkered applications of stupid laws that have profound negative effects on the lives of parents who are trying to buck the trends and raise their kids as sanely as they know how. One Florida lawyer actually presents convincing arguments that many parents unjustly accused of negligence in the U.S. actually cannot even get fair trials anymore, because the public dialogue has been so severely compromised on the subject of child safety that jury members and even judges cannot make rational decisions on the subject in this culture of fear.

The “Lousy Judge” argument: Our brains, as Skenazy and others like Dan Gardner, point out, are just phenomenally, evolutionarily predisposed to stupidity when it comes to risk assessment. Without education, our brains get the numbers wrong every time. Of course, not having sensibly-presented data from the media doesn’t help. See my previous post for a deeper look at this one.

The “Cultural Shut-Ins” argument: When our lack of interest in the past, combined with a cultural insularity, give us little knowledge of how other cultures (including our own, in the past) have treated issues of child-rearing, the echo-chamber of our own modern-western-culture-specific worries grows louder and louder, with no parallel experiences to contrast or challenge them. North Americans’ fabled lack of worldliness and knowledge of history combine to make a massive handicap here, aside from just making us insufferable to people of other nations.

To these, I myself might also add two psychological arguments that, while they might not directly cause anxiety, certainly help to explain why it might be augmented under certain circumstances:

The “Self-Efficacy” argument: Related to, but distinct from, self-esteem, self-efficacy is the increased sense of personal confidence and ability to deal with difficult things that comes with…well, doing difficult things. It’s a sense of competence that comes with skill, which in turn comes with experience. The safer we become, the fewer difficulties we encounter, which means that the self-efficacy ‘muscle’ becomes atrophied, and we lose perspective about what constitutes real danger, as well as our ability to cope with simple inconveniences.

• Related to the self-efficacy argument, the “Crooked Barometer” argument is a psychological argument that suggests that when a high level of risk is either eliminated or otherwise subverted, as in our modern ultra-safe society, the brain has a way of “advancing the queue” of smaller anxieties to fill the space left by the genuine threat, making small worries seem comparatively larger. It promotes, in other words, molehills to the rank of mountains, but only in the absence of real mountains, which would provide perspective.

Have I missed anything? 🙂

Of course, most of these factors are linked to each other, and reinforce each other, making it more and more difficult to have a coherent, calm conversation on the subject at all. But I’d like to try to construct a narrative out of these seemingly disparate proximal causes, in the hopes of stumbling onto something closer to the root of all of them. Here’s the (probably too graphically challenging) flowchart I came up with based on the factors listed above:

I’m kind of impressed with how central the rise of corporate capitalism is in all this, as well as the brand of urbanisation that it encourages. The media, while extremely influential, is mostly just reacting to market forces when it fearmongers to the extent that it does, as well as reflecting and augmenting the elevated levels of societal fear. Dan Gardner refers to this as an “echo chamber” effect.  I don’t want either to “let the graphic speak for itself” when it’s so obviously complex; nor do I want to belabour a point here.  So perhaps I’ll try to articulate the narrative that this graphic suggests to me in a future post.


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Ten Things Our Grandparents Got Right #6: Fresh Air and Exercise

There’s an amusing anecdote in The English Gentleman, a humourous exposé of English upper-class life by Douglas Sutherland. In it, the author instructs us on the various ways one might master gentlemanly behaviour, from the dining hall to the hunting field:

He must also realise that once he is in the saddle he must be as rude as possible to anyone who crosses his path. One quasi-gentleman, when he was asked by the Master what the devil he thought he was doing out hunting, was naïve enough to reply that he only came out for the fresh air and exercise. ‘In that case you had better go home and bugger yourself with a pair of bellows,’ thundered the Master, riding off in pursuit of another victim for his scorn (91).

I mention this for two reasons: one is that in 1978, when the book was published, it was a natural response to the question of what one is doing outside: fresh air and exercise. The fact that the ‘quasi-gentleman’ answered without thinking allowed the ‘Master’ to take advantage of the idiom, which I (growing up in the 1970s) heard all the time from my mother as she closed the screen door behind me and sent me out into the world. I was not to come back until lunch time, after which I would be out again until dark. This seems, sadly, no longer to be the case for our young people .

The second is that we have, if you will pardon the expression, well and truly buggered ourselves on this front. Somehow, my generation, ignoring our own childhood experiences of endless summer days, independent adventure, creativity, and blissful activity outdoors for its own sake, have transformed the notion of ‘outside’ from “the natural and salubrious habitat of a child” to “the weird and unnatural habitat of paedophiles and/or early death”. In a single generation, it seems that the natural “roaming range” of a child at play has declined to one-ninth its former area! Have a look at this unsettling picture, from Britain’s Daily Mail:

This trend seems to be accelerating: the percentage of Canadian kids who play outside after school has dropped 14% over the last decade alone, and 46% of Canadian kids now get 3 hours or less of active play per week, including weekends.

The consequences of this sudden trend to raise children in captivity to children’s mental  and physical health have been enormous and well documented. For complex social reasons, children are now subject to restrictions on their movements and activities that outnumber those of incarcerated felons. In one of the worst examples of Newspeak that I have witnessed, we justify our shameful treatment of young people by claiming that it is in their best interest.

Many go so far as to blame children for being lazy: the typical response of colonisers to the colonised. Create conditions that are so unhealthy and oppressive that, in order to survive, the victims adapt and change their behaviour. Then blame them for that behaviour and use it to justify further control and oppression.

Kids are not naturally lazy. In a recent global study, playing outside with friends was the single most popular choice of activity for children around the world. They don’t want to just sit quietly, allaying their parents’ worries: depression rates in children are skyrocketing. They’re fatter, sicker, stiller and sadder than any kid in history. In Canada, 92% of kids say they would rather play outside than watch TV. So why, why, why are they spending on average almost 8 hours a day in front of screens – as much time as you or I might spend at a full-time job??

The answer: Parental anxiety. Parents’ fears for children’s safety have turned them into (in the words of one child welfare spokesperson in the U.K.) “Battery chickens”. These parental fears are almost totally uncalled for. As experts have repeatedly pointed out, contrary to media-distorted perception, the world is not becoming more dangerous. Crime levels are at or below the idyllic levels of Baby-Boomer childhood days. Violent crime is especially low, as is death from disease or accident. We are the safest people ever to walk the planet, as Stephen Pinker points out in this TED talk:

In fact, we’re so safe it’s becoming dangerous. Everyone has seen for themselves that “kids are getting fatter these days”. But that seems sort of benign, next to the horrific fears of pedophile abduction that popular culture forces on the imaginations of parents everywhere. So let’s look at the consequences of sedating our children.


In short, inactivity is killing our children slowly. The New England Journal of Medicine reports that, for the first time in history, our children’s lifespan could be 2-5 years less than our own.  This is despite the fact of our increasing safety, mentioned above, and despite the fact that this appears to be entirely avoidable: fit individuals outlive unfit individuals across the board, including all causes of death. Regular physical activity is associated with as much as a 30% reduction in all causes of mortality.

Some fun facts from the ParticipACTION site (remember them? I used to have a jacket sewn all over with medals of theirs…one of my proudest moments as a kid was earning a gold one year):

• The number of obese children has tripled in the last 3 decades.

• That means that 26% of our kids are overweight or obese. That’s 1 in 4. By the time they reach adulthood, that same percentage will be fully obese.

• Sport participation rates in Canadian youth aged 15-18 declined from 77% in 1992 to 59% in 2005. Adults continue the trend: Canadian adult participation in sport declined from 45% in 1992 to 28% in 2005.

• What is killing our kids? Car accidents, mostly. But if they make it to adulthood, it’s heart disease, possibly cancer. Inactivity contributes strongly to more than 25 chronic conditions, many of which are potentially fatal: coronary heart disease, stroke, hypertension, breast cancer, colon cancer, type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis.

• The link is strong, and causal: inactivity doesn’t just exacerbate illnesses – it causes them. Physical inactivity is estimated to cause 21-25% of breast cancers and colon cancers, 27% of diabetes and 30% of ischemic heart disease.

• Physical inactivity – let’s be clear – is deadly. It is one of the five leading global risk factors for mortality and is estimated to cause 2 million deaths per year. Now a paper in the prestigious medical journal the Lancet is calling for exercise to be listed as a vital sign, alongside pulse and respiratory rate.

• For the first time in history, obesity is responsible for more deaths than being underweight, worldwide.

• This is, by all normal definitions, an epidemic. And a big one. In lower-income countries, it is comparable to two of the biggest, scariest health scourges on Earth: HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. And yet, we’re apparently doing nothing about it. This is despite the fact that, repeatedly, Health Care is reported to be the #1 topic of concern to Canadians.

Even if you define ‘concern’ as merely referring to the cost associated with it, we’re being obtuse. The estimated costs of obesity and physical inactivity are as high as $7.1 billion a year, as of 2008. Add in the costs associated with reduced productivity, and you’ve got what should be a massive financial incentive to get our kids outside.


Children are experiencing depression and anxiety at earlier ages than ever before. Now, Statistics Canada has found that 6.5% of youth and young adults between 15 and 24 had major depression last year. That’s more than 250, 000 kids. I recently attended a mental health seminar at the school I work at in Ontario. We were told that, out of a population of 1500, four students know a peer who has committed suicide in the last year. In terms of the whole city, in a population of around 22 500 high school students, 48.7% of male students and 47.9% of females had experienced depression during their high school careers; 45% of the males had never admitted it to anyone, suggesting that the alarming rates of teen depression in the news are actually underreported.

I can’t help but feel that the answer to these problems is the same one my mum had, all those years: Fresh air and exercise. And there’s a growing body of research to back her up. Let’s break it down:


Defined as ‘being outside in nature’. Parental fear of strangers and traffic have contributed to the decline of unstructured, unsupervised, outdoor play. 71 % of today’s mothers said they recalled playing outdoors every day as children, but only 26 % of them allow their kids to play outdoors daily. Most Canadians (75%) got their primary opportunities to experience the outdoors through school programmes, many of which are now being cut. Even recess has become a thing of the past in many schools in North America.

So few kids get out into nature these days that Richard Louv has coined the term “Nature Deficit Disorder” to describe the array of symptoms that could be allayed or eliminated with more contact with the natural world. These include:

• ADHD: even marginal exposure to nature alleviates many symptoms

• Vitamin D deficiency

• Myopia:  do more kids wear glasses these days, or is it me?

• Asthma

• Stress, anxiety, and depression

Check out this infographic, from the David Suzuki Foundation:

These are over and above the benefits of just plain ol’ exercise, and the reduction of obesity-related morbidity, mentioned above. In fact, exercise in a natural setting seems to have more benefits than exercise alone – even the sight of green spaces through a hospital window has been linked to faster recovery times from surgery!  The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science posits a direct relationship between biodiversity and human mental health.  Even five minutes of exposure to nature has significant positive mental/emotional impact.


The benefits are huge, and the drawbacks are nonexistent. Why do we not just do this? Remember, kids want exercise. All we have to do is get out of their way. Seriously: that might be it. We might be able to cure one of the biggest epidemic health threats to our children just by calming the hell down and stepping back. According to Dr W.H. Dietz,

Opportunities for spontaneous play may be the only requirement that young children need to increase their physical activity. Reducing the amount of time that children are allowed to watch television is one strategy that offers children opportunities for activity, and it is likely to alter requests for advertised foods as well.

The physical advantages of exercise should be obvious; what might not be so blatant are the psychological, neurological, and cognitive benefits it confers. I previously reported on an open letter by hundreds of mental health professionals across the world, calling on the return of unstructured, unsupervised play as a potential cure for many of the psychological woes suffered by our children these days.

But there’s more: lots more.

One of the ways that parents interfere with children’s fresh air and exercise is an inappropriate, status-driven obsession with academic performance.  As is so often the case with these things, the obsessive behaviour actually brings about the very outcome they are trying to avoid. Regular exercise in fact increases attention, focus, memory, critical thinking, and overall cognitive ability.

Further to the treatment of ADD and ADHD by exposure to nature, discussed above, exercise has also been shown to have a positive effect .

It has been shown to increase brain function and (what is critical) plasticity, allowing for amazing advantages ranging from recovery from brain injury to increased ability to learn to a reduced risk of dementia.

Aerobic exercise has even been linked to neurogenesis: that is, it triggers the growth of new brain cells, something that people used to think was impossible. This was shown to have an effect even in the brains of depressed people, where it is normally reduced. The reduction of cortisol, a stress hormone, may be implicated in this.

It has also been shown to increase blood flow to the brain, which has an overall, generalised beneficial effect on executive cognitive function. Study subjects showed marked improvement in areas such as “tasks that require planning, working memory, multitasking, [and] resistance to distraction.” Mental exercises, by contrast, tend to be task-specific in the way they improve cognition.

Exercise prevents memory loss by reducing feelings of stress, anxiety and depression. It also has a positive effect on sleep patterns and insomnia in adolescents, which is at the root of all kinds of health and cognitive detriments.

After a study by a Harvard medical team, even our very own Canadian national emblem, the Mounties of the RCMP, have adopted a fitness programme for their officers – not to keep them fit so they can chase criminals, but specifically for the improvement of their cognitive functions. They’ve invested in fitness programmes for their inspectors to help them solve crimes.

So with all these common-sense, obvious, well-documented benefits of fresh air and exercise, how have we allowed our own groundless anxieties to rob our children of the world of nature, and possibly of their very future? I’ll explore some of that in my next post.

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Ten Things Our Grandparents Got Right #3: They allowed us to fail

Final Part

Benefits of failure 

All of the factors mentioned in the first three segments of this posting series have contributed to the notion that risk is unacceptable in any form.  Failure, the constant companion of risk, is just as much of a pariah.  But they are both very necessary for healthy development.  David McClelland, of Harvard University Psychology Department, found that setting goals with a high possibility of failure – somewhere between 30 and 50% chance – actually helped highly motivated people to improve their skills.  His work in achievement and motivation earned him the APA’s Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions.

 Over at Stanford, Dr Carol Dweck suggests that two different attitudes towards the concept of intelligence can have a huge effect on not only learning, but anxiety.  A ‘fixed’ mindset is one that is born of a belief that success and intelligence are innate:  statements like “You’re very bright” accentuate this belief.  Holders of this mindset are upset with the notion of failure, because it so obviously reflects on them as people, on the essential level.  The ‘growth’ mindset is different:  it assumes that success is the result of hard work, and therefore holders of this mentality fear failure much less:  they’ll just keep trying and learning as they go.  Obviously, these are the innovators and high achievers of our times; the ‘fixed’ mindset leads more often to anxiety and paralysis than any kind of growth or success.  You can see the two mindsets laid out in this graphic: 

Michael Jordan once said on the subject:  “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career, I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”  More famous “failures” are highlighted in this short video:

On an even more fundamental level, Gandhi reminds us that “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.”  Or, more correctly, freedom does not exist under those circumstances.  And when freedom does not exist, there is no control over one’s future, a circumstance that psychologists point out is a big factor in the increasing levels of anxiety and depression in kids today.  In 2007, a group of 270 child psychologists from around the English-speaking Western world wrote an open letter to the Daily Telegraph suggested that the loss of unstructured play time was behind the “explosion in children’s diagnosable mental health problems”.  This seems to be supported by some research:  overprotective and controlling behaviour by parents might be the mechanism by which the transmission of anxiety from parent to child (well documented elsewhere) is effected.

Risk aversion is rampant in the education system today.  There are dozens of anecdotal examples from the Phys. Ed. Department where I work.  Some kid, against instructions, climbs one of those apparatuses in the gym that fold out for climbing, and falls off:  instant ad-hoc regulation from the Board, banning the use of the apparatus.  Apparently the dangers inherent in not listening to safety instructions are overshadowed by those in everyday physical objects.  A celebrity dies on a ski slope after hitting her head – and immediately, all students in the Board are required to wear helmets for all  outdoor winter activities, which means that the annual ESL field trip to go ice skating is cancelled, because the recent immigrants to Canada (many of them refugees) are often too poor to afford sports equipment.  These kids survived war zones, and now aren’t allowed outside without helmets.  What is the actual rate of injury or death on ski hills in Canada?  Who cares?  A celebrity died, so it could happen to anybody, right?  The list of acceptable activities in Gym class is steadily shrinking.  Statistics (otherwise known as facts) play no apparent role in Board decisions of this type; only gut feelings of fear and probable danger hold sway.  Some simple research would tell you how many times an injury has occurred during a particular activity; then, divide that into the number of students who have participated in the activity.  This should give you some idea of the risk.  The number will rarely be zero, but if the activity has benefits (such as generating camaraderie, self-confidence, cooperation, etc.) that are significant, it’s usually worth enduring some slight risk in order to participate.  As Dan Gardner says, saying that something could happen is a meaningless statement.  It’s the probability of that event happening which ought to guide our responses.  Though I must say that the risk of litigation over rare incidents is much higher than the risk of the incidents themselves!  This is really a problem, and ought to be considered more carefully.

 It need not be said that the perceived risk of the effects of failure on students is exaggerated, by parents and administrators, as well as by students themselves.  It is often presented as the End of Dreams:  a shut door to the future, equivalent in many cases to the loss of hope.  The amazing self-absorption of many of us in the field of education astounds me daily.  Every person reading this probably knows at least one high school dropout who went on to live a perfectly happy and productive life.  The entrepreneurial world is full of them:  Angelfire.com lists 755 notable elementary- and high-school-dropouts on what it claims is the most comprehensive list ever compiled on the subject; it includes 25 billionaires, 8 U.S. Presidents (that’s about 18% of the total number of Presidents ever!), 28 knighthoods, 55 bestselling authors, 10 Nobel Prize winners, and an astronaut.  The number is of course tiny compared to all the students who did graduate, but there are plenty of non-graduates who are living good, though non-spectacular lives all over the world.  The increased expectation for children to attend university in Canada has had some serious effects on schools and on society, according to James Côté and Anton Allahar, authors of Ivory Tower Blues

 In universities, as well as in high schools, it has led to remarkable grade inflation.  The Ontario Scholar bursary, awarded to students who graduate with an average of 80% or better, is now awarded to over 40% of all graduates, making it nearly meaningless.  Back in the 1960s, when it was conceived, only about 5% of students managed it.  At the same time, professors’ satisfaction with the knowledge base of undergraduates is steadily decreasing.  A big part of this is due to the sheer numbers of students attending university; attendance at postsecondary institutions has increased over 900% since the 1950s, making undergraduate students comprise about the same percentage of the population in 2004 as high school students did back in 1950.  (Ivory Tower Blues, p.26)  And with grade inflation comes credentialism, where a diploma or degree is seen as either an end in itself (and not the learning that earns the degree), or else a stepping stone to later employment or social success.  Neither of these takes into account that intrinsic motivation for learning, in other words, genuine, applied, and focused attention and interest in a subject, is the only real way that long-term brain mapping is accomplished (what we might call actual learning).  Goal-oriented practices such as focusing on diplomas or even on grades have been clinically shown to actually decrease success in academic pursuits (see Alfie Kohn’s article, “From Degrading to De-Grading” in High School Magazine , March 1999, among others.  Available at Alfiekohn.org).  The problem is that they make you focus beyond what you’re doing to the activity’s results and even beyond, to the consequences of those results.  It’s a distraction.  And our society is good at distraction.  Note that being focused on the present, that zen-like Eastern mindset, is once again absent from the Western picture.

 I have actually had a principal tell me that I was not “getting the big picture”, which to her meant the four-year career of a student through high school to a diploma.  She had no real answer to my suggestion that a “big picture” ought reasonably to include the long-term well-being of students once they leave our halls.  Teachers, whose understanding of the process of learning is generally considerable, are the only ones who seem not to be as affected by this anxiety — that said, there is an enormous amount of pressure on educators not to assign failing grades.

 The practice of “Social Promotion” is badly understood by those within and without the system of education.  It is based on studies which appeared to show a correlation between students who were held back a year and those who eventually drop out of the system.  But a basic understanding of the term ‘correlation’ would help to disentangle some of the angst:  ‘correlation’ does not imply ‘causation’.  That is, one might expect to find that students who are disengaged from the learning process or from the environment of school for reasons of predisposition, stresses at home, a lack of support, etc. are the ones who are most likely to both fail courses and eventually drop out altogether.  The one does not necessarily cause the other to happen.  And yet many students are passed by administrators (often over the objections of subject teachers) despite the fact that they have not mastered the material covered by the course, on the assumption that their self-image will be damaged.  This has snowballing effects up the various grades and into universities, where less and less often professors are reporting satisfaction with the skills and knowledge base of undergraduates.  Despite studies which have shown that the causal link between repeating a grade and dropping out is tenuous at best, it might be true that the social cost of failing a grade and being held back is real, at least to some degree.  There is a maelstrom of debate about this, of course, but even assuming it does exist, it would seem to me to be more of a problem with the whole process of segregating students by age in the first place, rather than with the question of whether or not they are going to be left behind by their peers.  And there are good indications that the practice of passing people who know that they do not deserve to pass creates problems in self-esteem, which good psychologists know has to be genuine and earned in order to be beneficial.   Or, as James   Côté explains, it’s a difference between self-esteem and self-efficacy:

“The problem with the feel-good pedagogy of self-esteem is that it leads to neglect of basic pedagogical principles of learning and progressive skill acquisition.  In contrast to rewarding everyone regardless of how well the job is done, when a student learns the rudiments and masters the elements of a skill or area of knowledge, that person also acquires a sense of self-efficacy [, ] a sense that one can accomplish things and that those things are under one’s control.  [It] is thus a form of personal agency […] fromthis experience follows a realistic sense of self-esteem, and this sense of self-esteem is reinforced with every efficacious experience.  […]  People with high self-esteem, but low self-efficacy, must rely on continual feedback from others.”   (Ivory Tower Blues, p.70) 

 Our grandparents weren’t so risk averse.  “With the proliferation of graded schools in the middle of the 19th century, retention became a common practice. In fact, a century ago, approximately half of all American students were retained at least once before the age of 13”  (Rose, Janet S.; et al. “A Fresh Look at the Retention-Promotion Controversy.” Journal of School Psychology, v21 n3 p201-11 Fall 1983).  But this was in the days before the strange practice of age-apartheid in modern schools.  In the one-room schoolhouse, the older children provided behavioural models for the younger kids, as well as helping to teach them curriculum.  And if there’s one thing I have found out over more than a decade of teaching, it’s that if you want to know a subject well, you should teach it to someone else.

 Remember the numbers a few paragraphs back?  Undergraduate registration has risen 900% in 60 years, largely the result of the intellectual “arms race” of the Cold War.  The idea was that the supply of a large educated class would produce its own demand – but it didn’t.  Students and parents frequently are pushed (not pulled) toward university educations because of the rampant credentialism that tells them that a degree is like a passport to a good, white-collar job.  But though the number of undergraduates increased a hundred and fifty times in the last hundred years, the population of Canada only increased six times during that same period, and the number of white collar jobs (the supposed extrinsic aim of such an education) only increased by about 60%, and sits today at only about 16% of all jobs.  The story is a fib, in other words, and it’s one that causes disengagement and erosion of academic values, as well as a devaluation of the trades.  Students are in university for the wrong reasons, and even if they don’t drop out or fail in their first year (which nearly half do), there’s no guarantee of a job in their field after they graduate.

 So, those fears of a dark future without a high school diploma or a university degree are pretty much just that:  fear.  Whatever basis in reality it has is merely a self-fulfilling prophecy, and has no bearing on the actual state of affairs in Canada.  But when you have a massively risk-averse culture, and public policy that is too often based on emotions or ideology, rather than research, the result is a chaotic mess of anxieties and confusion and artificial pressures on students and teachers alike.  Combine that with the beneficial effects of a growth mindset – one that takes failure for granted, and actually depends on it for improvement and development – and you have a conundrum.

 That P.D. session I mentioned in the first of the blog entries under this title reinforces the point:  That well-meaning ex-clergyman wanted to spare children the pain of failure, and in doing so, took all the responsibility for that student’s success onto himself.  This may have been good for his own sense of martyrdom or of self-esteem based on his own perceived heroism, but it does little for the kids it’s supposed to help.

 Students don’t just survive failure.  They need it to learn.  And our overprotective attitude towards the topic hurts them in the long run.


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