Myths of Spoiled Children and Other Things

We love to hold fast to our points of view without regard to evidence to the contrary. This is particularly the case in so-called educational reform, where most of the prescriptions for what ails education are based on assumptions that are simply not true.
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Years ago a music critic for a Detroit area newspaper reviewed a concert given by an up and coming chamber orchestra. The review began with a scathing critique of the concert's first piece, a Mozart Divertimento.

The group's conductor, a fine violinist, was livid. Not because of the unfavorable review, but because he believed the critic had not attended the concert. He was sure of this because the advertised program order had been changed at the last minute and a piece by Arnold Schoenberg was actually played first. The conductor had spoken to the audience before the concert to announce this change of sequence.

When accused of reviewing the concert without having attended, the critic was equally livid. "How dare you accuse me of such a thing!" "I know you weren't there," the conductor declared triumphantly, "because we played Schoenberg first, not Mozart. I announced the change at the start of the concert. If you were there you would not have reviewed Mozart as the first piece."

The critic snapped back, "I was there!!! I arrived a few minutes late so I didn't hear your announcement, but I heard the music." "But," the conductor retorted, "we were playing Schoenberg, not Mozart, and you wrote a critique of the Mozart Divertimento!" Undaunted, the critic replied, "So what? Mozart? Schoenberg? What does it matter? I didn't like it."

For the non-classical-musician it may be helpful to point out that confusing Mozart and Schoenberg is like mistaking Donny and Marie Osmond for Black Sabbath. But the critic was quite sure she didn't like it, and the complete idiocy of her position evaded her.

And thus it is with "opinion" in contemporary America. We love to hold fast to our points of view without regard to evidence to the contrary. This is particularly the case in so-called educational reform, where most of the prescriptions for what ails education are based on assumptions that are simply not true.

I recalled this absurd anecdote as I read Alfie Kohn's important new book, The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom About Children and Parenting. Therein he debunks many decades of nonsense about undisciplined, entitled, lazy, selfish, needy children who are the products of permissive parenting and schooling, rooted in the misguided progressivism of the 60's and 70's. His research is comprehensive, his logic compelling and his prose accessible and witty.

As he reveals, adults in every generation have, for many centuries, groused similarly about the youth of their era going to hell in a hand basket. The grousing is nearly identical and he cleverly serves up quotes that seem quite current, until identified as from another time entirely.

The importance of Kohn's treatise cannot be overestimated. Billions of dollars have been, are being, squandered in service of conventional wisdom that is simply wrong, if not outright fraudulent. Kohn thoroughly debunks widely held assumptions, like that Dr. Benjamin Spock's advice about parenting in the 50's and 60's contributed to spoiling children for decades thereafter. Through Kohn's more accurate lens, Spock's approach to parenting and child development was rather conservative -- certainly neither progressive nor permissive. Spock grew even more traditional in later years in an effort to distance himself from the inaccurate reputation fomented by political conservatives.

Kohn wields his scalpel on much of the research that purports to prove the "progressive, permissive, hell in a hand basket" proposition. According to Kohn, most "research" supporting these views consists of cherry-picked data that conveniently supports the strong biases held by the author. He sheds unflattering light on the many current books and policies that urge parents and schools to develop "grit" and self-reliance in kids by exposing them to failure, early and often. What a horrid way to view children and childhood, particularly since this impulse arises almost entirely from the mythology Kohn exposes.

My favorite part of the book, albeit only a brief passage, sharply dismisses the most outrageous piece of conventional wisdom flung recklessly by "back to the basics" traditionalists. This snide "wisdom," which I hear often as the head of a progressive school, is that educational standards and rigor were forever eviscerated by the soft, permissive progressive era, wherein everything children did was praised, everyone got a trophy, and snotty little entitled kids were running all the schools in America.

In response to nearly every article or blog post about education reform, a number of apparently angry commenters argue that progressive education ruined everything. They strenuously insist that we need more punishment, more work, more limits, more rigor, more "real world" consequences for children. I suspect it will happen in response to this post too.

This line of argument is ridiculous: First, progressive education is nothing like the silly caricature in the previous paragraph; and, more to the point, a "progressive movement" simply didn't take place.

There was indeed a juncture in American education, when progressivism and factory-style traditionalism sparred for eminence. But that was near the turn of the 20th century, not during the days of Woodstock and sex, drugs and rock n' roll. (Of course that's largely a myth too, as most bell-bottomed kids had no more sex than their parents and were playing with fads, not engaging in a profound social revolution.)

Progressive education lost the battle to the factory model in the early 20th century and has lived on only in small proportions of schools and some pockets of academia. I went to elementary and secondary school in the 50s and 60s. My children were students in the 70s and 80s. I've been deeply involved in education in the 90's and 00's. That pretty much covers the last six decades. There was no progressive era in education, even in the progressive communities where my family lived from the 50s to the 90s.

Had there been, perhaps we wouldn't be in the mess we're in now.

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