The Ebbing Tide Of Personal Responsibility

“Private Pyle, if there is one thing in this world that I hate, it is an unlocked footlocker!!  You know that, don’t you?  If it wasn’t for dickheads like you, there wouldn’t be any thievery in this world, would there?”

            —R. Lee Ermey as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket

Last week it was reported that New York City public schools were loosening their disciplinary code to eliminate suspensions for, among other things, cutting class, cussing, and smoking.  According to Chancellor Dennis Walcott:

“[W]e don’t just push students out of the classroom where they’re not learning as well . . . [o]ur goal is also to make sure if counseling is appropriate we put counseling in place for them and not just suspend.

“Education law specialist” Nelson Mar echoed the sentiment:

“Often times when children are removed for disciplinary measures it has a negative impact on education, so they have a greater likelihood of failing their classes and also a greater likelihood of them dropping out.

And an unnamed parent also agreed, saying:

“Often kids acting out need more support, not less.  I think guidance would help the student thrive in school more.”

The idea, as best I can tell, is we don’t want to suspend the student, because doing so risks alienating the kid from school, thus compounding the problem.  Better to talk to them, tassel their hair, and give them a hug than to mete out punishment.


This is tells you a lot of what’s wrong and getting worse in this country.  We’re so worried about not hurting children’s feelings that we’re failing to teach the basic life skills necessary to function in a free society: self-discipline, self-control, and personal responsibility.  Not that these things are necessarily the primary responsibility of the public schools—these things really should be being taught at home.  But the NYC school situation is indicative of a larger problem.

I think back to when I was a kid growing up in the 1970s.  The little league baseball organization in the small town I lived in gave a “sportsmanship” award to the players on the last place team every year.  In other words, in an effort to ensure that everyone got included and everyone got a prize, the league rewarded failure.

But at least we kept score.

There is a growing trend towards non-competitive no-scoring leagues for youth sports, where the games are played, but no score is kept, and at the end of play no one wins and no one loses (query whether they even count balls, strikes, and outs).  At least not officially.  The idea is to emphasize fun, sportsmanship, and learning the basics of the game, and I’m all for that for younger children to a point.  But at some point you have to recognize the perhaps unintended consequences of what you’re teaching, particularly when you understand that this is only one cog in a larger wheel.

A 2008 ABC News piece reported that an increasing number of American public schools were eliminating failing grades altogether, opting instead for do-over opportunities.  Grand Rapids Superintendent Bernard Taylor said that “If the choice is between letting kids fail and giving them another opportunity to succeed, I’m going to err on the side of opportunity.”  In Texas we actually had to enact a statute to prevent some school districts from instituting a “minimum grade” threshold of 50, 60, or—yes, this was seriously proposed—70 regardless of the student’s actual performance, and then had to go to court to defend it.  Of course, no small part of the motivation for this move is that the adults in charge—the administrators and teachers—are evaluated largely by the performance of the students.  Eliminating failure (or minimizing its magnitude) by decree gives the appearance of better performance, and thus better evaluations for the faculty, and that’s a whole lot easier than pushing the students to actually do the work to learn the material and pass.  Once again, we seem to miss what we’re teaching when in the interest of self-esteem we give 20 work a passing grade of 70.

Even at home I see a trend towards the avoidance of any adverse results, rather than on preparation and work.  In my girls’ school, we have frequently seen parents obviously doing their kids’ homework for them.  Parents are even going so far as to pull their children out of school for the day just prior to a test for which the child hasn’t prepared, instead of keeping kid in class and making them experience what happens when it’s test time and they haven’t studied.

And have you seen a video game lately?  I confess we have some of these in my house.  Standard fare involves moving a character through a virtual world—fantasy Dungeons & Dragons type stuff, post-apocolyptic dystopia, World War, da ‘hood, you name it—where you kill everyone and everything you see.  Or you get killed.  Except that your character never actually dies, it just starts over wherever you left off.  It was one thing when you got three lives in Pac-Man; you were talking about a pizza-shaped cartoon, and your do-overs were limited by the number of quarters you had.  Here your character is human (albeit virtual), and the extra lives are limitless.

What’s the common thread?  There are no consequences.  There is no reward for effort and success, just for showing up, and there is no downside for failure.  There is no punishment for failing to adhere to minimum social norms.   This is what we’re teaching when nobody wins or loses, nobody fails, nobody gets kicked out, and nobody dies.  It’s just an endless series of do-overs, all in the name of preserving self-esteem.

Well, it’s no wonder, then, that we find ourselves increasingly in a culture of entitlement that embraces the concept of the free lunch and the bailout.  Whether it’s TARP money to banks, welfare with no expectation of actually getting a job, or government-forced forgiveness (or taxpayer-funded buyout) of loan principal, more and more we expect we will be relieved of any  burden associated with our actions.  Why wouldn’t we expect that, if from childhood we’ve never been expected to follow the rules, and it didn’t matter whether we did the work and learned the material because we’d get a passing 70 either way.  Everyone gets the same reward whether they win or lose.  Why should it be any different when we’re adults?

A child of whom nothing’s ever been expected can’t really be expected to produce results when it matters.  I have news for you, but the Chinese don’t give a rat’s ass whether it hurts your feelings that their engineers are better equipped and take your job.  The real world is competitive.  There are winners and losers.  Actions have consequences.  People die, and there is no second life.

If we haven’t learned to compete as children, if we haven’t been taught the self-respect that comes from personal responsibility and achievement (rather than the false self-worth that comes from everything in life having been handed to you for free), we will have no chance of leading in the world of the future, or of providing for ourselves and determining our own destiny.

There will be none of us left who knows how.


As an aside, I’m finishing this up about 6:00 p.m. on Monday evening and looking at the program guide for Dish Network.  CNN—the same cable “news” network that gave the RNC convention selected coverage last week—is currently running “Countdown Democratic Convention.”  That’s followed at 7:00 p.m. by “Obama Revealed,” which bills itself as a sit-down conversation with Barack Obama about his time in office.  And the two programs alternate, without break, until 4:00 a.m. tomorrow morning.  Tomorrow they cover the DNC convention from 6:00 p.m. to 11:00, give Piers Morgan an hour, then replay the convention from midnight to 2:00 a.m., and again from 3:00 to 4:00 a.m.

But there’s no bias in the mainstream media.


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