In Praise Of…

 Recently, I’ve been spending more time among college professors, that is, in addition to my wife, and their observations on students have confirmed certain trends among younger Americans, trends that I, perhaps curmudgeonly, find disturbing, including a certainly behavior that can only be described as addictive.

To what am I referring?  The almost insatiable desire for endless praise.  The craving by students to be told over and over how wonderful they are.  The desire to be praised, if only for effort, even when their achievements merit neither praise nor acknowledgement.

Now… we all desire praise.  I know I certainly do, but praise  based on inadequate accomplishment is like junk food  – without much spiritual nutrition –and that leaves those who receive such empty praise hungry for more.  Yet our educational system is so concerned with not hurting young people [and not upsetting their parents] and motivating them solely through “positive” means that the message that comes through is that everything that they do – or even try – is “wonderful.”  Subconsciously, I suspect, in many, many cases, these young people know that their acts and accomplishments are not that stupendous, but it’s hard to protest being praised.  Unfortunately, this societal behavior has several ramifications that are anything but good.

The first is a form of “praise inflation.”  Such evaluations as “a solid job,” “competently done,” or “good job” – or a grade of “C” or even “B,” are regarded as failure.  The second is that most young people fail to understand that in most of the world, solid accomplishment is not a cause for praise – it’s what is expected.  The third is that they become ever more hungry for praise, like addicts for their next fix.

They become “praise junkies.”

 And, as praise junkies, they resent accurate assessment of their performance and manifest anger, or at least resentment, at those who won’t provide their next fix.  Teachers and professors who attempt to provide accurate and constructive assessment are regarded either as teachers who “hate”“ them or as bad”  teachers who cannot teach or who are trying to keep them from becoming successful, when, in fact, in most cases, those teachers are trying to prepare them for the real world, or at least for the reality of occupational competition that exists outside of the growing empty praise culture of the United States.

The symptoms of this excessive praise culture are everywhere, from little leagues where everyone gets a trophy or a ribbon, in schools where effort is considered as equivalent to actual achievement and rewarded as such and where every student gets As and Bs, and even by legislation such as No Child Left Behind, which fails to recognize that the only way no child can be left behind is when there are no real standards of actual achievement… because there are always those who cannot and/or will not meet real standards of academic achievement, and it’s a societal delusion to think otherwise.

But… after all, if you praise children, that’s all it takes to get real achievement.




10 thoughts on “In Praise Of…”

  1. Sam says:

    I think there’s another side to this. While I might agree that there is such a thing as excessive praise I also question whether elevating some people over others for praise is a good thing.

    Competition supposedly motivates people to do better. But for those who come up short who consistently lose to superior opponents who get all the praise lavished on them this can and often does lead to a cycle of despair where at some point they just give up trying.

    There are people who take to language like ducks to water and are eloquent, articulate and highly literate while there are others who struggle to learn to read. The ones who struggle to learn to read may suffer from an undiagnosed condition such as dyslexia or simply have some other mental deficit. They struggle and they fail and receive no praise and may often feel worthless.

    In my opinion a low self esteem is just as bad and sometimes worse than an over-inflated one from excessive praise.

    1. Ryan Jackson says:

      The flaw there is associating that low self esteem with accurate praise and assesment. Say I have two students, one of whom has a natural apptitude and picks up everything and another who struggles and is a bit clumsy (I teach swordplay in the sca, athletic ability and talent comes into play a lot).

      If I were to praise them both equally it leads to poor results on both cases. The student with natural ability will grow apathetic and stop trying as hard as they can since they haven’t had to to be good so far. Also, since they see that being exceptional doesn’t merit any additional recognition beyond anyone else they tend to grow annoyed or bored with instruction. They hit a wall and stop advancing, never really going beyond being solid and middling. Also, since they see that being exceptional doesn’t merit any additional recognition beyond anyone else they tend to grow annoyed or bored with instruction.

      The student who was struggling has a worse situation. They grow overconfident, they end up with a false sense of pride and ability and when they find out they’re wrong they feel betrayed, usually betrayed by the teacher but often themselves as well.

      Now if I praise the talented student for being exceptional, but make it a point for him to fight really good opponents who will generally win, he learns he still has a lot to go and takes a valid pride in his ability.

      If I explain to the poorer student exactly where they are failing and what they are doing wrong, while reminding them that with work and effort they can surpass all of that. That goes a lot further than empty praise for “trying your best”. They can see I care since I keep pushing them and they can see that I’ll be honest with them.

      1. Joe says:

        Or you can do what the Finns do: give the student who finds it easy something harder to do: figure out a way to explain the problem to the student who finds it hard. Then they can both be praised, one for getting it, and the other for helping his friend.

  2. All of what you say is true, but you don’t build self-esteem by false praise, but by working to improve performance. Unfounded praise is essentially worthless if not negative in that it inflates self-image without improving performance and capabilities.

  3. Sam says:

    I agree that false praise is worthless. However I question the value of praising some over others at all. Always focussing on winners and losers. When you win some and you lose some it’s not so bad. If you’re always the loser though you never receive praise. The best you can hope for is a pat on the back and “better luck next time”.

    There was an episode of a TV show I saw a few years back that stuck in my head where the parents of a child were upset to be told that their child had below average intelligence. Not retarded just slightly below average. But the fact of the matter is for there to be an average there has to be people who are above and below or just plain average. Not everyone can be above average.

    When it comes to physical impairment it’s usually fairly obvious and people make accommodations for it. They more readily recognize the struggles of the physically impaired and don’t hold them to the same standards as everyone else. They praise them for their accomplishments according to the standards set by their impairment.

    Mental impairment ranges across an entire spectrum of slight impairment to radical impairment. To the average individual mental impairment in others isn’t always apparent. Even trained professionals can struggle to identify the exact nature of the impairment at times. There are cases of conditions like dyslexia going undiagnosed until a child was in high school and was barely literate if at all.

    Perhaps praise should be used for doing better than you did before. For improving on past performance. Not to elevate a select group of individuals onto a pedestal above everyone else as often seems to be the case.

    1. Ryan Jackson says:

      I mentioned it in passing with the first post I made, but in specific to praising winners. This is important to do. One should definately make the effort to not ridicule or demean those who failed or who are struggling, but at the same time not acknowledging greatness is damaging to those people.

      I grew up with quite a bit of natural ability. Nothing to make me stand out, but I didn’t need to do homework, I didn’t need to try very hard to win at whatever it was I was approaching. I had teachers who explained to me how good that was, and I tended to respect them and work harder. Those same teachers also encouraged me to assist others and I did so, at the time I did so almost entirely out of respect for the teacher in question.

      On the other hand I had teachers who pretty much didn’t care, passed out praise to people for trying their best but didn’t acknowledge those who excelled. One teacher even said flat out he wouldn’t do this because it was unfair to those who didn’t win. My general response and relationship with these teachers ranged from apathy to contempt. For the milder cases I just stopped caring what they thought at all and dismissed them as beneath my concern. For others I became outright antagonistic and started challenging their competancy whenever I could (not entirely proud of that, but oh well).

      Again we have a case of one group of people offering legitimate praise while at the same time being encouraging to those who didn’t get it and another group of people offering blanket praise. One group got the results they were after, the other group failed in multiple ways.

  4. Joe says:

    I think it’s a symptom of education being distorted by the requirements imposed on teachers. Teachers are evaluated by how many kids pass a test and by the students’/parents’ feedback. Thick unwarranted praise is a cheap salve helping them keep their job.

  5. R. Hamilton says:

    @Sam: it’s certainly possible to recognize “most improved”, and that’s done sometimes. But you can’t live life just graded to your own personal progress; others _will_ demand what they at least claim are objective standards of performance. Almost nobody can be at the top in every subject or field. But most that plan on higher education should reasonably expect to be required to be at least acceptable at every subject, and should pick whichever they have both interest _and_ aptitude for (and some reasonable hope of relating to gainful employment), and strive to excel.

    The simple fact is that competition cannot be avoided. If there’s two applicants for one opening, the employer would be an idiot _not_ to take the best qualified, regardless of the other person’s sensitivity. Better to get used to the notion in a classroom setting, than to provide a sheltered environment in the classroom that makes the real world come as an utter shock. It’d be like a 16-year old whose mom still cut up their food for them!

    Now…I would suppose that the younger the students, the more gentle one might try to be, looking for appropriate and non-misleading ways to be encouraging even of effort rather than absolute achievement. But I’d also expect that to change over time. You may see 6 year olds being told it doesn’t matter who wins, but for darn sure by the time they’re 12, their coach will rightly give them a chewing out if they don’t take seriously their commitment to the team to give it their best. If it’s like that in soccer, where only a few in a million will make their living doing that eventually, shouldn’t there be pressure for excellence in everything from spelling to flipping burgers? I don’t want to eat fast food prepared by someone who didn’t understand half the words in their food safety training!

  6. G.Thomas says:

    I have only just begun reading “Of Tangible Ghosts” but from the protagonist’s opinion of his students it sounds like you (and perhaps your wife?) have been going around with this whole issue for some time! Is it your opinion/observation that matters have worsened in the ensuing 16 plus years since that novel?

    1. Yes.. at the university level matters are definitely worse, and that’s not just our opinion… but one shared by dozens of professors we know at universities all across the United States.

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