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Reality is not something Americans are well acquainted with today.
As a culture we believe we are smart, talented, sexy, high achievers with exceptional social skills and leadership ability. Societal norms dating back to the 1960s origins of the self-esteem movement reinforce this utopian vision and prevent us from meeting our fat, conceited, illiterate selves.
We don’t let our kids keep score in soccer games (even though many of them do) because that would create winners and losers. Parents heap praise on children whether they deserve it or not in a quest to build self-esteem for its own sake. Some schools don’t give grades so that all students feel equal, and virtually all schools inflate grades because it is easier than confronting pushy parents and entitled students. Federal laws like “No Child Left Behind” don’t help the situation either, because they incite states to lower standards so that everyone passes tests.
But the grade inflation is particularly appalling. National grade data analyzed by Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell for a 2008 report in Psychological Science shows that 18.3 percent of high school seniors said they had an A or A- average in 1976. In 2006, 32.8 percent said they earned the highest marks, and 2011 data shows the percentage rose to 34.8 percent.
In a new report by Twenge, Campbell and Brittany Gentile analyzing the American Freshman Survey, they found that the number of first-year college students reporting A- averages or above in high school rose from 19 percent in 1966 to 48 percent in 2009.
And it is not just confined to K to 12. According to a 2012 study by Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy on college grades, “[O]n average across a wide range of schools, A’s represent 43 percent of all letter grades, an increase of 28 percentage points since 1960 and 12 percentage points since 1988.”
As Twenge, author of “Generation Me,” and her colleagues found in their analysis of the American Freshman Survey, however, objective tests show today’s students are not smarter than previous generations and they study a lot less. But they sure feel good about themselves.
“Seventy-three percent more college students in 2009 (vs. 1966) rated themselves as above average in social self-confidence, 53 percent more in writing ability, 54 percent more in intellectual self-confidence, 48 percent more in public speaking ability, and 51 percent more in leadership ability,” they write. Students’ assessments of their empathy were stagnant, however, and they evaluated their emotional and physical health lower as well as their spirituality.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the number of remedial classes offered for basic writing and math skills in universities, including selective ones, across the nation has been skyrocketing in the last decade. Student debt is at an all-time high, and the number of students learning critical thinking and writing skills during their tenure as rich and successful adults-in-waiting (at least in their own minds) as measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment is strikingly low.
So, thanks to the success of the self-esteem movement pervading every aspect of our culture, we have huge egos, padded GPAs and resumes – and an unwillingness to work to achieve success.
To realign students with reality, Twenge said schools must stop inflating grades. “We have to get the message out that self-esteem doesn’t help you to succeed,” she said. Twenge is not hopeful teachers and administrators will comply, however, because “it’s a vicious cycle and everybody is doing it.”
What we do know from millennia of human existence is that work is a key to human happiness. As author and pastor Timothy Keller wrote in 2012’s “Every Good Endeavor,” “We were built for work and the dignity it gives us as human beings, regardless of its status or pay.”
If Americans want fulfillment – and a thriving economy and civil society -- they must reclaim this concept and reject self-esteem as the basis for a well-lived life. It’s an idea, like communism, that belongs in the ash heap of history.
Marta H. Mossburg is an independent columnist. Contact her at email@example.com.