Here’s to less equality and more competition

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Public education in this state and this country is failing big time. And No Child Left Behind, for all its lofty sounding goals, is, in fact, leaving as many kids behind as ever.

Partly because, like so many federal programs, it is an unfunded mandate. Hence the closing of after-school programs for children who need them most, the shifting of arts and music funding to the private sector in districts of affluence and the closing of public libraries in counties where the tax base isn’t high enough to support them.

These cuts undermine the heroic efforts of dedicated teachers. However, throwing more money at the problem isn’t going to fix the mindset that determines self-esteem to be a birthright and competition to be demeaning to all but the winners.

At one public preschool on California’s central coast they aren’t allowed to celebrate anything that might offend anyone in the class. So in one classroom there could be no Happy Birthdays because a few children of Jehovah’s Witnesses would be offended, even if they were not asked to sing. At the same school, children are not allowed to bring sandwiches with meat in their lunch boxes, if that would offend any child in the class. This must be a religious thing because vegetarians (with the possible exception of some PETA members) are generally not inclined to be offended if someone eats meat or cheese in their presence.

Let it be noted that some of these are the very same schools that have no qualms about hurting the feelings of children whose parents are scientists by advocating creationism (under the guise of goofy euphemisms) and demanding those silly stickers in textbooks labeling evolution as just a theory.

The part of all this that offends me is that it has less to do with not offending children, most of whom couldn’t be offended with an ax, and more to do with imposing someone else’s ideas on others. Or in some cases, a school district’s aversion to lawsuits, which are being used to impose ideas . . . well, you get it.

At one elementary school, a really good kid I know got into an altercation with another boy and, although he was not the instigator, he got in trouble. The other kid, who hit first, didn’t because he was deemed not responsible. Why? He came from a broken home and was “having problems.” My young friend, whose parents also were separated but had been dealing well with that, was held accountable. Children have an innate sense of justice that is really offended by that kind of unfairness.

The other thing that is going in all the wrong direction is the disappearance of competition in grade schools and some sports programs for younger kids. Now, children’s natural inclination to compete cannot be denied. Just watch them play. Anything, from kickball to card games, gets their competitive juices flowing. And it’s not always just about winning. The very act of competing can spur their interest, their creativity and help them find the areas in which they have natural ability. If they never get to compete, they’ll just sit on the couch watching “SpongeBob” and grow fat. They won’t have their feelings hurt by not winning, but they could actually be feeling good about trying and maybe doing a little better each time.

Some years ago, my young friend entered fifth grade at a new school (her sixth), reading at second-grade level. She had a gifted teacher, who spotted the problem immediately, recommended a reading tutor and stimulated her interest in science and other subjects she could investigate on her own. She knew she wouldn’t be making the honor roll or winning spelling bees, but she tried as hard as she could and wound up winning a year-end award for most improved student. I’m sure this didn’t hurt any of the other kids’ feelings-they all cheered like mad for her at the award assembly-but it meant the world to her. Decades before, my young nephew won a similar award after struggling with language and math but excelling in mechanical drawing, architectural drafting and model building. He also was a popular winner of the “most improved” award because he had worked so hard to achieve it.

Dumbing down the curriculum to make the underachievers feel better does nobody any good. Giving awards for the “B Honor Roll” doesn’t do much for the B student but takes away the incentive to earn that 4.0 average.

In school and in life, unearned rewards for mediocre performance are truly demeaning. And real self-esteem, the kind that sustains one through life’s trials and builds the strength to tackle challenge without fear of failing, can come only through the experience of trying and sometimes failing and trying again. When we deny this to our children, we do not prepare them for life.