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Where, oh where, have the standards gone?

March 27, 2009
Bob Seidenstein

I never did any schoolwork in grade school, but my marks were outstanding. However, once I got in junior high, my grades hit the skids and stayed there.

It was a conflict of expectations: My teachers expected me to work, but I expected to keep goofing off. Needless to say, I lost.

In the lingo of the day, I was an underachiever, a ridiculous word if ever there was one. Underachieving is as oxymoronic as "underdying." I mean, either you achieve or you don't - there's no "under" about it.

Nonetheless, it led me to shameless self-delusion. Swathed in the term's thick cocoon, I believed I was an achiever of some sort - perhaps a misplaced or misunderstood one. The "under" half of the term never registered with me at all. But it sure did with my mother.

When barely out of her teens, my mother was a New York City public school teacher. She was a tough old bird who was constitutionally incapable of either flattery or diplomacy, and what she lacked in subtlety, she more than made up for in bluntness. She was hard to get along with, but easy to understand, especially since she broached no nonsense.

On the day she saw my first ninth-grade report card, she confronted me about it.

"Your grades are lousy," she said, shaking the report card under my nose.

"Yeah," I said. "I really blew it in math."

"And why's that?" she asked.

"Well," I said with faux sincerity, "I have trouble studying stuff I don't like."

"I know," she said, nodding in faux understanding and getting ready to nail me. "So how come your grades are so lousy in the stuff you do like?"

'Well uh er," I stammered. "I guess I got some kinda problem with studying all around."

"It's 'I've got," not 'I got," she said. "And I know what your problem is."

"You do?" I said. "What is it?"

"You're a lazy slob," she said.

And of course she was right.

L.S. no more!

But since being an L. S. worked - even though it worked poorly - I saw no reason to change, and I continued on my merry way, graduating 51st out of 98 in my high school class. But then came college.

I lasted two miserable semesters, at the end of which the powers that be suggested - in no uncertain terms - that I take some time off before giving college another try.

I did just that and spent the next year hitch-hiking and riding buses around the U.S. and Mexico, working lousy jobs and getting sick of my own company. But in the process, I somehow grew up enough so when I returned to college I was still a slob, but no longer a lazy one.

I practically lived in the library, and I discovered the secret of successful studying. Of course it wasn't all that much of a secret, since it only required putting my tuchis in a chair and reading and rereading assignments, taking voluminous notes which I read and reread, making outlines, which I also read and reread, and then repeating the process every day after that.

I never became a great student, but I did become a good one, and for the first time I gained something I'd never had before - a sense of accomplishment. All in all, it was a nonstop, nerve-racking grind, and while I loved the results, I never enjoyed the process. But I finally understood that a lot of the steps toward success are not based on enjoyment so much as on hard work.

Untruth in labeling

Since then, a lot of things have changed and one of them is lazy slobs no longer exist. Oh, there are still students who do half-baked work or no work at all and don't belong in a classroom, but thanks to the wonders of modern educational euphemism (with the wholesale approval of enabling parents), they get hifalutin labels that make "underachiever" sound downright despicable.

For example, take a kid who just won't do his work. A lazy slob to my mother, he'd now be considered a victim of SLD (Student Lethargy Disorder) or IAI (Incipient Academic Indolence).

Or how about the kid who always comes into class five minutes late, unprepared? He's not a slacker; oh no, he's suffering from a CCC (Chronic Chronometric Complex).

Or what about the kid who's both lazy and surly? Why, he's got a dual diagnosis, JAD (Juvenile Ambition Deficiency) and AHS (Authority Hostility Syndrome). And the list goes on, limited only by our inability to create new bogus disorders and the fancy-shmancy labels for them.

Now don't get me wrong. I know not all students are like this. Luckily, I've had my share of sincere, responsible hard workers-especially when pressure is applied to them. And may their tribe increase.

Also, our elite students are as good as the world's best. Unfortunately, there's a disturbing parallel to our elite athletes: A small number of our population are in fabulous shape; a huge number have become human slugs whose arms and legs are vestigial appendages, used only to walk to the fridge or use the remote.

Furthermore, I'm not talking about students with genuine disabilities. I've been teaching long enough to know there are real disabilities and disorders that seriously interfere with students' learning. Luckily, we also have highly trained specialists to help those folks - something we didn't even know about in The Good Old Days.

No, I'm talking about people who have as much wrong with them as I did. In other words, spoiled, immature kids who refuse to take any responsibility for their laziness - if anyone ever calls them on it in the first place. And if you don't think their number has increased over the years, you've been living in a shoebox.

Sadly, they've got another advantage over their counterparts of the past: What with American grades inflating at the same rate as the Botswanan PULA, nominative excellence is now within the reach of everyone. Never before has "success" been so easy and failure so difficult.

Since the average grade is now a 'B' (as opposed to the 'C' 40 years ago), the average kid can produce average work with an average effort but be rewarded for it with a superior grade. As a result, literacy and numeracy may be going down the crapper, but self-esteem is at an all-time high with no end in sight.

Ultimately, we should be consoled by knowing that never have so many underskilled people liked themselves so much.

After all, feeling good about yourself is the whole purpose of education.

Isn't it?



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