Saturday, April 4, 2009

Soon There Will Be a Telethon -- 'Please Give Generously to Fight AE'

In the movie Clueless (1995), material girl Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) receives her report card, and is bummed by her grades. When her father, the litigator (Dan Hedaya), asks to see the report, Cher casually informs her daddy that it's not done yet. He had always taught her never to accept the first offer, and she regarded her report card grades as just the first offer. Her father nods approvingly. Let the negotiations begin.

This is a novel twist on a common theme. More conventionally the theme pays homage to the cliché of coaches pressuring educators to artificially inflate the grades of varsity athletes so that they can maintain their eligibility to play. This cliché, like all clichés, contains more than a germ of truth.

But in real life, this pernicious theme plays out in a myriad of other ways too. "I need at least a B+ to get into the Business programme." "I worked really hard on this paper, and I deserve an A for effort." "I never got less than an A in high school, so I want you to regrade my paper with that in mind." "My brother got an A on this paper four years ago, so you must be wrong to have given me a B this year." "My parents will kill me if I come home with this grade." "I must maintain at least a B+ to keep my scholarship." And there are endless variations besides.

The following piece is excerpted from Education Watch International. Tell me if this raises a red flag.

Naturally enough, a team of academics has written a paper about this sad trend. ("Self-Entitled College Students: Contributions of Personality, Parenting and Motivational Factors"). The syndrome now has a name (Academic Entitlement) and an abbreviation (AE) -- just like Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Doubtless there will soon be federal grants and endowed chairs to study AE and a drug to treat it. And sure enough, it'll turn out to be more widespread than anyone ever suspected.

The four scholars who did this Pioneering Study trace the origins of AE to parental pressure, material rewards for good grades, competitiveness, and "achievement anxiety and extrinsic motivation." They conclude that AE is "most strongly related to exploitive attitudes towards others and moderately related to an overall sense of entitlement and to narcissism."

Of course, AE goes well beyond haggling over marks, and pressuring teachers and professors to artificially inflate grades. It also encourages students to rationalize their own unethical behaviour -- to justify cheating and to legitimize plagiarism.

At the risk of putting all that in plain English, these kids are spoiled brats with character problems. But how will they ever get over them if they're not allowed to fail -- and learn from their failures? If their mediocre performance is regularly rewarded with As and Bs, how will they learn the difference between excellent and run-of-the-mill?

The saddest aspect of these kids' condition is that they're unaware of it. They actually think they're pretty darned good, and deserve those good grades. More to be pitied than scorned, they may come out of school with no idea of what real accomplishment is, and the intrinsic satisfaction of doing something well.

Let's revisit the 'origins' of AE, as identified by the authors of this 'pioneering' study -- "parental pressure, material rewards for good grades, competitiveness, and 'achievement anxiety and extrinsic motivation.'" All of these are quite apt. However, the core causes would be incomplete without mentioning a couple of other factors that are no doubt embedded deep in the root system of AE -- indulgent parenting and the "self-esteem" curriculum.

Furthermore, under the 'progressive' ethos, education itself has become commodified. Extrinsic values have been stressed over intrinsic worth. Exchange value trumps use value. And schooling itself has been transformed from a master/student relationship into a service/client relationship -- a consumer model. If students are no longer 'apprentices', and are instead 'customers', should we be surprised when they approach their teachers and professors with the attitude that 'the customer is always right'?

AE has a variety of well-known symptoms -- arrogance, ego-centrism, ethical relativism, moral relativism, fear of failure, risk aversion, visitation by the Prince of Darkness, disrespect for authority, and self-worth that is unrelated to any actual accomplishments. Left untreated, AE can result in "reality shock" in later life.

Please give generously. Operators are standing by.

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