Education & Academia

The Absence of Consequence

Walter E. Williams is a distinguished professor of economics at George Mason University, and a popular conservative columnist.  He recently published his autobiography, Up From The Projects, detailing his “lower middle-class beginnings in a mixed but predominantly black neighborhood in West Philadelphia.”  In the course of reviewing his good friend’s book, Dr. Thomas Sowell of the Hoover Institute, who comes from a similar environment in bygone Harlem, remarks:

“There were also teachers, and then professors, who played a role in developing his mind– especially hard-nosed teachers in Philadelphia who chewed him out when he messed up and UCLA professors who bluntly told him when his work wasn’t good enough.

None of them was the kind of warm, chummy educators that so many hold up as an ideal. After Walter Williams earned his Ph.D. in economics and went on to become a professor himself, he was scathing in his criticism of fuzzy-minded faculty members who think they are doing students a favor by going easy on them or giving them higher grades than they deserve.”

When it comes to slaying the orcs of liberal ignorance, Williams and Sowell are Legolas and Gimli.  They doggedly refuse to let America forget what black communities were like before the Great Society broke their spirit, in the course of trying to fill their wallets with other peoples’ money.  They also frequently discuss the negative effects of grade inflation, “outcome based education,” and the Cult of Self-Esteem on students.  Sowell’s comment prompted me to reflect that both are essentially manifestations of the same terminal flaw in collectivist thought: the poisonous absence of consequence.

The modern classroom, using the circuitry of self-esteem to execute a program of grade inflation, is a controlled application of collectivist principle.  Think of the grades as a resource, which can be either earned or rationed.  In the days Williams and Sowell recall, it was largely a matter of earning… which meant some students earned poor grades.  Nowadays, as the old joke goes, every student is “above average.”  The grades are rationed according to need – parceled out by an ideology that says no child should be allowed to fail.

As always with collectivism, the ideological allocation of currency (grades) does not increase the overall level of value in the system (education.)  In fact, it reduces the level of educational wealth.  Students don’t properly understand when they’re failing, so neither they, nor the system serving their educational needs, can adjust to compensate.  Modern education devalues grades, the same way collectivism inevitably resorts to devaluing currency.  Everybody gets at least a “C+” (or whatever they’re calling it these days), so a “C+” no longer has any intrinsic meaning.

The cult of self-esteem could be seen as dealing in massive intellectual subsidies.  Grading curves take from the top earners – the most accomplished students – and give to the lowest echelons, a redistribution of achievement.  The educational establishment does this to insulate both its students, and itself, from consequence. 

Consequence is a natural component of freedom, for the ability to “win” implies the possibility of “loss.”  The absence of consequence, on either intellectual or economic levels, is toxic.  It prevents us from improving, and clouds our ability to assess both excellence and mediocrity.  If the worst students do not face the consequences of their educational choices, they can never receive the help – or discipline – they truly need.

Like every other implementation of collectivist theory, modern education underestimates the difficulty of achievement.  I’ve always been struck by how economic collectivists blithely assume running a business is easy… something politicians can do in their spare time, as if they were solving Sudoku puzzles to kill time on a bus ride.  Likewise, the modern educational establishment seems to think effective learning is a simple process every child can handle, provided they are occasionally reminded how special they are.  The truth is that achievement is difficult.  Both successful businessmen and valedictorians are forged through long hours of hard work, and efforts they might have viewed as impossible at the outset. 

Excellence is the process of answering the question, “how the heck am I going to do this?”  Mediocrity is the inevitable result of responding, “Don’t worry about it.”  Look at any product of collectivist thought, from bloated government programs to the American students who just got thrashed in an academic comparison with Shanghai, and you will see the corrosive effects of the promise that failure is not a possibility, instead of the warning that it’s not an option.  Inspiration does not exist in the absence of challenge.  We’re fortunate that Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams come from an era of challenge, rather than reassurance.

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