I watched The Incredibles for the second time last night. It's one of the best animated movies ever made, in my opinion. I was struck anew during the film by its unusual, almost seditious, message:
If you're special, go ahead and shine your brightest --- but not everyone can be special.
I'm surprised that this message doesn't get remarked upon more, but then I suppose most kids and parents aren't interested in analyzing the thesis of an animated movie about superheroes. Still, as an educator who's believed that very message a long time, it struck a chord with me.
I do think that a lot of the problems today's young people have stems from an ill-advised liberal molly-coddling in education. "Everyone is special." Yeah, right. Just like there are no stupid questions. (Sometimes kids ask stupid questions. It's usually because they weren't paying attention in the first place.)
I'm not trying to crush any children's spirits or come off as an oppressive tyrant trying to drag innocent minds into the pit of despair that I'm in. I'm all in favor of optimistic teaching. There's nothing wrong with bestowing effusive praise where it's due. "You are loved." "You are valued and appreciated." "Your ideas are interesting." "With enough effort and a good attitude, you can achieve any reasonable dreams." I believe all those things, and I believe in inculcating such ideas in children. I believe in helping children recognize good actions and good words, and encouraging them to develop an instinct for responsible behavior.
The problem is when praise is taken to excess, so that it loses all meaning. I've seen teachers who are afraid to tell children that an answer is wrong. Somewhere along the way, telling a kid "What you just said is wrong" came to be seen as the equivalent of "You, yourself, are stupid." And they aren't equivalent, of course, and it shouldn't be that way. A strong, intelligent teacher should be able to correct and misdirect without hurting a student's feelings --- but also without piling on the misplaced praise ("good try!") until getting the right answer doesn't even matter anymore.
"Everyone is special." "You can do no wrong." "No one should ever contradict you." Those are the messages I've heard being fed to students. Not in so many words, of course, but the message is clear. To me, that's a litany of wrongheaded teaching that's as destructive as its opposite, continuous aspersion and degradation. It may be one of the reasons so many kids today don't understand accountability or empathy.