(P)Raising Scholars

Several months ago, Orson Scott Card published an article in the Mormon Times that describes the loneliness he felt when he was a child, when everybody seemed to value athletic prowess and neglect intellectual curiosity. He explains, “This is the era when kids who actually excel at school are called by sickening epithets like ‘nerd’ or ‘geek'; intellectual or artistic students are usually treated as pariahs by their peers, unless they are also either rich, rebellious or athletic.” There is, indeed, a culture among our youth that prizes athletic talent and downplays and even ignores academic talent. I don’t think these values come from nowhere. Children are taught what to value by their parents and their teachers, in addition to their peers.

Wait, what? Parents and teachers teach children to value athletic prowess more than academic achievement? Most of us would reject that accusation. Certainly none of us value athletic accomplishment more than intellectual accomplishment. How and why would we ever teach them to? The truth is that we vote on what our youth should value with our wallets, our time, and our praise.

Orson Scott Card provides a case example of how we do this:

Some years ago, we were notified that our child was receiving an academic honor, so there we were at the middle school awards assembly. One sports team after another gave out its awards, with emotional speeches from the coaches about the marvelous achievements and team spirit and leadership and what-not that this or that child had displayed.

Since the assembly was during the last period of the day, it had to end on time — kids had to catch their buses; parents would be waiting in their minivans out front. So with only minutes to go, the principal went to the podium and read off the names of the academic awards recipients. He asked them to stand in place in the bleachers and they got a round of applause. None of that emotional praise that the athletes got. No individual attention.

In a conversation with the vice principal of the school about this event, Card learned that the principal valued (or claimed to value) academic achievement just as much as athletic achievement. It had never occurred to him that the school was training students to do the opposite. Children respond to praise. Students respond to attention. The students in that assembly got the message that was likely never intended: academic accomplishments are a footnote to athletic achievement, and scholars live in the shadows of athletes. LZ Granderson, a CNN contributor, wrote a fascinating editorial recently, in which he made a bold claim:

We also don’t believe in the value of education, culturally — we just like to say we do because as citizens of an industrialized nation, we’re supposed to. But we can tell our children that school is important until we’re blue in the face, they’re not stupid. They see the loudest applause is for the kids on the field. They know teachers are paid poorly and don’t drive fancy cars. They know people plan Super Bowl parties but mock the National Spelling Bee.

As a society, we teach children what to value by demonstrating what we value. Granderson’s point is clear: we’re “supposed” to value academic achievement and intellectual curiosity, but we generally give more attention to sports. Children engage in observational learning, and so they get the hint. In this way, I think that we inadvertently contribute to a school culture where our more academically-oriented children feel isolated and undervalued by their peers, just as Orson Scott Card did.

What can we do? Granderson has taken a new approach to parenting. He is going to give his children as much attention for their academic achievements and interests as their athletic achievements. He explains:

I finally figured out that if I wanted my son to really embrace education, I had to take the lead. Not by downplaying his accomplishments on the field but by elevating the importance of his work in the classroom. So I smile in the doorway when I walk into a room to see him reading for fun the same way I smile when I look out into the backyard to see him working on his dribbling.

It sounds a bit odd, I will admit, but if exuberant positive reinforcement is acceptable for tossing a ball in a hoop, why is it out of place to be just as excited for our kids getting good grades?

Now, I disagree that grades should be celebrated as representing academic achievement, because they don’t. But I absolutely agree with providing just as much positive reinforcement for reading, for studying, for exploring, for curiosity, as we do for winning a sports game.

What are some other ways we accidentally teach children values we wouldn’t claim to share? Lisa Bloom, a Huffington Post contributor, published a recent article with a compelling observation. Our first instinct when we see a little girl is to make a comment to them about how pretty or adorable they are. In other words, our first interaction with them when they come into the room is often a comment on their looks. Bloom explains, “Teaching girls that their appearance is the first thing you notice tells them that looks are more important than anything.” The consequences on our society have already been devastating, according to Bloom:

15 to 18 percent of girls under 12 now wear mascara, eyeliner and lipstick regularly; eating disorders are up and self-esteem is down; and 25 percent of young American women would rather win America’s Next Top Model than the Nobel Peace Prize. Even bright, successful college women say they’d rather be hot than smart. A Miami mom just died from cosmetic surgery, leaving behind two teenagers. This keeps happening, and it breaks my heart. … What’s missing? A life of meaning, a life of ideas and reading books and being valued for our thoughts and accomplishments.

What can we do? Bloom has a suggestion:

Try this the next time you meet a little girl. She may be surprised and unsure at first, because few ask her about her mind, but be patient and stick with it. Ask her what she’s reading. What does she like and dislike, and why? There are no wrong answers. You’re just generating an intelligent conversation that respects her brain. For older girls, ask her about current events issues: pollution, wars, school budgets slashed. What bothers her out there in the world? How would she fix it if she had a magic wand? You may get some intriguing answers. Tell her about your ideas and accomplishments and your favorite books. Model for her what a thinking woman says and does.

I think this is a very healthy approach. It trains children to be valued for their intellect, rather than their appearance. It teaches them that we pay more attention to what they have to offer the world in the way of ideas. It is up to us to raise a generation that values books, ideas, and the mind more than athletics and beauty. We can do that by being conscientious in the way we praise them. Sure, we can tell girls how pretty they are and boys how talented they are at soccer. But perhaps we should tell just as often how amazing it is that they love to read, and ask them for their perspective on important ideas and issues, and praise them for their insights.

Of course, as Latter-day Saints, we believe that we should value our physicality. We should spend time eating healthy, working out, and making as much use of our physical body as we do our mind. That is, after all, the reason we came here. But perhaps each of us can pause and consider: are we giving inordinate attention to sports? Do we collectively spend extravagantly more money in game tickets than we do at the book store or on science fair projects, (etc.)? And what do our conversations with and around our children focus on?

The little things matter. The small conversations make a difference. The way we greet them, the first things we say to them when we walk through the door, can change their perspective on everything.

31 thoughts on “(P)Raising Scholars

  1. Thank you for this.

    I taught high school for a couple of years. I still remember the graduation ceremony where the principal (this was in the Mormon corridor, and he was LDS) stated that the thing he was most proud of that year was that the football team beat their rivals in the big game. Yuck.

  2. Jeff T, there is definitely a need for balance here. It is true that many schools emphasize athletic achievement instead of academic achievement. But I would also point out that as a society we are becoming more sedentary, lazy and obese. To the extent that athletic achievement helps us achieve more personal balance (and helps us avoid a sedentary, lazy lifestyle), it should be valued.

    Your point about praising girls (and boys, btw) for their minds, not their looks is spot-on and definitely something I will practice more in my own life.

  3. Geoff, that’s why I wish we lived in an era where manual labor was still necessary for personal sustenance. Then we wouldn’t have to create artificial measures to keep us active.

  4. Manual labor and scholarship tend to be somewhat exclusive of each other, unfortunately.

    Sounds like you want to live on a farm, Jeff. ;)

  5. I really wouldn’t mind. Well, it’d take some getting used to. And it wouldn’t be as fun as lounging in front of a computer for my work all day. But somehow I think it would be more fulfilling, and that I’d end up a better person.

  6. A tremendous post for parents. An excellent starting point for those who want to become teachers. There are so many behaviors that educators often display that inhibit the academic growth of young people and instructors do not know it. Let me give you four examples.

    1. In elementary school especially, if a teacher asks, What is the capital of Oregon? Boys will often raise their hands and make verbal and physical signals they want to answer. Girls are not so demanding. If a teacher generally responds to the boys, Girls tend to learn that it does not make sense to even try to answer.

    2. We may think we are not prejudiced, but subconsciously it can still show up. Frankly, too many teachers assume the darker your skin, the less intelligent you are. Most of that research was done in the 60’s and 70’s, I hope this typeo f behavior has lessened. One researcher said this was our “if you are black, stay back; if you are brown stick around” failure.

    3. Teachers should generally not ask a question like this: George, what is the capitol of Texas? They should ask, What is the capitol of Texas? George. Doing it the first way tells the other kids they do not have to worry about the question and turn you off.

    4. Don’t ask a class, Did you understand it? Few kids want to raise a hand and seemingly say, “I am as dense as a box of rocks, I do not get it.” Check for understanding (e.g. Thumb up means yes, thumb down means no. Do deisel engines need spark plugs?) All kids have to respond and their answers will give you an idea of what kids need help and how well you taught the concept.

    You really need to know your students. One story and I promise to quit. In California many of us who taught were drilled in “RWT”, that is, give each student a chance to show you how well he or she reads, writes and thinks. A young lady transferrred into My Senior Government class from a small school in Alabama. Her highest grades the previous three years were two Cs in PE. When she talked, she sounded like a stereotypical dumb and ditsy blonde. I gave her a simple reading test. Bad results. A simple writing test. Even worse. After I refused to let her give me dumb answers, I was able to start to give her an oral thinking test based on Blooms Taxonomy. She went up that scale like a werner von Braun rocket. She was very, very smart. Another teacher had done the same thing and we ran into one another at the young woman’s counselor’s office asking that she be tested.

    She was a dyslexic. She had developed the dumb blonde personna as a defense mechanism to try to combat her treatment by other students and teachers in Alabama. It was one of the most emotional meetings I ever attended when she and her family met with the teachers, counselor and school psychologist. The father was dumbstruck, the mother began to cry when she found out her daughter was near genius, the young lady was very angry (she showed her command of vulgar English language terms). We gave her the help we give dyslexic students and got her into a similar program in the community college.

    I did not see her for 12 years. I was sitting in the chaperone’s tent for Grad Nite at Disneyland. The table next to ours said UCLA Demonstration School. I suddenly heard my name being yelled at me. She thanked me for what my colleagues andI had done for her. She said that she was finishing her Phd and working with dyslexic kids in the UCLA program.

    My teaching colleague and I did nothing special. We did what we are supposed to have done and what we knew how to do. The last point is key. Both teachers and parents need inservice on what to do. Thus, I find this post a very good starting point and I wish every new parent could read it.

    To show my vast influence,I have suggested to several Bishops and one Stake President that the Church should sponsor inservices for parents on how to help their children succeed academically. I totally failed.

  7. I think part of the problem is that we don’t expect kids to think and process. I was astounded yesterday to find that not one of my 11-year-olds had even heard of the Spanish Inquisition. I was teaching them about Saul, comparing what he was doing with the Inquisition. And, despite their claim that they had already had all three S/Paul lessons, they couldn’t tell me one thing about him.

    Not only do we discount scholarship, we train our kids to actively NOT learn by the way we teach.

    I really don’t do well as a teacher of kids, but I have to believe there is a way to teach them to love learning, and that it’s not just something for those who can’t compete physically.

  8. There’s still a big difference between making sure the kids (and us) are physically fit, and filling them with the idea that to be valued they have to be on the football team.

    An atrophied mind is at least as bad as an atrophied body, if not worse.

    As a “geek” in school, I remember the football team being given special consideration in grades to ensure they could play the next game. I don’t recall anyone in academics being given such consideration when it came time for their gym class requirements.

    As it is, we see it in media, as well. Monday Night Football, American Idol, Jersey Shore, Hannah Montana all show us what is truly valued in society. States and communities agree to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build stadiums for professional teams, which should be paid for on their own as private businesses.

    Do geeky kids get fat because they just feel they cannot compete against all-stars, or are mocked when they go on the field? How many geeks feel left out, because they are always the last to be picked for a team? No wonder they just play video games, at least there they can be the team captain and not mocked for being short, smart, or weak.

  9. Rameumptom, it always makes me sick to the stomach to think about the millions and billions of private and taxpayer money have been used to build stadiums and sports arenas. It’s just a game, for cryin’ out loud. How many societal problems could be solved if we dumped those billions into other pursuits? And yes, this does teach children by example what really matters to us.

  10. As a non-Jock, never played a sport beyond the 6th grade I’m going to come down in the middle in favor or sports, but no in favor of the extreme amounts of focus we put on them. That is, I think at some point we recognized how formative sports can be for youth and went overboard in the emphasis on the presentation of them. But I would suggest for many millions of youth, their time in sports was more valuable and more formative than their time in music and math classes. Now I am not suggesting that we should do away with one or the other.

    And I am equally appalled at how much money our schools spend period — from buying iPads for elementary school, to buying new auditoriums for the theater department to all weather tracks for sports. Or for the trillions of gallons of water that must be consumed annually watering sporting fields.

    I think all across the educational spectrum, if there is one thing we Mormons could offer, it’s not only our hard-work ethic, but our traditional pioneer ethic of, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.” Now, that phrase is familiar to most people in the US, and it’s not because of the LDS for sure, but it’s something embodied in the traditional LDS-pioneer ancestry. I’d suggest most Mormons have turned away from it and in some small measures been blinded by the idea that more is more, rather than more is more costly.

    Financial conservatives point to a lot of economic laws, but for some reason we don’t point very often to the law of diminishing returns. Yes, you can do more things with your iPad in the class room, yes, those fancy Interactive Whiteboards are pretty sweet, but we have forgotten you are not buying education with these things, but merely buying the ability to do extra costly things as you attempt to educate.

    The more and more we spend on so many things, the less of a return we get out of it. So, I’m appalled at how much we spend on sports, but also appalled at how much we spend on so much in schools to begin with. The Greeks seemed to be pretty educated and learned by simply sitting around on the steps, conversing and scratching in the sand and moving beads on a slide. And I would suggest, what’s interesting about this model is the teacher is closer to the student and there are no props to get in the way of the learning experience.

    So much of our school system is broken. I know this post isn’t exactly inline with the topic, but if I could tie it together I’d say, the focus and money which gets spends on sports is often spent on the presentation of those sports, rather than simply leaving the focus of those sports on the game played on the field for those individuals. I think we equally spend too much time and money on the presentation of education in the classroom, rather than spending the time and money on the direct education that goes on in the class room.

  11. Excellent post. As two athletes ourselves we definitely value what you learn and gain physically by participating in sports. However we agree that praise should be given for academic achievements also.

    No one wants to be pigeon holed into a stereotype. Girls don’t want to have to be pretty, boys don’t want to have to be athletic, and we Sistas don’t want it to be assumed that our goal is to procreate and raise super athletes just because we are black.

    It sounds absolutely ridiculous when you say it, but if we had a dollar for every time someone made a comment to one of us about black people and athleticism, we would have enough money to give a couple of academic scholarships out each year.

  12. Chris,

    My question would be, were athletics more formative for those youth because the athletics offer a naturally formative pattern to them, or if the focus on athletics creates a pseudo-formative pattern?

    As Sistas mentioned, many people assume that blacks should naturally go towards athleticism and away from academics. Is that because they naturally are more athletic? Or is it that the culture pushes them to think they can all be the next Michael Jordan and are too dumb to do anything with math or science? Personally, I think it is more the latter than the former reason.

    When we pay millions to athletes and pennies on the dollar to teachers, scholars, or scientists, we have things topsy turvy. A scientist can find a cure for cancer. A teacher can inspire young minds to think and learn. Athletes can only inspire others towards athleticism. And like it or not, we need thousands of scientists, but only a handful of athletes each year.

    A private organization can create a professional team(s) if they choose. But when we spend tens of billions in taxes each year in the USA to pay for all of this, it gets ridiculous. Time to return to our athletics programs back to intramural activities, and focus more on the things that will help kids earn and live through the decades of grown life.

  13. Rameumptom: Amen and amen.

    In addition, I’ve heard people say that those not inclined towards sports need to become more “well-adjusted” and join a sports team. The definition of well-adjusted has come to include athleticism for many.

  14. Ram – if you’re suggesting a special luxury-job tax where all pro atheletes and movie stars at taxed 75% and the proceeds distributed directly to teachers, we might have a redistributive tax I’m in favor of.

    Well perhaps not really, but it would be fun to see everyone squeam at the debating of it.

  15. No, I’m not talking about redistribution. That’s part of the current problem we have right now. I’m paying for the new Colts stadium. When I moved here 8 years ago, the Colts were not a winning team, and could not fill up half their old stadium. Suddenly, they get a great quarterback who wins seasons, and everyone immediately demands a new $450 million stadium to paid off in 30 years. What happens when Peyton Manning no longer can play the game? What happens when the Colts end up having a decade of losing seasons? I highly doubt Hoosiers will be attending games like they do now, so ticket sales will pay less of the amount due, and taxes will carry the major load. I haven’t seen a live Colts game, and so I’m paying for someone else to have a big stadium that benefits only a few tens of thousands of people in an area that has over 1 million people. We are paying $7100 for every person with a season pass to sit in that stadium.

    I must say that I do appreciate the Indy 500 stadium. They paid for themselves, without asking for a dime from the city/state (with the exception of police/fire for the race times). I wouldn’t complain about a big stadium, if the ticket holders paid for it.

    So, we need to get rid of all redistribution. End corporatism, which this is actually a part of. Why millionaires need to turn to a middle class person like me to finance their businesses is wrong.

    Let them pay for their own sports’ programs. That includes at colleges, where many sports’ programs cost much more than the millions they bring in through donations, and so are subsidized.

    Let me spend my money at activities that I enjoy.

  16. The preference for athletic over intellectual achievement is cultural and can only be combated so much by what the parents do in the home, although homeschoolers seem to do better at it.

  17. Ram – based on the borrowing rate of the USA, neither you nor I are financing their businesses. Perhaps we are financing the interest payments to the Chinese and rest of the world who fund their businesses, but at the low rates of interest the USA currently pays, and the way the statistics are treated, I would go so far to say the US effective “inflates away” the value of our interest payments. We are (currently) getting something for nothing. At some point in the near to mid future that looks likely to change and get a lot worse though.

    As far as fixing schools, my wild crazy idea is…
    I think our teachers and schools should be just as capable of teaching and creating learning experiences with 50% of the budget spend on technology, equipment, and structures, and the sporting/theater/extracurricular programs should be virtually defunded and paid for out of donations and fundraising. Administrators should be drastically reduced if not eliminated, wherever principles are not practicing teachers should be changed to have them teach at least 50% time (same goes for whatever administrators are left after the culling). School schedules should be shortened by at least 3 hours for middle/elementary school (and teacher compensation kept the same) – the scheduling issues this crates with 30 minute classes can be overcome if classes are switched to block-type scheduling. Lessons plans should be drastically streamlined, not dumb down, but made to emphasize core points which students will retain.

    None of these suggestions are perfect, but all operating on the assumption that are schools are trying desperately to do too much. You can do a few things and do them really well, or you can try to do a lot of things poorly. I have no doubt there are isolated examples of doing a lot of things well (like building an aircraft carrier for instance), but the examples are few and far between and it’s virtually impossible (if you want quality) on an institutional “mass production” level.

    I think the level of spending in our economy has run into this problem pretty much across the board. We keep spending more and more and getting less and less. We’ve long since passed the equilibrium point of diminishing returns and are at the point of throwing good money after bad money down the hole. The only solace, as pointed out at the start of this comment is that most of that money is borrowed at effective 0 or negative rates of interest.

  18. I wouldn’t complain about a big stadium, if the ticket holders paid for it.

    I wouldn’t necessarily complain about it either, except in the same way that I complain that movies make hundreds of millions of dollars. We collectively give hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars yearly of our own free will to Hollywood actors we openly despise. Until we voluntarily contribute just as much or more to scholarship, medicine, and social welfare, it’s going to bother me.

  19. This topic….!!! (makes me mad).

    I was never into sports in my youth. I hope that none of my children show interest in them either. I hated how the atleates paraded around school, liked they owned the place.

    While I value phys ed classes in the school system…it bothered me to no end this last year when budget talks were looming that arts, afterschool academic and tutoring programs and the home ec dept were going to be reduced or cut so that the football team would be able to play. I get tired of America always being “bad at (insert the subject here)” stories in the news. Perhaps if we made sports a inter-mural program that you had to pay to be in after school, or pushed it to the private sector academics would really be valued. But as it stands, the theater dept at our local high school is excepted to build their sets out of toothpick while the football field is being recovered in new astro-turf.

  20. Scholarship, medicine and social welfare aren’t immediate gratifications.

    Most people would rather spend $30 on theaters and popcorn to see the newest release than pay a tenth that much making popcorn at home and renting from Redbox.

  21. And I forgot to finish that thought. The same thing goes for sports. People would rather spend money to be entertained by their favorite logo and have something mindless to banter about with their friends than invest in something that may or may not save their lives one day.

  22. And sadly, I’m often no different. I won’t be at peace with myself until I am longer part of the problem. Sigh… time to repent, turn to Christ, and live differently.

  23. I don’t think this means NEVER go to the movies or engage in entertainment any more than your original post means never play sports or attend sporting events. It just means doing so in moderation. Putting entertainment in its place behind “the better part.”

  24. Good post. I gain the proper perspective when I substitute the word “game” for “athletics” or “sports.”

  25. High school sports have an important political purpose. They unify the community and shore up support for the public schools. A principal who is concerned about the long-term prospects of his school, is concerned about bond elections and tax overrides needs to make sure that his football and basketball team look good.

    The other sports do not matter so much, but those two are crucial. I am not being cynical, just pointing out that high schools play a much bigger role in the community than just teaching. Especially in small towns, those two high school teams are a real source of pride and about the only thing that the whole community can rally around.

  26. George, I don’t support public schools, so I don’t see that as a good reason for teams. In addition, I think it’s kind of sad that a school sports team is the only source of pride for some communities. Why not take pride in other accomplishments? Why not take pride in their nerds and their geeks, instead of just their jocks?

  27. Because the real accomplishments of nerds and geeks happen later in life and usually require leaving the town, are less graspable, and don’t allow much for spectator participation. Look, its fun to rail against deep aspects of our culture, if that’s what you’re into, but you’re railing against the tides. Don’t think that what you’re doing is any less expressive and less impractical than the folks cheering on the South Boojum Bengals.

  28. In the last couple of years, I have had two children graduate from high school. Both were, more or less, on the nerdy side. I have a third child starting high school next year. He would also be considered a nerd, I suppose.

    Let me just tell you what I have observed. First, The nerds do just fine. In our high school, there are, perhaps, 300 students, out of a total of 2800 who take all the honors and advance placement classes together. They consitute a kind of school within a school. They also tend to excel in the “asthethic sports,” like tennis, golf, and swimming, as well as in orchestra, choir and student government. Most of them come from upper-middle class families that exercise considerable influence in the community. They are bound for the the university and then for graduate or professional school, and on to exciting and interesting careers. They really do not care much about the applause of the rest of the student body.

    Second, the members of the football,basketball, and wrestling teams come mostly from blue collar families. They take ROTC, metal shop, or bookkeeping. They are headed for the army or the community college, then a humdrum job somewhere. For many of them, their high school sports career will be the most important accomplishment in their lives. It seems churlish to deny them their moment in the sun.

    Third, if there is any group of high school students that deserve our sympathy and concern, it is that nameless 80 percent that drift through high school without ever receiving any recognition and applause.

  29. Adam, yeah, I’m railing against a societal tradition/habit/trend that I think perpetuates some of the cultural problems we lament (undervaluing of knowledge and learning), and it’s probably not going to make much of a difference. For that reason, I shouldn’t express myself.

    Except that I think there may be people who read this who will talk to their kids differently tonight. And that may make a difference. And so it’s worth it.

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