Sunday, January 24, 2010

Jay - Ee - Tee - Ess ...

No, I'm not going to pontificate here about if/how/why my perennially heartbreaking, soul-crushing New York Jets are going to beat the mighty, awesome Indianapolis Colts in the AFC championship game this afternoon. To be honest, I don't think they have a chance; they simply can't score enough points to keep up with Peyton Manning and the Colts offense, who don't play a lot of 17-14 games. Some of my friends will surely get on my case for being "negative" or "pessimistic," but they make the same mistake that all blind partisans make in failing to see the difference between what one wishes or hopes will happen, and what one actually honestly believes will happen. I can want and hope for outcome A but nonetheless predict and expect outcome B, all at the same time. The two thoughts are not incompatible.

No, I post today because of something I read in today's NY Post, in an interview with Jets safety Jim Leonhard. When asked if he and his teammates would "run through a brick wall" for coach Rex Ryan, Leonhard replied, "Everyone’s been lied to, everyone’s been told something that really isn’t true. Your parents tell you you’re great your whole life, and sometimes it’s not true. I watch "American Idol" every once in a while, you see all the people that go on the show and they think they’re the best singers in the world because no one ever told them that they’re not. Rex is gonna tell you the truth."

I only noticed and posted this because it reflects the thinking that has been driving my teaching for years. I've always told people that I have some students who love me, and some who hate me; some who think I'm a great teacher, and some who think I'm a terrible teacher. And both for the same reason. The reason is precisely what Leonhard says about Ryan here. A lot of students come to my class having only ever been told how wonderful and fabulous they are at everything they've ever done, throughout their entire childhood. Their teachers may have even been taught, trained and instructed to do that; to never tell a student that his answer is wrong or her work is inadequate, because doing so would be "psychologically damaging." (This is what a student-teacher I supervised a few years back told me she had been taught.) They get to my class and can't handle my brutal honesty. I challenge them to do better, and they take it as an insult.

Now, I've had a number of students over the years who initially resented me for this, but who realized over time what I was doing for them and came to appreciate it. Sometimes that only happens after the student is not in my class anymore. But I believe, have always believed and will always believe, that we do kids no favors by praising everything they do without giving them any honest appraisals of their ability and performance. The kind of obsequious self-esteem boosting we see in schools does nothing but produce a lot of narcissistic, peevish kids who cannot and do not learn because they can neither take constructive criticism nor distinguish it from arbitrary meanness.

This is actually related, peripherally, to the sports topic I brought up at the beginning of this post. I have an acquaintance with whom I used to be very close, but we've drifted apart in recent years because, among other things, we don't see eye to eye on how to properly root for one's favorite teams, nor on how important such behavior is to one's life or how reflective it is of one's character. (He's a Yankee fan, of course, and thus knows little of the bitter anguish and wrenching disappointment suffered annually for decades by fans of the other New York teams. He's also quite a bit younger than I am.)  Specifically, he doesn't like it when I predict or expect that one of my teams will lose a game, or fail to make the playoffs, or blow a 7-game division lead with 17 games to play. He gets very upset when I do that, and thinks I should be more positive and supportive of these teams.

This is not necessarily an unusual or unreasonable position to take. The problem with this individual is (1) he can't distinguish blind support and unthinking advocacy from honest, measured analysis and reasoned, fact-based prognostication; (2) he seems to think that somehow my "attitude" actually has an impact on the outcome of those events (i.e., that my saying or believing they will lose actually causes them to lose), and (3), most disturbingly, he thinks I should do this for their sake, not mine. I could understand it if he thought that it would be beneficial to me if I were less cynical; that I would be happier and less stressed if I always believe, expect and say that my team will win every game, even if logic, reality and history suggest otherwise was more optimistic. There is something to that, even though the obvious counter-argument is that you're setting yourself up for disappointment when you do that, a lesson I learned a very long time ago. That's part of the reason why I try to be realistic, if not overtly cynical, about the future fortunes of my favorite teams.

But this individual makes a very strange argument; that somehow it would be better for them, for the teams themselves, if I was more "positive." Whether he thinks they're actually, in reality, more likely to win if I predict/think/say that they will win, or whether he thinks that I am actually hurting the players' and coaches' fragile feelings by not thinking they'll win every game, it's a completely absurd and irrational argument. The fact that he seems to care more about them than he does about me is doubly disturbing. (UPDATE: He's also a hypocrite;  after admonishing me before the game for my "pessimism" in predicting the Jets would lose, he updated his Facebook status after the game to mock and ridicule Jets fans for being stupid enough to believe they could win.)

In a way, it's not all that different from the idea that if we inundate kids with nothing but praise and compliments and "encouragement," that they will somehow actually learn, improve and succeed academically without ever hearing an honest, objective appraisal of their abilities and performance. Of course it's not the same as the sports-fan context, in that there is no actual contact between me and the team so the way I choose to root for them cannot and does not affect them (a fact which my acquaintance nonetheless seems unable to grasp). But the idea that positive thinking and positive "encouragement" or cheerleading always leads directly to positive results is foolish, no less so than assuming one's wishes will all come true if one simply wishes hard enough.

Of course Rex Ryan is not going to try to motivate his team to win by telling them he thinks they're going to lose. In fact, his public statements suggest the opposite, but what he's done is challenged his players to back up those statements. He has challenged his players to succeed by telling them the truth about themselves; that they are not as great as they think they are, and they have to prove it to him first. They're not going to win today, but these Jets are already more successful than any Jets team since the one that won Super Bowl III all those years decades ago. They have a coach who "gets it."

No comments: