Do Them No Favors, Tell Them No Lies

James Yang for The Chronicle

August 14, 2011

Recently, a professor in a business discipline (I'm making some changes to protect the guilty) had his students work in teams to develop questions for a survey to be given to other students on the campus. One of the teams—yup, more than one university student was responsible for the following, found it A-OK, just peachy—focused its combined learning and came up with this question: "On a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = strongly disagree, 5 = strongly agree), do you feel that dyeing your hair purple helps your self of steam?"

The business professor pointed out their error, and the team of students corrected it before the survey was administered. But I wonder whether he and they were right to do so. I wonder whether these university students had acted knowingly, aware that their version of the term would be the one recognized and understood by their peers, that while their would-be survey respondents would be hypersensitive to the import of "self," they would very likely not recognize, let alone understand, the word "esteem." I wonder if, by changing the wording to what should be understood by a university student from what is understood by a university student—as proven by the fact that a team of such students, working together, came up with the original phrasing—they might not have rendered responses to that survey question invalid. Besides the happy thought that these students produced that error knowingly, another less positive but perhaps at least hopeful possibility is that it was a Freudian slip, that they are subliminally aware that their own consciously felt and expressed academic self-confidence and self-esteem has little or no basis in fact, and "self of steam" was an unconscious acknowledgment of that and maybe even one of those famous "cries for help" we hear about from psychologists and defense attorneys.

But, no. Neither of those explanations will wash, I fear. I think "self of steam" is an accidentally perfect mistake. Technically, it's a mondegreen, a misheard or misapprehended oral expression. The term was coined in 1954 in Harper's magazine by the writer Sylvia Wright, who for years thought the folk-song lyric "laid him on the green" was actually "Lady Mondegreen." This is a phenomenon frequently encountered with song lyrics—supply your own Bob Dylan joke here—as I can confirm from personal experience: There is a rock song whose lyrics praise "my woman from Tokyo," and for years I thought that was "my woman can talk to you," which I still maintain, for reasons I won't go into here, is the better lyric. But I digress.

The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment study for 2009 revealed that, in a group of 34 developed countries, American students ranked 17th in science knowledge and ability and 25th in math, although—and let's have a big cheer here—14th in reading. But they waved the big foam-hand finger at No. 1 in self-confidence. For professors, of course, this is old news. I doubt there's a single one of us who has not encountered, and continues to encounter with depressing frequency and volume, students who perform below college standards yet confront us with anger or tears or both and the claim that they "always" get A's, that we are being unreasonable at best, and at worst that the low grades they are earning are vindictive because we don't like them. That we can and do provide them with evidence that they have earned these low grades too often means nothing to them because they know they're better than the evidence shows.

How do they "know" this? They know this because teachers, parents, and pretty much every other element of society—that "village" Hillary Clinton touted—has told them so. When D or C or even B students claim to have always been given A's, often they aren't lying. The family psychologist and parenting-advice columnist John Rosemond recently responded to a behavioral question from a young child's mother by saying, "Children don't know what they truly need. They only know what they want, and they believe that what they want they deserve to have, and no one has a right to deny them. That belief defines a child, in fact; therefore, lots of the children in question are much older than 21. It takes some people a long time to grow up."

That is, it takes a long time for some people to grow up because responsible parties don't give them what they need, but rather what they want, like A's unearned by effective effort that results in superior performance. As adults, these people act like children and academically perform like children because that's how we have trained them.

Indeed, I have professorial colleagues who refer to our university students as "children." In a recent conversation, when I pointed out that the vast majority of college students are at least legally adults, one colleague said, "Yes, I know, but they're still children." In regard to some, I have to agree, and they will remain so as long as this attitude exists.

We need to give our students the opportunity to develop to their true potential. We need to teach them how to actually succeed. And this means setting reasonable yet high standards, training them to meet those standards, and holding them accountable for doing so, and throughout their student careers supplying them with honest evaluations of their performance. This honesty, by the way, does not necessitate brutal or demeaning delivery. Do we want our students to have self-esteem? Then we must stop depriving them of the means and opportunity to earn it. Sooner or later they'll find out the truth; we need to do far better, even if it is painful in the short run, than we are doing in order to make that truth something better than bitter. It takes a village both to raise children and to care for the village idiots, and our village needs to stop turning so many of the former into the latter.

So, to apply terms I have read in student essays, if you think we're doing students and this country's future a favor by calling their spade a diamond, you've got another thing coming. The statutes of liberty guarantee the right to the pursuit of happiness, but we're doing our students a huge disfavor by drawing lipstick smiley faces on everything from eagles to pigs, telling them they can fly, and then shoving the whole bunch off the cliff. You can take it for granite that if we keep going on this way, even their self of steam will go up in smoke.


Marc D. Cyr is an associate professor in the department of literature and philosophy at Georgia Southern University.