Malaise (Peter Berger)
Thirty-seven summers ago Jimmy Carter spoke to the nation about our “crisis of spirit.” His address became known as his “malaise” speech, even though he never actually used that word. Webster defines malaise as an “indefinite lack of health” or “vague sense of mental or moral ill-being.” In order to grapple with problems like the energy crisis and unemployment, President Carter called on us to examine our outlook and our priorities.
Public schools have been staggering through their own crisis for more than a generation. Part of the blame rests directly on culprits we can see at school: bankrupt education theories and assorted follies like self-esteem, whole language, and enfeebled classroom discipline. The roots of the problem also extend to our homes and civic institutions and appear as children from single-parent families, drug use, and crime.
These are all issues we should address, but we’re also suffering from an underlying malaise of unsound priorities and entitlement that’s less visible but just as destructive to American education. Here are a few symptoms of our ill-being.
There’s nothing new about classroom troublemakers. They’ve been disrupting other people’s education since before chalk was invented, but today we don’t call them troublemakers. Instead, we obfuscate and invent syndromes for what they do. We say they’re “behaviorally challenged.” We turn their conduct into ailments like “oppositional defiance disorder.” According to the psychologist who coined this syndrome, when kids with ODD have tantrums and refuse to do what they’re told, they aren’t “using coercion or manipulation to get what they want.” They’re just the victims of their own “inflexibility” and “poor frustration tolerance.”
ODD isn’t alone in the pantheon of euphemistic, exculpatory conditions. Horn-blasting, tailgating, and obscene gestures are no longer just unsafe, obnoxious driving. They’re not even “road rage” anymore. They’re evidence of “intermittent explosive disorder.” Remember that the next time some driver cuts you off and treats you to a one-fingered salute.
IED also causes “temper outbursts,” “throwing or breaking objects and even spousal abuse,” although “not everyone who does those things is afflicted.” How do you tell the difference? Apparently, IED outbursts are characterized by “threats or aggressive actions and property damage” that are “way out of proportion to the situation,” as opposed presumably to threats, aggressive actions, and property damage that aren’t way out of proportion to the situation.
According to researchers, a recently administered questionnaire determined that IED afflicts sixteen million Americans. Fortunately for the rest of us who have to endure IED tantrums and assaults, they aren’t “bad behavior.” They’re “biology.”
Critics frequently charge that too many high school graduates aren’t prepared for college. The new bad news is that too many college graduates aren’t prepared for life. Universities are responding with “life after college” programs. These “transition courses” in what officials term “real life” skills teach college students everything from “managing their credit cards” and “paying taxes” to “making a plate of pasta” and “choosing a bottle of Chardonnay.”
We’re not talking about second-rate institutions. Alfred University’s cooking program includes lessons in “boiling water.” Across the continent Caltech awards three credits for its kitchen survival course. Sympathetic experts explain that today’s college seniors “lack practical skills because they spent their teens more preoccupied than previous generations with racking up the grades, SAT scores, and activities needed to get into top colleges.”
That’s ridiculous. My 1960s high school peers and I lived and died by our permanent records. Claiming that college admissions suddenly became competitive is like arguing that today’s youth need extra self-esteem because they live under a nuclear threat, a popular rationalization that conveniently ignores the fact that little kids like me spent the 1950s hiding under our desks.
According to the Los Angeles Times, “preparing meals” ranks high among parents’ and students’ “major concerns.” This begs two questions: Why aren’t the concerned parents teaching these skills, and is learning how to boil water and pay your bills really what universities are for?
While they may be lost in the kitchen, students are proving themselves adept in other endeavors. Aided by cell phones and the Internet, cheating is on the rise at public schools and colleges. In a Rutgers survey, ninety-seven percent of students polled admitted to cheating in high school. Even allowing for the notorious inaccuracy of student polls, the figure is alarming.
Still more alarming, cheating has its champions among education reformers. One enlightened Northwestern University professor blames schools when students copy answers, purchase term papers, and steal exams. He’s outraged that students can’t copy each other’s work during tests. He endorses plagiarism and objects when a student “receives no credit” for a paper just because it “was written by somebody else.” “No wonder”, he fumes, that students “feel compelled to lie” and put their own names on work they’ve “found.”
He encourages “honest copying” where students get credit for copying other people’s work as long as they put the real author’s name on it. The professor maintains that allowing this species of larceny would “reinforce the correct behaviors.” Instead of being “punished,” the copier should be “rewarded” for “knowing where to seek the information.” In short, we need to “recognize cheating for the good that it brings.”
He’s not the only advocate of cheating out there. The Educational Testing Service’s “teaching and learning” vice president puts the blame for cheating on tests squarely on the tests themselves and the schools that give them. She holds that it’s “small wonder” that students “attempt to affect the outcomes” by cheating. She argues that until we allow kids to “assist each other” during tests, we’re “inviting a culture of cheating.”
Let’s review. Psychologists are declaring obnoxious, antisocial behavior a disease. Colleges are teaching adults to boil water. And educators are blaming everybody but the cheaters for cheating.
Sounds like a malaise to me.
Peter Berger teaches middle school English in Weathersfield, Vermont. This article previously appeared here.