Thursday, October 9, 2014

Overcoming Underachieving, Ruth Peters (2000)

This book is pop-psychology or self help, but I somehow stumbled upon it a while ago and gave it a quick read. I am not going to review it, but I do agree with the main message which she delivered well. Her main message, or the one I took, is that all children (generally speaking) are capable of being successful in school and all it requires is enough work. She argues there are ways of building familial relationships and attitudes towards school that can get children to put in the necessary work. If they do such, they will be successful in school and probably in life more generally. They will be happier. Very well. A good message that I wholeheartedly support. Success in school is about the amount of work you put in, for the most part.

But I thought I would bring this book up for a slightly different reason. First, the good, and rereading this quote it really does embrace much of what I believe, what I want this blog to be about.

As we’ve seen, academic achievement is more a product of appropriate placement of priorities and responsible behavior than it is of intelligence. There are lots bright kids who flunk classes, brilliant high schoolers who drop out and quick-witted adults who can’t seem to hold a job or effectively face challenges at home or in the workplace. Almost any child can do well at school whether they have low, average, or superior ability. What seems to count the most is one’s work ethic and willingness to tolerate frustration—to continue to tackle tough math problems, even though your first impulse is to give up, and to bring home and study the science text, even though tonight is the season finale of a favorite television sitcom. This type of prioritizing is often not innate—it’s learned by watching others (generally parents), receiving guidance and supervision (by Mom and Dad), as well as by making the connection between behavior and consequences (yep, performed by Mom and Dad again!). . . . The single best predictor of academic success is parental involvement. That’s not only a stunning statement but a heavy obligation. . . . This book is about academic success. Of all the bases of self-concept described above, this area is the one most within your child’s control and your influence. Appropriate study skills guarantee good grades and excellent performance. Study skills are merely actions, and self-esteem is based on esteemable acts. It follows, therefore, that the greater the quantity and quality of study actions your child performs, the greater number of esteemable acts will be attributed to her. The larger the number of esteemable acts, the more solid and stable will be her self-concept. The connection between parents motivating kids to employ good study skills and the resulting self-esteem level is strong. . . . Academic achievers are also seen as school leaders. In grade school they get picked more often to clean the blackboard, to mentor younger kids, and are trusted by teachers to take notes to the office. . . . Remember, the difference between an A student and a C student is often not based in intelligence, it’s a matter of sweat equity—how much one is willing to put into studying and completing tasks.

That's all nicely said. I will preface this next part by saying that perhaps we should not look to cheap writers for more endurable thoughts. The author has torn down some basic problems of socialization/education, but she is far from giving us the best understanding of some of the more entrenched relationships of self and world. The more difficult analysis of the relation between identity, behavior, social norms, and institutions are necessary to engage in. This passage is the extension from above (p. 201). So, I give you a book-throwing-quote:

And the cycle of self-concept continues as we mature . . . Sure, looking like Julia Roberts or Brad Pitt doesn't hurt and social extroverts tend to have an easier go at it than do the painfully shy, but what really comes to the fore is the work ethic developed in the earlier academic settings. Employers look for grade-point averages when they hire, and responsibility behaviors and productivity when they promote. Prospective spouses, often initially attracted by physical appearance, remain impressed by earning capacity, responsibility, commitment, and stability (often outcomes of learning good frustration tolerance as a kid). Marriages continue not because Dad can shoot hoops well, but because he provides for the family by finding and keeping a good job and acting in a loving and responsible manner. Mom remains attractive to Dad not only because she works out or looks great in a bathing suit, but because she’s up on the daily news, has interests and therefore is interesting, and is fulfilled in her career at the workplace or does a good job keeping the house and kids on track.

Peters' general program is not that bad, and I am sure she helped at least some families approach school and family life in a better way, both in her practice and through writing. But the above quote is insane. She is concentrating on how to be “successful” in the world that is provided to us, but the reproduction of certain familial structures and personal relationships are capable of being structured in better (more useful) ways for the individual. This is especially true for gender and family relationships, and part of becoming “educated” and knowledgeable must also include the capacity to reflect on one’s own self and institutions where one can. Obviously, certain social institutions and behavioral norms are outside one's control. That does not mean they are beyond rethinking, and that does not mean we cannot form communities, families, and discourses that open up those institutions and norms to reflection. And I would hope, in time, that we would make significant changes to our social world and our selves. But, pointedly, when well educated people turn to talking about improving our “self-concepts” they cannot ignore such institutional and discursive structures. There are many points of our social world where it needs to be continually stated that such states of affairs do not have to be reproduced.

I often give a caricature of Mary Wollstonecraft's argument. Such as: 
“It is not the genes or willpower of “Woman” that means that she is a doltish, emotive, shallow individual who cannot carry on a conversation or be a decent object of pleasure to “Man,” it is only from an absurd environment and cultural expectations that we set up around her. Give “Her” the education and socialization of “Him” and you will see females become more worthy life partners to males.

And we thus embarked on feminism. I read Wollstonecraft as arguing against the essence of gender characteristics, or against the genetic structuring of gender expressions, at least in the manner they had inculcated her society. When Peters encourages the cultural reproductions above without providing for ways in which we do not have to reproduce that world, she does a great disservice to helping people understand their self-concept and to create better social worlds. The quote from Peters above grates in my mind against the most basic belief about dichotomizing gender differences, and doing it in a spurious way. Many people who are reading Peters or talking to her in her practice as a counselor may not blink an eye at such ideas. But the line that to become a more attractive wife today a woman should manage to occasionally read the news (because she is self-disciplined), and therefore can have a decent conversation with her husband, is straight out of the 18th century.

Just for charity I will give you the rest of the passage from above, which shows that the message is for the most part a good message:

So if you want to help your kid with her self-concept, there are many things you can do. Save up for the braces and figure out how she can have some nice outfits to wear. Shoot hoops and throw the football with your son. Talk to your children about social skills, such as good eye contact, smiling at others, telling jokes, and becoming a good listener. But most of all—set the state for them to feel smart. Teach good study skills and and habits, expect classwork and homework to be completed on a daily basis. Talk about going to college as a strong possibility . . .

One final note. This quote from Peters is bad. I think this kind of empty thinking leads to worse worlds for all of us, especially for females as we continue to reproduce a great deal of the society we found. Attacking Peters on a personal level does absolutely nothing towards uncovering the complexities of our social organization. To write long winded critiques with harsh and piercing language for the ideas beholden is necessary (such critiques can be seen as essentially personal attacks at times). The quote from Peters, and all the social structures that make it a sustainable thought, leads to an unequal world, one that I think most people are trying to move away from, including Peters. That does not mean we need to accuse her or her work of sexism or mysogyny. Among people willing to come to the table of reflecting on beliefs and our cultural world, as most people who readily read books and most blogs do, there should be more charity and careful analysis of ideas. That can include reflecting on social acts by prominent people, but still, even here, what is to be attacked are ideas and practices, not people. This is how you get under what are very complicated issues, and how you make careful, willful changes. I am confident that this is how useful, sustained social revolutions will happen. Human beings are complex creatures whose social embeddedness requires a delicate knife to understand. Coming to grips with these questions is not helped by tribalism, but by slow, steady analysis.  

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