Oops! I'll Do It Again. And Again. And Again…

Wall Street Journal | Published on

By James Bowman

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Beginning next month, the College Board will allow high-school students who have taken the SATs multiple times to submit only their highest score to the colleges to which they are applying. Called “Score Choice,” this policy brings the SAT into line with the ACT, the rival college-entrance examination, and it is supposedly designed to reduce the stress that this examination places on students worried about their futures.

Of course, Score Choice will also give what many would see as an unfair advantage to those who can afford the time and the money to take the test more than once — and the more they can take it, the greater the advantage. For colleges, it must make the job of assessing their applicants' abilities more difficult and may thus contribute to the trend toward downgrading or eliminating standardized testing in college admissions.

But Score Choice is also a manifestation of the do-over mentality whose insidious creep into the larger culture has been made apparent over the past several months by the queue of failed businessmen and financiers who have come to Washington with their hands out, asking to be rescued from the consequences of their own poor answers to life's examination questions.

Friedrich Hayek once wrote, in The Constitution of Liberty, that a free society depends on the willingness of its people to take responsibility for their actions. Not to do so is not merely to create what we have all lately learned to call “moral hazard,” but to jeopardize the very foundation of our free institutions.

If we had to point to a cause of today's all-but-universal sentiment in favor of rewarding the improvident, we might want to look first to the self-esteem movement in education. Many of the financial hotshots now wielding begging bowls must have been schoolchildren in the 1980s, when this curious philosophy took hold of our educators.

Back then, in Maryland's Montgomery County, near Washington, the school district banned placing students in alphabetical order for fear that the self-esteem of those whose names began with the later letters of the alphabet would suffer.

In 1986, California was the first state to introduce self-esteem education as such. It was based on the assumption that constant praise for even the feeblest effort would encourage schoolchildren to do better. In fact, it simply removed the incentive for them to work hard. The de-emphasis on competition in school sports and the grade inflation that has become so unfortunate a feature of the academy since then have had similar effects.

Studies have shown that, while American students perform poorly compared with many foreigners of the same age, they are top of the charts when it comes to how well they think they have performed. Artificially pumping up their self-esteem produces only self-deception in the first instance and frustration and anger when — or if — the truth must be faced.

Maybe it is our instinctive recognition of this fact which has made “American Idol” the most popular show on television. There, people are forced to face unwelcome truths about their abilities — most of them from the British judge, Simon Cowell, whose unconcern about treading on people's vanities makes him sound deliciously naughty in a world based on self-esteem. The loud resentment felt by many of those whose illusions have been punctured is another manifestation of this culture-wide sense of entitlement.

A friend of mine not long ago listened to her 8-year-old granddaughter play a piece on the piano and suggested to her that she needed to practice some more. The child burst into tears. “Grandma,” she wailed. “You're not proud of me!”

We do children no favors by teaching them that they have a right to a favorable outcome in all that they do. It used to be the case that education was thought of not just as the acquisition of knowledge — still less as the acquisition of credentials — but as a form of character building. And one of the ways to build character is to submit students to the same sorts of stresses and failures that adult life does, in order to teach them how to cope with such things.

There are some signs that the worst may be over. Last summer, after the British Olympic team did better than expected in Beijing, the Labour prime minister, Gordon Brown, gave a speech saying that competition was a good thing after all.

But much of our popular culture is still wedded to the assumptions behind the self-esteem movement. On her most recent album, the popular chanteuse Joni Mitchell rewrote Rudyard Kipling's famous poem, “If . . . ,” changing his words,

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds' worth of distance run . . .

to her own,

If you can fill the journey of a minute

With sixty seconds worth of wonder

and delight.

Of course, there are no more unforgiving minutes in the wonder and delight of Ms. Mitchell's imaginary land of endless do-overs — which gives the lie to her subsequent promise: “Then the Earth is yours and everything that's in it, / But more than that I know you'll be all right.”

No you won't. If you fail, sooner or later that failure will have to be recognized, confronted and put to rights. Not to do so in a timely fashion is only to spread the consequences of failure much more widely — to the whole educational system in the case of the SATs and the ordinary taxpayer in the case of the bailouts. Both deserve better.

– Mr. Bowman is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the author of “Honor, A History” and “Media Madness,” both published by Encounter Books.