27 February 2007

Kids Too Self-Absorbed?

Filed under: Culture, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 5:01 pm

Here’s an article about narcissism among American college students. “You’re special,” American kids are told over and over again. I think maybe every American kid should spend at least a year going to a French school, just to get a feel for what it’s like not to be special. When our daughter was in the CM2 (5th grade) her teacher explained medieval feudalism like this:

The king is like the directrice (principal), the lords are like the teachers, and the serfs are like the students. Serfs could never become lords. Just like you: no matter how old or smart you get, you’ll never be more than just a student in this school.



  1. I would say there is a general theory that many of our problems as individuals and as communities and friends/family/etc. boils down to having a positive outlook about yourself. If you think positively about yourself then it will reflect in your relationships with others. It is a general optimism.

    I think there is something to it, but things might be a little out of balance. One must think positively about themselves, but there is something to be said about understanding your place amongst others. There should be a healthy sense that one starts off at the bottom and has to work their way up. Otherwise there seems to develop a sense of entitlement. I think I see that here in the States.


    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 27 February 2007 @ 6:15 pm

  2. First, school performance: I don’t have the study in hand, but it turns out that countries whose kids feel confident about their math abilities actually do worse on standardized achievement tests than countries whose kids think they stink at math. So, countries from the Far East have th best math scores and the lowest math self-confidence scores.

    Second, Hegel’s master-bondsman: In more traditional cultures the teacher knows and the kid doesn’t. In more traditional educational systems the teacher’s job is to show the kid what he/she doesn’t know; the kid’s job is to learn it. Responsibility lies with the kid to be a good learner, not with the adult to be a good teacher. The biggest compliment a kid gets in French schools? Not that little Jennie is bright and creative but that she is “serious” — pays attention and works hard.

    In the American child-centered school culture it’s the teacher’s responsibility for the kids to do well, to make the material relevant to the kids, to instill in them a passion for learning. The student is master, the teacher is bondsman. So, does the US try to go back to the good old days of a feudal educational system with the kids at the bottom of the hierarchy? Could it even be done? The parents are child-centered too; they expect teachers to bring out the innate specialness in their kids. If it doesn’t happen whose fault is it? The teacher’s.


    Comment by ktismatics — 28 February 2007 @ 5:25 am

  3. These are good things for me to think about if I actually end up going into education next year, or anytime in the future, really.

    Interesting stats. I’ve heard them before, and they are so ironic. We would rather feel confident about our math skills and actually be idiots rather then, god-forbid, we felt bad about ourselves but we were the smartest people in the room. So ironic….

    I remember arguing on Doug Groothuis’ site a while back that the teacher and students should all be on the same level. No superiority. An environment where no one is privileged and all in the room are learners. Sound a bit socialist?

    I wonder if there is a real “best way” to approach education. Perhaps we just take the culture we are absorbed in and go from there. I think our culture is so narcisistic that if the kids are not the center of attention you lose their attention. (And, as a side note, it seems the attention span is less and less the more image-oriented kids become.) So, I think you have to start there. And maybe if you work off the basis that the kids are the center of the universe and open up the learning environment as a learning process and community, perhaps you can use that to begin to shift that worldview. Maybe if kids know that you are putting them at the center you can challenge them by exploiting their own self-absorbtion and make them defend their intrinsic expectations that education should revolve around them. A sort-of deconstruction would be happening. One uses the environment of student-centered learning to question and break down the assumptions of that environment.


    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 28 February 2007 @ 5:26 pm

  4. No superiority. An environment where no one is privileged and all in the room are learners. Sound a bit socialist?
    I don’t think so.
    I’m a liberal, with some feeling for social issues and capitalist arguments. I like the American emphasis on Psychology and communication. Also in education, I like that American seem to talk a lot. I also buy books that were written in America first. What I love is knowledge based education.
    I do think you have a point when you speak about the risks of child centered education, namely that a good self-esteem might cause less drive to succeed.
    How can we have both is a question I ask myself too. I didn’t understand the last four sentences… Have to reread them.


    Comment by Odile — 28 February 2007 @ 8:26 pm

  5. I do think being special is a good thing. I think also that specialness is something to be achieved through concentration, work, dedication. Innate differences are there too, of course, and can provide a good foundation to build on. Something about a convergence of innate gift, an interest drawing you outward to excellence, and some kind of reason for making the effort even when it seems like a hassle… I’ve told our daughter she can quit school if she ever figures out what she really wants to commit her time to, because there’s no substitute for self-motivated learning. It’s easier, though, to have the teachers tell you what to learn than to figure it out for yourself. Still, that seems like the desired direction of education: to nurture and inspire and equip self-motivated learners who aspire toward becoming special.


    Comment by ktismatics — 28 February 2007 @ 10:51 pm

  6. Is being “special” equated with being “best”? When a child is commended for his work, in part because of its quality and in part because of its energy (for lack of a better term), he begins to feel that his work is not only good, but better…better than others. After not too long, he begins to feel that his work is best. And so is he. He and his work have been equated. When he begins to expand his reach to see others and their work, he usually realizes that his own “best work” is another among many. It may not, in fact, be best.

    How does he react? Does he work hard to continue to improve or does he fold up his work and quit?

    This seems an important issue to me. Not everyone can be “best”. Does that negate the value of the work? Does that negate the value of the person? How can we encourage the push to work hard to achieve skills, to develop gifts so that improvement is possible?

    Can there be no mediocrity? No satisfaction in mediocrity? Must I give up doing what I love when I realize that my work is pedestrian?

    Am I left with “well, if you really want it badly enough, and work really, really hard, then your dreams will come true”?

    Oh, see, I’m making myself feel better already…Just those words start putting me into a dazed state…

    Meilleurs voeux!!


    Comment by bluevicar — 1 March 2007 @ 8:06 am

  7. Can there be no mediocrity? No satisfaction in mediocrity? Must I give up doing what I love when I realize that my work is pedestrian?

    Good question.

    I recall a comment from the movie Fight Club that goes to the idea of “specialness”. In the movie there is a group of counter-cultural militia who are indoctrinated with the concept, “You are not special. You are not a unique and beautiful snowflake.” This is kind-of a post-modern disenfranchisement with the psycho-babbling self-help culture that seeks to make everyone special and unique. However, since “everyone” is “unique/special” we have undercut the very concept of specialness and uniqueness. After all, if everyone else is also special and unique how am I any different?

    So, for me the idea of not being a special and unique snowflake kind of resonates. As such, I pursue the things I love even if I might not be the best there is, and even if I might not ever be recognized as the best. I might wind up being a very mediocre theologian or blogger or writer or whatever, but I would rather be mediocre and in love with what I do than to be another “special” and “unique” cog in the wheel of western culture, who only believes s/he is special because s/he is told so by Oprah and the self-help books at Barnes & Noble.


    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 1 March 2007 @ 5:59 pm

  8. Not to jump blueVicar’s response, but the “you’re special” message does bear a lot of similarities to the vast supply of stuff in the marketplace. Everything for sale is special, but it all tends to be special in its own way. Or, if it really is special, the surface-level marketing hype makes it hard to pull your eyes away from the glittering image and look “under the hood” to see what really is special. And by the way, I love this “beautiful snowflake” thing. In our household we talk about “blooming flower” in similar (sarcastic) terms.

    Regarding schools and Odile’s comment, it is nice to affirm the kid, but it does start seeming formulaic, a technique to manipulate the kid rather than a heartfelt appreciation. On the other hand, earning specialness through performance seems hollow too. This to me is the connection to Hegel’s master-bondsman: when you have to hear other people tell you how special you are, when you try to earn praise through performance or to seek out people who give you unearned praise, when being told you’re special becomes the basis of your selfhood, when your value to yourself is defined by your value in the marketplace of people looking for something to buy that will make them special, then you’re still externally driven. That said, it’s still nice to be affirmed by others — whether you’re a kid or an adult.


    Comment by ktismatics — 2 March 2007 @ 4:52 am

  9. ktismatics….…when your value to yourself is defined by your value in the marketplace of people looking for something to buy that will make them special, then you’re still externally driven.

    I’ve got a psychological question for you:

    How does this drive to be valued tie in with our natural need to be affirmed by parental figures, most specifically the father figure?


    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 2 March 2007 @ 1:17 pm

  10. Jonathan –

    Scroll down, friend. Actually, scroll up to today’s post on Lacan. The father is the guy that has that thing that makes him self-contained, that thing which is desired by all, that thing which makes him desirable to the mother. I want to identify with the father, to be what he is, to have what he has, to be desired as he is desired (i.e., by the mother). But…I used to have it, and the father took it from me. I want it back, and I have to destroy the father in order to get it. Oedipus, baby — the struggle of the bondsman to kill the master and take his place. And whether this spin is the right one, I think we probably do resent our need to be affirmed by the father. Some resolution of this need and resentment must be achieved, and presumably the resolution has to be an internal one: I am the father; I both have and lack; I am both desired and feared; I am both alive and dead.


    Comment by ktismatics — 2 March 2007 @ 3:59 pm

  11. …but then there’s the more straightforward evolutionary explanation. The father is genetically invested in his offspring, who will carry his genes forward to the next generation. The kid is genetically invested in being nice to the father, who is the usual provider of food and protection from enemies.

    The drive to be valued by others? If they think you’re special they might give you food in a pinch or help look after your kids or watch your back in conflict. And if the others are members of the opposite sex, then you might have a wider pool of potential mates to choose from, thereby enhancing the quality and perhaps also the quantity of your offspring, who carry your genes along with them.


    Comment by ktismatics — 2 March 2007 @ 5:41 pm

  12. Are you serious?

    This is why scientists and biologists and evolutionists should never dabble into philosophy, religion, or psychology….the answers are so forced and contrived!


    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 3 March 2007 @ 2:10 am

  13. Jonathan,

    I see more evidence supporting the evolutionary view than the Freudian one. It also strikes me as more straightforward. Also, the father is the most available role model available to the boy for how to attain manhood in your own society. And each kid’s genes come entirely from his two parents, so he/she already has a lot in common with the parents. I’m not persuaded by the whole Oedipus thing (though maybe I’m just repressing!). But I suspect children simultaneously admire and envy anyone who competes for the mother’s attention, and the father is one of the prime suspects, along with one’s siblings. Mimetic desire/rivalry will probably be the subject of my next post.

    How would you answer your own question about our natural need to be affirmed by parents and especially the father?


    Comment by ktismatics — 3 March 2007 @ 5:53 am

  14. So does all this father thing just make the mother the object of desire? Not a bad place to be, I suppose, but I wonder what power mother as object possesses? Is it just the power to be wanted? Is there anything as a active, living being the mother can to do divert, enhance, calm the attention of desire? Or are these feelings inevitable despite the quality or behavior of the mother? Or the father, for that matter? Is there any suggestion about what makes a better mother or father?

    Probably not one that fawns too much over the young…and then we come full circle…

    Meilleurs voeux!!


    Comment by bluevicar — 3 March 2007 @ 11:09 am

  15. A bit off the current topic of the comments, but it is closer to the main topic of the post is this quote from a website:

    Richard has a radical view of the role of the teacher – “I don’t teach. If I teach, who knows what they will learn. Teaching’s out. I tell kids that there are no limits. You can create whatever you want to create. If it’s impossible, it will just take a bit longer. My main function is to get kids excited, and to consider things that they haven’t done before. I’m working to create citizens in a global society.”



    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 3 March 2007 @ 6:35 pm

  16. blueVicar –

    The mother too desires the phallus. Where is it? Does the father have it? Does the child? In the Oedipus scenario the child thinks the father has it. Everybody desires, including the ones who are desired. Tough to break out of the endless circulation of desire. It’s interesting: in the original Oedipus myth an oracle tells the father that his son will kill him some day. So the father exiles the son, essentially “cutting off” Oedipus’ connection with his mother. So first the father “kills” the son, but the son comes back and returns the favor.

    Jonathan –

    So what do you think — will this be your approach? It would be interesting to do it at an extreme level: don’t teach anything at all, but whenever somebody expresses any interest in anything help them figure out what the possibilities are.


    Comment by ktismatics — 3 March 2007 @ 9:32 pm

  17. I think a teacher has to work within the culture of the students. But I think that a good teacher does not allow students to remain where they are. A good teacher enters into the life-world of their students and begins to plant the seeds of deconstruction. I’m not quite sure what that will look like, and I think it will vary on a class by class basis, however the commonality would be to try to get students to somehow transcend themselves and deconstruct their own comfortable beliefs. Hopefully this would mean bringing a more narcissistic generation to the point where they can see their narcissistic tendencies and become better people.

    Perhaps the best teacher would be one who also allows the students to deconstruct the teacher’s worldview and destabilize the teacher’s comfort zone!


    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 3 March 2007 @ 11:23 pm

  18. That sounds great to me. I can see you now: “Come on, losers, think you can deconstruct my world? Bring it on!”


    Comment by ktismatics — 4 March 2007 @ 2:47 pm

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