Schools Should Stop Telling Kids to be "Nice"
The key but overlooked argument from Charles Murray’s Real Education.
September 28, 2009
..[I]t is Murray’s distinction between “nice” and “good” that deserves the most attention, since schools do in fact place too much emphasis on being “nice.”
The KIPP slogan “Work hard, be nice” comes to mind, as does “cooperative learning,” the stock phrase of many public school districts. Being “nice” comes from practiced, structured interaction with others: group activity, “Accountable Talk®” (a structured—and trademarked—form of class discussion), and pleasant, uncontroversial subject matter with familiar social messages. (“We should all go for our dreams.” “We should all treat one another with respect.” “All religions are equal.”)
Will Fitzhugh calls such niceness “critical likability.” Being good is more complex than being nice. It requires that we recognize our own faults and complexities; that we forgive each other; that we say what we think; that we make difficult decisions and face the consequences.
When we read literature and history, we begin to glean what it means to be good. We see how people with the best intentions can fail; how people struggle with conflicting desires and values and make the best choices they can; how people overcome their limitations when put to the test. From works like Antigone, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Chekhov’s short stories, we learn about selfishness, cruelty, cowardice, and confusion, as well as grace, generosity, and patience. We come to see elements of all these traits in ourselves. We learn, too, from reading the likes of The Canterbury Tales, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe or Christina Rossetti, of the delight of language—the playfulness, the ambiguities, the rhythms, the sounds. But programs such as Balanced Literacy (mandated in New York City and other districts) place more emphasis on process than on works of literature, and much of the reading material lacks vitality. Tests, test preparation materials, leveled texts (books that match specific reading levels), and textbooks are filled with bland fiction and nonfiction. In The Language Police, Diane Ravitch shows, in relentless and astounding detail, how test-makers and textbook publishers have censored reading passages to appease various interest groups on the right and left. As a result of such censorship, children read strained, pleasant stories with predictable endings. How, under such circumstances, could students learn what it means to be good?