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Doing Away With the Honour Roll and Awards System in Schools is Absurd

11/03/2013 08:11 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

No more honour roll. No more awards ceremonies. While it may only be Calgary's St. Basil school in the spotlight this week, there is little doubt that countless other schools and districts will -- or have already -- taken active steps to eliminate all evidence that the world is in fact a competitive place, and that performance is variable.

The core of St. Basil's decision for why it decided to axe these academic recognitions is that it may harm some kids' self-esteem. As the school's letter to parents declares, "awards eventually lose their lustre to students who get them, while often hurting the self esteem and pride of those who do not receive a certificate" -- an edict, it seems, not based on feedback or input from St. Basil's own students and parents, but rather on the theory of the day; in this case, controversial education specialist Alfie Kohn's particular brand of progressive education.

The notion that recognizing the achievements of honour roll students might somehow threaten or damage the self-esteem of others is not only absurd, it's revealing, demonstrating just how far down the hyper-protectionist path we've gone. I'm all for the importance of nurturing kids' self esteem -- but when did we start thinking that shielding children from the competitive nature of the world is in way consistent with this task? That doesn't even make logical sense. What does make sense is nurturing self esteem by actually helping children understand the various ways in which the world is competitive and then teaching them how to competently navigate those aspects of life.

Contrary to the "everyone gets a trophy" culture of childhood in which we seem intent on raising tomorrow's labour force, if there is one job opening and 372 applicants, not every applicant will get that job. Given this reality, knowing where you stand in relation to the rest of the field is actually helpful for learning how to navigate the competitive aspects of life. Having systems in place to recognize people's efforts and accomplishments -- like honour rolls and awards ceremonies -- are far from harmful or "lacking in lustre". They are informatively neutral at worst, validating and incentivizing at best.

Another ingredient in the hyper-protectionist mindset that reveals itself so starkly in St. Basil's decision is this odd presumption that children's psyches are so...well, weak. When did we start seeing kids as such unbearably vulnerable beings, so easily damaged, so inherently lacking in resiliency and the ability to cope that even the smallest amount of adversity could damage them forever?

Out of curiosity, I asked my eighth-grade daughter if she felt badly for not getting an award or making the honour roll last academic year, her first year of exposure to this kind of recognition system. Rolling her eyes in typical teenage fashion at the apparent stupidity of my question, she responded with, "Not in the least. I feel proud for how I did in school last year -- even if I didn't get honours. Remember how much I brought up my math mark? I was really proud about that. You don't need an award to feel good about yourself, mom." I know a sample of one isn't exactly generalizable, but I thought she had good point nonetheless.

Somewhere along the way, we've adopted some goofy misguided idea that children's psyches are inherently, staggeringly fragile, prone to devastating and irreversible damage from any number of relatively benign phenomena -- like honour rolls, sporting activities where only the winning team gets a trophy, or track and field days with actual competition (oh, the horror!).

The fact that these ridiculous ideas persist despite our knowledge about the plasticity of the brain (the powerful ability of our brains to change and adapt throughout life) and the incredible resilience of the human spirit only signals how incredibly ideological these beliefs are. In today's hyper-protectionist culture, we've lost sight of the basic fact that as human animals, we are built for survival and adaptation. Kids are not crystal vases, one slip of the hand away from total destruction. Kids are resilient and adaptive, primed, ready and perfectly capable of developing all the skills they need to stay adaptive and resilient - at least until we start turning their world into a fantasy-based padded playground.

It's not the honour roll that cripples kids' self-esteem. It's our crystal vase style of thinking and the ridiculous decisions it spawns.

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