Stop Patronizing Me, Scrabble Teacher!

The corrosive impact of the Self-Esteem Movement on public-education is well-known. At least by those of us at Despair. Teachers have been encouraged, in the interest of the children’s “precious self-esteem”, to avoid using the F-word when students FAIL. To praise effort, regardless of results. To protect delicate, developing egos from the dreadful stigma and potential shame that comes from being told, “Whoa- you really screwed that up!”

And now, this well-intentioned but pernicious affirmation cult has taken hold on my Scrabble Teacher. And it’s ticking me off.

“SHAME – It Stops the Problem”

I’m old enough to remember a time when teachers could call an unruly student to the front of the classroom. Mr. Carver, my fifth grade home teacher, had a big paddle with an STP motor oil sticker on it.  Kids who mouthed off learned pretty fast not to, because the shame of being publicly spanked with his “Stops the Problem” paddle was even greater than the sting of his practiced swing.  (And seriously, old dude could SWING.)

But he didn’t just practice corporal punishment for kids with discipline problems.  He was willing- very willing- to tell you point-blank when you’d FAILED. It was never mocking, never cruel- just a statement of fact, delivered with a wry, crinkled grin. Got a D on a spelling test? “Well son, hope you like diggin’ ditches.” 

It was embarrassing, but effective. Nobody wanted to let him down. Everyone wanted to earn his compliments, because he gave them as generously as his rebukes. Nothing was higher praise than to be told, “Honey, you just might be runnin’ GM one day.”

Don’t laugh. At the time, it was a compliment. And when it came from a teacher who had proven himself even-handed and trustworthy, it meant a great deal to our “precious self-esteem”. He was, in microcosm, the Fair Arbiter we believed at the time governed the whole of American society. The politician, the “big boss” (we didn’t know what CEO meant yet), the Man. Disrespect would be punished, failure would be acknowledged, but success would be complimented and rewarded. It’s the American way, right?

So it bothers me- probably more than it should- to have watched my Scrabble app, to which I am hopeless addicted, as successive upgrades have “improved” it by turning it from a Fair Arbiter into an Esteem-Protector.

Earlier editions of the Scrabble App featured a hard to please teacher, one who was more than willing to express abject shock at a poorly chosen word.

The app seemed to score on a reasonable grade. If you truly bungled a turn, the teacher was more than willing to let you know it, with a look of such complete and total horror that it truly could, in its tiny way, sting.  You could practically hear it gasping, and without words the message was obvious. “I can’t BELIEVE how bad you failed!”

Average word choices prompted an ambivalent response, and rightly so.  A well-chosen one could earn you a genuinely pleased response. And a brilliant word, when played, prompted a gigantic smile.

Version 2 of the app changed the teacher expressions, and the emotions conveyed, and some argued, not for the better.  Despite the seemingly sterner personality, the teacher still seemed to grade on the same basic curve of BAD, ADEQUATE, GOOD, EXCELLENT.

Though I preferred the personality of the earlier version, I remained a fan. It was still a Fair Arbiter, doling out praise and rebukes in equal measure, and commensurate with the quality of my choices.

Yet another version of the app was recently unveiled.  Now, the teacher, apparently fresh from a graduation ceremony, has been reduced to three expressions.

Yet the bigger change to the app was apparently to the actual underlying grading curve.  Unlike earlier versions that were genuinely sparing with their praise, this new and supposedly improved version has abdicated its role as Fair Arbiter, and is now in the Esteem Protector business.

Consider this screencap below, in which I made the foolish choice of using my letters to spell the word “DIM”. After playing the hand, my Scrabble teacher informed me that I’d done a GOOD job!

“Good job! You got 24 points! That’s double-digit! Wow! Pat yourself on the back! You were only 54 points short of the optimal play! YOU’RE A WINNER IN MY BOOK!”

Then, the nearly impossible to displease teacher gently allowed that I could’ve scored more points, if I’d chosen the slightly better word, “MUDDIER”, which would’ve used all my tiles and earned me the 50 point bonus.

It was an IDIOTIC move, and the right response should’ve been horror.  Or at least ambivalence.  Not encouragement.  Shame at my own stupidity is a better instructor than patronizing praise for stupid moves.

Presumably, the next version of the App will feature one expression only, transcendent ecstasy- whether my moves are brilliant or idiotic.

Fortunately for me, the voice in my head is unmoved by lavish praise for stupidity, and instead is generally disapproving of most of the moves I make in situations trivial and consequential. There were a lot more Mr. Carvers around when I was growing up, and you couldn’t easily accrue achievement points for something as trivial as opening your iPhone and logging your arrival at some location. The fact that I am occasionally The Mayor of Opal Divine‘s scotch bar brings me no satisfaction whatsoever. (The Lagavulin however? Mmmmmmmm.)

The biggest annoyance about it all is that just reflects the broader trend towards de-failurizing everything, and praising effort over outcome. Or sometimes, “winning by just showing up“. Adults and especially kids need Fair Arbiters, not Esteem Protectors or Activity Validators if they’re going to develop and maintain a healthy sense of self and shame, and not turn into narcissistic self-worshipping tools.

I want my old Scrabble back, just as I want more Mr. Carvers in today’s classrooms. Take the shame away from learning and what you end up with is shameless.


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