Harvard Study Blasts Childhood Achievement

The “Making Caring Common” project at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education surveyed 10,000 middle and high school students about what was more important to them, “achieving at a high level, happiness, or caring for others.” Almost 80 percent of students ranked achievement or happiness over caring for others. Only 20 percent of students identified caring for others as their top priority.

While 96 percent of parents say they want to raise ethical, caring children, and cite the development of moral character as “very important, if not essential,” 80 percent of the youths surveyed reported that their parents “are more concerned about achievement or happiness than caring for others.” Approximately the same percentage reported that their teachers prioritize student achievement over caring. Surveyed students were three times as likely to agree as disagree with the statement “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my class than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.” [source: TheAtlantic.com 6/25/14]

Parents would rather see their child achieve than be a community service worker. I should hope so!

Achievement or morality? Why must we choose one or the other? Why are the two divorced from one another, in the first place?

Doesn’t it actually take morality — rationally defined — in order to achieve anything?

Think about what morality actually involves. Morality means focus; concentration; self-discipline; purposeful, sustained effort towards a goal.

I don’t understand how anybody could attain anything at all — much less something significant — without the basic building blocks of morality, i.e. a rational code of ethics.

Yet that’s not what studies like this assume. From the get-go, researchers in psychology and other fields assume that morality means selfless subservience to others. But nobody who accomplishes anything places selfless subservience to others at the top of their list. In fact, depending on what that selfless subservience might involve, it could even do harm.

Imagine you were stranded on a desert island with a couple of other people. Perhaps one of the people with you is an expert on survival skills. What do you want that person to focus on first and foremost? Empathy towards yourself and the others stranded with you? Or taking the steps that will not only ensure his own survival, but yours as well? Rationally (including emotionally), you’d want survival to take priority.

Although we’re fortunate to live in an advanced civilization, rather than on a desert island, we have to think about what made this advanced civilization possible. Although most of us were born into a level of comfort and civilization that even two generations ago would have been inconceivable, it doesn’t change the basic fact that everything valuable created in human life — for self, as well as for others — arises out of the one central virtue of rationality. Achievement is the form the virtue of rationality takes. Put another way, achievement is what you get when you’re consistently rational.

It’s a false dichotomy to say, “It’s either empathy/being nice or achievement. You cannot have both.” Empathy is a nice luxury you have the option to exercise once you have already achieved survival.

But even if you maintain that it’s either empathy or survival/achievement, why on earth would you choose to teach your children the first over the second? Empathy and sensitivity are not only secondary to achievement and survival; they’re beside the point.

Child psychologist and author Michele Borba says the study was “incredibly important,” a “wake up call to parents, a clear indication that we need to reprioritize our parenting agendas ASAP. The science reveals the irony of the situation: happier and more successful kids care about others, they are able to relate, be concerned, and respect differences, and a lack of empathy makes kids less successful, and less happy.”

Borba, like most psychological theorists, has it exactly backwards. Empathy does not create rationality or rational values such as productivity and integrity. Empathy is a byproduct of rationality.

Empathy is a skill. Specifically, it’s a cognitive skill. We observe empathy in a person when that person is both able and willing to think about another’s point-of-view. Thinking about another presupposes that one is first able and willing to think at all. Without the skill of thought, there won’t be any empathy.

We’re conditioned by moralists (and most psychologists) to think of empathy as someone who goes through life ministering to the needs of others, rescuing them from disasters, and perhaps even giving them “help” whether they ask for it or not, without a second thought about the consequences.

Indiscriminate altruism is the standard of morality most of us are taught, yet many of us don’t buy. In fact, studies like this suggest that 80 percent of parents don’t buy it. Nor should they, from a life-sustaining perspective. But such findings make these Ivory tower / Ivy League ethics and psychology “experts” livid.

Empathy is practical. But you must be competent in order to exercise it. Rationally understood, empathy is what a good business owner does. A business owner perceives what his or her customers want and need, and accordingly provides it. Success and achievement are measured by whether people willingly pay money for that product or service, or not. An entrepreneur anticipates new needs people might have and, when successful, you hear about a Steve Jobs, a Thomas Edison or equivalent. Likewise, a novelist or writer relates to and sees the point-of-view of his or her intended audience. The same goes for an artist, an interior decorator, restaurant owner, chef or fashion designer.

These are all examples of empathy which come about from a willingness and ability to think and achieve, in the first place. Without the rational virtue of thought and the motivation to achieve, you won’t generally find empathy in people.

It would be interesting to find out how this Harvard study was funded. I’m willing to bet it was funded by government money. If so, then the study was funded thanks to the efforts of people who pay the most taxes, i.e. those whom the study’s proponents insist need a “wake up call” so they’ll start teaching their kids the value of empathy before achievement. Even if the study wasn’t paid for with government funds, somebody had to produce and achieve something in order to finance it. How else could these Harvard researchers morally pounce on those who exhibit the values they wish to minimize in children “ASAP”?

When will people — most of all, the people we consider the most distinguished experts on human behavior and morality — ever begin to get a clue? If this study is to be believed, most parents are way ahead of the self-anointed experts.


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