That’s the juxtaposition posed by Jay Mathews in this classic Washington Post article:
“According to the Washington think tank’s annual Brown Center report on education, 6 percent of Korean eighth-graders surveyed expressed confidence in their math skills, compared with 39 percent of U.S. eighth-graders. But a respected international math assessment showed Koreans scoring far ahead of their peers in the United States, raising questions about the importance of self-esteem.”
As I discuss in Thriving at College, it’s better to have a sober estimation of one’s skills (Rom. 12:1) – one that’s grounded in reality. But attitude does matter: In most countries, including Korea and the United States, students who like math and think they are good at it have higher math scores than those who don’t.
The report also takes issue with the goal of “real world relevance” in math courses:
“In Japan, the report found, 14 percent of math teachers surveyed said they aim to connect lessons to students’ lives, compared with 66 percent of U.S. math teachers. Yet the U.S. scores in eighth-grade math trail those of the Japanese, raising similar questions about the importance of practical relevance.”
It’s also no longer the case that Asian approaches to mathematics emphasize memorization at the expense of creativity. After all, there’s no reason why the two can’t go together — I find that memorization gives the tools which the well-trained student can creatively employ.
“Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the D.C.-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, said the report shows that schools need not be fun to be effective. “Schools should work on academics, not feelings,” Finn said. “True self-esteem, self-confidence and happiness are born of true achievement.”
It seems to me that the professor’s role is to educate not entertain. So his or her primary goal is student success, as demonstrated against objective metrics, not self-esteem or even positive feelings. “No pain, no gain” is true in dieting and exercise, and it’s true in education. But a related goal ought to be a sense of appreciate for the discipline, and joy in the greatest and rationality of God which makes such study possible. This kind of happiness, along with an accurate estimate of skill level (an appreciation both for one’s improvement over time and one’s shortcomings) can in fact fuel greater success and therefore should not be scorned.