Equality and quality in children and beyond: towards a more productive science and better society

By Jayanta Chatterjee,

An increasing number of parents seem to encourage their kids with adjectives like ‘awesome’ for a very average job. They congratulate children without thinking much if the ‘awesome culture’ increase the chance of future success by boosting confidence or encourage kids to continue sloppy work that need to be criticized to encourage him/her to do better or help him/her to try something else? Of course, I’m not suggesting the extreme of ‘tiger mother’ concept prescribed by Prof Amy Chua in her controversial book ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.’ There are many who refuted Dr. Chua and assert that such strictly regimented and highly demanding parenting style is counterproductive. More compelling evidence comes from the fact that countries like India and China where such ‘tiger mother’ culture is perceived to be more prevalent, experience high level of corruption in public lives and ranks among the lowest so far creativity and innovation are concerned. The more intriguing question would be- what should be the right proportion of criticism and encouragement.

I do acknowledge the power of praise and encouragement to make our kids learn faster and more confident. But we often forget that our praise need to be sincere and with reason. Still, the question remains- “does confidence really breed success?” Recent evidences suggest that mere high confidence and rising self-esteem do not lead to tangible, positive outcomes. But our effort to make our kids more confident resulted in ‘narcissism epidemic’. Recent studies concluded that narcissistic attitude among US students is increasing since 1979. Many factors are blamed for that trend, including “parenting styles, celebrity culture, social media and access to easy credit, which allows people to appear more successful than they are.

We probably are ignoring one major factor here, i.e. increasing dominance of mediocrity in almost every field of life. Published data show that rate of innovation and invention is slowing down in USA. Both wealth and power are consolidating in fewer hands. Nobel Prize winning US economist Joseph Stiglitz recently said, “The US has one of the worst opportunity rates of any of the advanced economies. A child’s life chances are more dependent on the income of his or her parents than most other industrial economies“. Misallocation of our resources, most importantly our human resources is becoming clearer after the 2007-2008 financial collapse.

It’s widely acknowledged that success now depends more on networking, ability to agree with majority than raw talent, ability to solve problems and wisdom in engaging in constructive discussions. Higher acceptance or ‘agreeability’ can give rise to a sense of confidence and seemingly more influence among peers. People who succeeded via that route are less likely to engage in discussion without predetermined conclusions, accept constructive criticism or even failure. That puts extra pressure among colleagues, junior staff and students. The time tested method of collective decision making (democratic decision making) to improve our democracies becomes a major victim. Decisions are made by fewer people and imposed on others than evolving through larger participation and broad based discussion.

It’s yet to be proved if increasing reach of internet and other media adds or counter-balance its existing power to promote mediocrity in the name of talent in this era of reality shows. But we can be reasonably sure that increased scrutiny will help reversal of fortune, erosion of public faith, at both individual and institutional level to rise as internet and other media coverage increases its reach and investigative ability. Evidences now indicate that social media is making us more honest. It seems that many well groomed people, ambitious enough to succeed and occupy influential positions would try avoiding such media scrutiny and taking extra precaution to leave less digital footprint.

Education, which is considered the silver bullet for social mobility and fulfilling the so-called ‘American dream,’ is also consolidating among fewer individuals. Now money and influence play greater role in deciding college admission. Students from privileged background, not only from the US but also from around the world, have more advantage than they had before. Such students enjoy even more competitive edge in admission in very selective and expensive Ivy League universities, as described by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Daniel Golden in his book “The Price of Admission” and showed “how America’s ruling class buys its way into elite colleges and universities – and who gets left outside the gates.

Schools and many socio-cultural organizations in USA and many other countries are now trying to impose equality among kids. They tend to give the impression that every kid is the same. It sometimes fails to identify and/or encourage specific talents a particular individual has. Einstein once said, “everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” It’s not that hard to understand the consequences of encouraging a fish to think that it is equally talented to climb a tree. The situation gets worse if climbing tree is far more financially rewarding than swimming. In that situation, many parents will try to coerce their fish-kids to climb. The culture of imposed equality may not be that great to infuse a sense of quality and mentor talent.  Many talented kids are not only demoralized but also start accepting corruption and nepotism as part of life, as the main (sometimes, only) criteria to be recognized and enjoy what they are good at. They probably will try to take advantage of the same in areas where they are not so good at. Deliberate or not, it seems to help kids from privileged background who are destined to be ‘successful’ irrespective of its ability and talent. Rapid spread of for-profit private schools, colleges and universities is expected to worsen the situation further.

We seem to destroy the in-born morality in children. More people feel less ashamed to accept awards / credit they clearly don’t deserve. The tendency probably continues when such kids grow up and occupy influential positions. It probably makes a decent worker out of them than to promote a natural leader who is able to earn respect and lead effectively.

People feel comfortable with mediocrity. Best prepared candidates are not always the best or most talented ones to succeed. Gradually talent is being replaced by mediocrity. More kids are groomed with that objective. We see its consequence more clearly during selection of top bureaucrats in India through, arguably, the most competitive selection processes in the world with less than 0.3% success rate, yet  ‘Indian bureaucracy the worst in Asia.’

We also witness its impact on the quality and integrity of scientists seem to steadily going down, companies are running out of new blockbuster drugs, other novel products and technology that can generate high profit to pay its shareholders and executives. It can be one of the major reasons why companies are increasingly taking risky routes by undertaking deceptive marketing and illegal promotion of drugs not approved by the US federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or similar regulatory authorities in other countries. It’s now reported that more than 90% of doctors in the US receive favours from drug companies who paid about $761.3 million to different health professionals. All such incidents have serious consequences not only on our insanely expensive healthcare system but also long term industrial competitiveness and prosperity.

In a sense, imposition of equality helps maintaining the status-quo. It encourages people who believe in dynasties, give effort to establish their children towards same success and power. Regular evaluation, defeat in the hands of more talented student help children to accept defeat, remain humble and empathetic towards others. We must acknowledge specific talent and not lower the bar to make almost everyone feel like a genius. Coming from a developing country, l personally feel little worried when witness the same trend in a developed country like the USA.

Jayanta Chatterjee holds a PhD in plant molecular biology from Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), Zurich, Switzerland. Chatterjee now works as an independent research consultant, freelance writer and exploring ways to develop new technology and products related to plant biology and agriculture.