Touchy-Feely Bull in a China Shop
By Bryan Caplan
I’m delighted to report that – after experimenting with conventional high school – my elder sons have resumed homeschooling. Their complaints were numerous, but our whole family was taken aback by their school’s disinterest in academics. Math aside, every class was infused by a pedagogical philosophy I can only describe as “touchy-feely.” This philosophy was so pervasive that teachers seemed unaware of the possibility that other views even exist.
On the surface, admittedly, touchy-feely pedagogy seems unobjectionable. The teachers warmly express their affection for the students. They believe in treating students like human beings – and making learning fun. Most seem quite sincere: They’re convinced that their methods are great for everyone. Alas, they’re mistaken. Our chief objections:
1. Some subjects simply don’t lend themselves to a touchy-feely approach. Math is the obvious example; you can’t teach math by asking kids “How do the numbers make you feel?” But the same goes for writing. If you want to improve students’ writing, you must make liberal use of your red pen.
2. The touchy-feely approach crowds out measurable learning. Teachers in virtually every one of my kids’ classes (none of which had “Art” in the title) assigned art projects – posters, name tags, flags, and so on. The voluminous time the students spent on these projects could have been focused on techniques that actually yield knowledge: reading the textbook, solving problems, writing essays, and taking tests.
3. Some students clearly enjoy the touchy-feely approach. But plenty of others resent it. A few – like my kids – find it humiliating. So contrary to the party line, touchy-feely is not “Better for everyone.”
4. The party line is especially galling because the practitioners of touchy-feely pedagogy don’t settle for passive obedience. In a traditional academic program, students are expected to complete their work, but no one says they have to enjoy it. In a touchy-feely program, in contrast, teachers keep insisting, “This is fun!” and “Students love doing this!” And every student’s supposed to play along.
5. I didn’t bother sharing my concerns with my sons’ teachers because I deemed it fruitless. But if I had vented, I bet they would have replied thusly: “But all the kids I talk to love my approach.” Plausibly true, but deeply misleading, due to two powerful psychological forces: Social Desirability Bias and confirmation bias. Long story short: students keep negative opinions to themselves, and teachers misinterpret mixed evidence in their own favor. Just like humans generally.
I don’t expect the world to revolve around me or my kids – and lashing out at touchy-feely people is hard because they’re so nice. Still, as we economists emphasize, nice people often do bad things. Good intentions are not enough; if you really want to do good, you have to calmly weigh the actual consequences of your actions. You may find drawing posters more fun than reading textbooks, but that’s a reflection of your personality type, not a universal law of human nature. Forget these truisms, and you risk being a touchy-feely bull in a china shop – loudly expressing philanthropic sentiments as you trample all over the feelings of hapless studious children.