Learned Helplessness

Recent discussion in the comments of this blog about poverty reminded me of a caller I heard on a local radio show I heard within the last year.  The caller was a teacher and he shared the results of an assignment he has always done with students in his 30 years of teaching in an urban school district.

He said that he has always done this assignment to encourage his students to think about their futures and how they will earn their keep.

The first part of the exercise is to think about and write down the things they may want to have someday — homes, cars, jewelry, boats, etc.  In the second part of the assignment, they think about what they’ll do to afford those things — like earn money as a nurse, or firefighter or start a business.

He then commented on how he has seen the responses to that exercise change over the years.

In his early years, his students would want to become nurses, firefighters and teachers to be able to earn money to buy what they want.

But, now he’s more likely to get these types of responses: I’ll just use the check or card that comes from the government to buy it, like Mom does.

I doubt much has changed. My guess is that the students normally say they’ll do whatever it is they see their parents or aunts and uncles doing.  The future nurses of 20 years ago probably had a Mom who was a nurse.

Which reminds me of this post where I linked to and quoted from a Wall Street Journal piece by Arthur Brooks about earned success and learned helplessness.

It also reminds me of the story Dr. Carson told in his speech about how his Mom would not allow Dr. Carson or his brother to accept excuses for their failures or their lot in life.


9 thoughts on “Learned Helplessness

  1. As a coach, I’ve learned that no matter how high or low I set the bar, most kids will attempt to jump over it – even though some may not make it. If we teach kids that low standards are acceptable, low standards are what they’ll come to accept. If we teach them that these same low standards are unacceptable and instead teach them a higher standard, most will accept the higher standards. The government has taken the position that it’s preferable to lower the bar in order to make it easier for more kids to meet the lower standard

    • What do you coach? I coach little ones.

      I think there’s this notion that everybody has to achieve in everything that is offered, too, which I think stems from a more-or-less one-size-fits-all college prep education. I know so many folks who didn’t do well in school but are brilliant at what they eventually ended up doing for other folks.

      I have an engineering undergrad. I made it through two physics weed-out courses and several calc courses to get it. I was an engineer for 5 years and never needed any of the stuff I learned in my weed-out courses. I could have learned much of what I did in engineering on-the-job and high school math.

  2. After retiring from medicine, I returned to my real joy – coaching and tutoring. I’ve ooached wrestling at the elementary, junior high and high school levels for 12 years. Medicine was fun, but the government encroachment finally went too far. Fortunately, I began working and investing when I was in 5th or 6th grade and did well enough so that I had accumulated enough of what some call FU money so that I could walk away and do something enjoyable.

    As for the weed out courses, you might find Bryan Caplan’s posts on education and signaling to be of interest. You can locate them on EconLibrary. Most of the things I learned in my undergrad science courses that were requirements for med school weren’t really needed for medicine. I have used the knowledge for other pursuits and it’s been my experience that knowing things outside your field is of benefit – I think it gives one an “outside the box” perspective. I’ve also been impressed by the theory that when it comes to learning, knowing “more stuff” is analogous to playing basketball with a bigger hoop – somehow it makes learning other things easier.

    • Thanks Mike. I am a reader of EconLog (Henderson’s actually commented on my blog before) and familiar with Caplan’s signaling explanation of education. I think he’s right and I think that’s unfortunate.

      While I understand the ‘outside the box’ perspective, I bet you would have (and do) acquired that on your own (which is a signal I value greatly, but is not generally not valued in any tangible fashion in society).

      I think many of my college courses would make good community education courses and some could be good training classes for specific types of engineers, but to Caplan’s point, the knowledge wasn’t the value I acquired there. Demonstrating that I could complete meaningless assignment was.

      Wrestling is interesting I don’t know that very well. I wonder if there’s any difference to team sports. I’ve coached soccer for a couple of years and I’ve noticed that not everyone has to be able to do everything well, but I can make a pretty good team if I position players to their strengths. And, it’s actually good to have variety of strengths and weaknesses. But, that also makes it more complex to have a standard set of skills that I hold everyone accountable to.

      • For me, hard courses I took in college did make a difference, not so much due to the particular facts, but from the standpoint of me learning to study and educate myself. High school was far too easy for me and I coasted and never applied myself. I attended perhaps the most disciplined college in the US and certainly one of the most academically challenging schools. To be sure, coasting was not an option given my career plans.

        Wrestling has both individual and team aspects. You compete individually, but the individual results contribute to a team score. However, you also have the opportunity to become an individual state champion even if the rest of the team sucks. We have a saying that the good thing about wrestling is that you’re out there on the mat alone and the bad thing about wrestling is that you’re out there on the mat alone. Good – you determine your outcome – no goofball team mate who drops the ball or gives up. Bad – nobody to fault but yourself when you lose. If you haven’t prepared, your weaknesses will become very obvious.

        • I agree, you can pick up good things from hard courses. I just think it would be better for it to be hard and productive. You’d still pick up those habits and have more show for it than a letter grade on a transcript.

          Thanks for the info on wrestling.

        • For example, I tutored Algebra in college. What I learned doing that not only gave me better grasp of Algebra (which prevented quite a few dumb math mistakes in my weed out courses), but I also learned some things about serving others and building relationships with them.

  3. Pingback: Learned helplessness and me | Joe Hinojosa


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