Coddling vs. Character at the New York Times

The lead story in yesterday’s “Week in Review” section of the New York Times, by John Tierney, uses the movie “The Incredibles” — which features a supersonic grade-schooler forbidden to race on the track team — to examine what is described as “one of the oldest debates about child-rearing and society: competition versus coddling, excellence versus egalitarianism.”

Tierney writes:

“The Incredibles” might take comfort from a recent report, “A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America’s Brightest Students,” by the John Templeton Foundation. It summarizes research showing that gifted children thrive with more advanced material and describes their current frustration in prose that sounds like Dash [the super kid]: “When they want to fly, they are told to stay in their seats. Stay in your grade. Know your place. It’s a national scandal.”

Since Tierney offers no further information about the John Templeton Foundation, readers would likely assume that it’s a respected, mainstream, education organization, with no particular agenda.

Readers would be wrong. In fact, the John Templeton Foundation, according to its website, aims “to encourage further worldwide explorations of the moral and spiritual dimensions of the Universe and of the human potential within its ultimate purpose.” The following declaration by the group’s founder, Sir John Marks Templeton, also appears prominently on the organization’s website:

“None of us has ever understood even one percent of the reality of God, the infinity, the eternity of God. All that we have learned is still tiny compared to what is still yet to be discovered if we search for it.”

It’s true that wanting to emphasize the role of religion in education doesn’t necessarily correspond to a particular position in the “coddling vs. character” debate. But even leaving religion aside, the Templeton Foundation embraces an explicitly traditionalist, conservative approach to education. Among its various projects are “an effort to encourage a greater appreciation of the importance of the free enterprise system and the values that enable it to flourish.” And as part of its Gifted Education program, the Foundation runs “a set of initiatives to communicate the nature, development, and benefits of scientific genius and creativity.”

It’s hardly surprising that an organization with goals like these would produce a report that offers support for “character” over “coddling.”

It is, of course, the Foundation’s right to take whatever position it wants on these issues. And perhaps its perspective is useful to Tierney’s story. But at the very least, he should identify his source as an organization that comes to the issue with a particular agenda.

Perhaps one reason why Tierney neglects to do so is that he clearly wants to argue for “character” over “coddling.” His kicker admiringly quotes the director of “The Incredibles” saying “I think people whine about stuff too much.”

The “character” argument, as presented by Tierney, isn’t too convincing to begin with. In addition to the Templeton Foundation, he relies on quotes from Christina Hoff Sommers, a scholar from the conservative American Enterprise Institute (again, giving no hint of AEI’s political leanings); conservative pundit Michael Barone, not heretofore known as an expert on education theory; and Joyce Clark, who is said to be “a planner in the Pittsburgh public schools’ gifted program.”

But readers have a right to know if a supposedly neutral “expert” — whether an individual or an organization — is starting from an ideological position that predisposes it toward a particular conclusion. Especially when giving readers the full story weakens the writer’s case.

Zachary Roth

Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.