You Should be Ashamed of Yourself

Humanity is an organic, however, increasingly synthetic, concept. Constantly, human innovation is furthering this process. As a species, we are constantly moving away from our primal nature – for the better and the worse.

An example of this is human guilt. Guilt, a natural quality to humans, has been manipulated into something foreign; we often call this alien “shame.” This new emotion, or pseudo-emotion, has been manipulated in many ways. A variety of different goals have been achieved through the use of shame, everything from marketing campaigns to education. The latter, however, often goes unnoticed.

We shame students everyday into complying with our educational goals, and subconsciously we recognize this. Teachers see it constantly. A student will answer a question in a way that the teacher did not intend, so the teacher will tell the student that he is wrong. This student will immediately feel the shame of his blunder and it will manifest as embarrassment.

This embarrassment is sharp, yet temporary; however, the shame is personal, and persisting. Further, the shame compounds itself and slowly increases in degree. Throughout the course of a student’s education this shame can build.

An interesting thing about this shame though, is that it is often misinterpreted. Instead, students are often labelled as being unintelligent or even stupid. And that is a terrible mistake.

The recognition of failure is one thing, but there is a great difference between building off of failure and being fearful of failure. An aversion to failure is not what we need to instill in our students, rather, an understanding of failure. Being wrong needs to shift from being a flaw that needs to be remedied, to being part of a process.

Students gain nothing of benefit from shame. Apart from instilling an aversion to failure, shame promotes conformity, inhibits creativity and even inspires cowardice. When a student is shamed into believing he is unintelligent, a terrible change occurs: the student’s desires and ambitions fade, the student’s individuality and confidence withers, and the student becomes fearful of not meeting the standard.

Yet, we persist. Failure-free environments continue to be the “ideal,” and, in our pursuit of this “ideal,” we have caused, and are still causing, unimaginable harm. It is clear, change is necessary.

To contrast this failure-free environment, an environment where students can fail freely is required. This toxic condition needs to be remedied and in order to do this, an inversion of mass education is needed.

The idea that a failure is a “wrong answer,” must be revolutionized; a failure needs to be recognized as a step towards a goal. From this change, shame can be eliminated. If students inaccuracies shift from being something to be ashamed of, to simply a progression towards an ultimate goal, then this pseudo-emotion of shame would no longer be necessary.

The wrongs committed by shame would be able to be reversed: students could regain the vibrance of their desires and ambitions, students’ individuality and confidence could flourish, and the students would no longer need to be afraid of meeting the grade – the students could set their own standards for themselves.

Let this be the new ideal for education, and let the question be asked, “Who, really, should be ashamed of themselves?”

Jake Frackson, October 26, 2012

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53 thoughts on “You Should be Ashamed of Yourself

  1. Alex Jones says:

    Guilt is a form of control; it causes approval seeking, which further becomes egotism. This enslaves, and is one of the main mindtraps every human being faces in life. Good article.

    • jakefrackson says:

      Thanks Alex. Guilt and shame are often confused with one another, in this case I would personally use shame, but your message is true and I agree with it – shame is limitation.

  2. competition vs collaboration

  3. ankithebibliophile says:

    I wish my teachers read this post!lovely post:)

  4. Drew says:

    Guilt and shame, in the end of it all, it’s an emotional weirdo, I don’t really care. But I have a feeling this might be true.

  5. Jerin Rajan says:

    Amazing post. I strongly believe that people should be given a chance to fail. Without failure there is no success. Well written.

  6. engrmuh says:

    failure teaches but every time failure , never .

  7. I really like your thought process on the concept of shame. However I can’t agree with your position that teachers instill “being wrong is a flaw.” There may be one here and there, but my experience was much different. Being wrong IS part of the process, and failure should be embraced, not avoided. Every great person out there experienced horrible failures. Steve Jobs was fired from his own company, Michael Jordan cut from his basketball team for not being good enough, etc. I think the mindset that “failure is the ‘wrong answer’” is simply enabling young people to not try harder. It detracts from healthy competition and innovation later in life. Failure will happen and should be embraced, not avoided. Great post.

    • danhue says:

      I think that educators only encourage failures within the academic structure/standards. they set failures that are “ideal” for the students’ academic progress, rather than allowing students to grow as a person. The very fact that you can fail courses proves this; generally, they only allow failures within the framework of pre-established education system, therefore ultimately homogenizing students as well as the type of failures that they are allowed to make before they are deemed to have failed a class.

  8. lvsrao says:

    Very Nice Article.

  9. As a teacher I think this is an interesting post. A few things though, I find it interesting that you mention the student by gender as a “he” as though female students are not part of this equation. Female students are less likely to raise their hands than their male counterparts, and the literature I have read attributes this to an inherent bias on the basis of society, preference by teachers, or innate shame (usually reinforced by the previous two factors).

    Second, the classroom culture you are encouraging, while I in part agree, leads to a slippery slope in education. While I do not feel guilt and shame should be used as motivators (I certainly don’t encourage or use them) an incorrect answer can be used as a redirect, “I hear what you are saying, how can we build on this?” Instead of, “You are wrong lets move on.” But if there is no wrong answer there is nothing to discuss, and no way to clear up any misconceptions in student learning. I think this can be very detrimental to learning.

    • jakefrackson says:

      On your point about pronouns: I try to use both in my writing (see The Art of the Lecture), but I apologize if it appears that I’m promoting stereotypes – that is not my intention.

      On your other point: I think it is important to recognize that there can be wrong answers, but in writing this article I was focusing on the use of these failures as steps toward a goal. Failures are important and they need to be discussed, but the real problem is the shame that is attached to these failures.

      • Regarding pronouns it’s a nitpicky point to be sure, but something I felt was worth pointing out especially when talking about guilt and shame.

        I did actually read your article on the Art of Lecture as well and I enjoyed it considerably. Lecture is something of a dirty word these days in education and I don’t feel like it should be. Especially if they are done correctly. Lecturers are storytellers and that is a tradition deeply rooted in human history.

        Back on topic, do you feel that the increasing move towards standards-based education and an emphasis on tests scores is contributing to this guilt and shame? Additionally, do you feel like the grade system also factors into this? Would removing grades create an environment that fosters intrinsic drive towards and interest in education?

      • jakefrackson says:

        I do believe that the emphasis of education has shifted from its ideal, and through my writing I aim to address this. I’d love to answer your questions, but I think it would be best if done in a different format. I plan on writing on a few topics over the next few weeks that touch on all of your questions. Thank you for your comments – I appreciate it greatly.

    • Anna Sthetic says:

      Hi @cantrellionaire – I think we’ve read the original post in different ways. There’s a marked difference between saying ‘there should be no wrong answers,’ which is what it sounds like you’re taking from the post, and saying ‘students should not be made to feel bad for giving the wrong answer,’ which is how I read it.

  10. [...] You Should be Ashamed of Yourself. [...]

  11. Elli Writes says:

    You have a very strong point, and I believe that students need to be able to feel encouraged to think and analyze and share their thoughts and ideas. One of the most liberating educational experiences for me was in college when my classes were discussion oriented. It wasn’t about just an “answer” (if there even was one right answer. Often there were many or none at all), but how you came to your conclusions. The analytical process and what you use to back it up.

    Facts are wonderful. But on top of facts lies critical thinking which should be the root of education. If school systems embrace this practice I believe they will be pleasantly surprised as to what their students are capable of.

    • ilsasmith says:

      I absolutely agree with you. Critical thinking allows students to understand how they learn as well as allowing them to identify gaps in their knowledge themselves. This, coupled with reflection, is so important is building self-awareness. I think people who are self critical, self aware and analytical are the most successful in their education, work and their relationships.

  12. I totally agree with you. Being afraid of failure and ashamed of yourself can paralize you. I, personally, have been taught to be afraid to fail and, it’s haunted me through the years, until I realized that it’s better to be wrong while you’re still in school and you can learn from that without facing bad consequences, rather than being wrong later, when you have to take responsibility for your act and/or your decision. Shame is more than a means of control, it downgrades your ability to stand up for your view later in life, when things are more in the gray area, rather than black or white.

  13. [...] You Should be Ashamed of Yourself. [...]

  14. Misty says:

    Thanks, you opened my eyes to a whole new light with that article…

  15. As a teacher, I always try to make my classroom a safe place to be wrong. I would rather have my students try and be wrong than not try at all. For me, it’s when they don’t try that they fail. When a student never turns in the work or isn’t attentive to following directions, I don’t think we should sugar coat the failure. As I tell my students – my apartment manager isn’t forgiving when I fail to turn in my rent on time, and my boss isn’t all that forgiving if I don’t do my job, so they need to learn to be responsible for deadlines and follow instructions now. If they try and get the answer wrong, I can work with that and help guide them to the right answer. But if they don’t try at all, they haven’t given me anything to work with, and it’s very hard for me to help them then.

  16. TNW says:

    Whatever the motivation, if it creates a better (smarter, stronger, happier, etc) person, it’s a positive thing. I don’t care if it’s shame or anything else. If I fail and feel shame and that causes me to not fail again, that’s great. Everything’s a learning experience and if shame helps a person learn, bring it on.

  17. yingboy says:

    I am a student and I notice so many of the faults you described in your post. this is a great post with some interesting points, well done!

  18. parentsfriend says:

    Shame is a signal you are about to do something unthinkable, that puts you outside the circle of humanity. It is designed to keep you from killing your siblings, molesting small children, committing other acts of murder and mayhem.

    The idea that criticism by a parent or teacher creates shame or guilt misses the reason Mother Nature, the Force, or the Creator of your choice created this particular feeling. If we are thinking about or doing the unspeakable, we should feel shamed.

    Jerome Kagan, Harvard researcher into such things makes the point that shame arises spontaneously across all cultures at about the age of two or three. How it is then handled is crucial to the child’s healthy development.

    Children need to be stopped from doing the unthinkable — think hurting a sibling or small animal. It is essential children learn that some behaviors are 100% unacceptable. That might require some shaming, but very gentle shaming appropriate to age and stage and the child’s temperament. Shy children might need just a frown; bold children an angry voice as well as a frown.

    As for adult shame, it is a very different story. Adults need to either stop their unacceptable behaviors or if the behavior is not unacceptable, stop feeling shamed. As many have pointed out, holding onto anger is carrying a hot coal that burns you; holding onto shame is keeping yourself mired in life sucking quick-sand.

  19. Amazing post, well done!

  20. There's a frog on my Sprocket! says:

    This is a great post and I like your perspective.

    One last thing… If being wrong is a good thing then in most occasions my greatness is without limit unless of course I am wrong again.. Hmmmm..

  21. segmation says:

    Interesting post. I hope many read this!

  22. theworldyme says:

    Reblogged this on theworldyme and commented:
    Do you think students would try more in school with an environment described here? I am having mixed feelings on if it would.

  23. brookenado says:

    Wonderful post; as a student, I completely agree with what your argument! I’m currently a senior in college and see it even in classes today. It’s hugely important in the younger levels to promote an open and “shame-free” thinking educational space. Even at this level, however, professors who condemn an answer they weren’t looking for are often met with quieter classes than those who take a more approachable and positive stance in the classroom.

    The quieter classes don’t get nearly as much take-away from that course as they could if students were more confident to discuss the material and participate in classes. It can really just be a shame in general. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed and thanks for a thoughtful read!

  24. In my experience the brighter ones often are the most disruptive due to getting bored quickly.The ones who truly struggle either go down the rebellion route or keep their heads down and are just hoping no-one notices they can’t do the work.
    The whole system needs changing and classes themselves are an issue the whole one pace for all rarely works.

  25. Being allowed to fail is a very important part of learning, growing up and maturing. A lot of children get things done for them and they do not learn. And some teachers feel it is a reflection on themselves if the students are not perfect, like they have not taught them well enough. And some people just like to make others feel inferior. Some students,when I tell them they are allowed to ask questions, look at me like I am crazy. I was always the one in school that others would ask to question the teacher. I was a pain and the center of attention at times, but I always wanted to pick apart what the teacher said. I know everyone does not have my temperament, but I think we should instill curiosity and challenge students to challenge respectfully.

  26. It seems that like so many you put the blame for this shame of a student being wrong on the teachers and you forget that the student that was wrong is often rediculed by his or her peers of the same or near age, other students, more viciously than any teacher saying a student is wrong.

  27. From the article, it seems like “shaming” is a common tool that is utilized by educators everywhere in order to explicitly produce conformity in the classroom, while being used to implicitly stifle creativity among students. It is unclear, however, whether the effects of shaming occur as described by this article, and with what frequency shaming occurs in the classroom.
    If the goal is to create an environment that allows students to fail gracefully (or allow them to build from their failure) then it seems to be wholly unclear if the elimination of “shaming” will result in the realization of that goal. Perhaps shaming can have the opposite effect as described in the article; perhaps a student could be so motivated by being shamed that he/she works harder to achieve their goal.
    The point here is that even if “shaming” could be corrected as described by the author, the consequences of such a correction are still unknown. No evidence is offered to suggest that shaming is the biggest problem facing the American education system, and no evidence is offered to suggest what might happen if shaming were eliminated.

  28. jdflotow says:

    I love this post! I think it should be a required reading for educators.

  29. candidkay says:

    My kids have the privilege of attending a school where even in kindergarten, teachers will ask a question and say, “Who will take a risk? Who will tell us what they think?” When answers don’t conform to the “expected”, children are praised for taking a chance and thinking out of the box. It makes all the difference in the world. And mistakes–well, they tell my kids if they’re not making mistakes, they’re not learning. If only all teachers could bring that positivity to the classroom . . . your points are well made.

    • This is fabulous!!! “Who will take a risk?” is a very different question than “Who knows the answer?” Did you know that a high percentage of children have genius minds when tested, but a very small portion rate the same as we “grow up”? If only we had been encouraged, not shamed, when we thought outside the box. How can we bring this philosophy to the educational system throughout the rest of the country?

  30. I think that shame is not necessarily bad, and can be used to various ends. In my classroom, I did not shame students if they did not have the right answer. If they had not read the reading and could not contribute to the discussion, then I would say so. Probably the student felt ashamed. I wanted conformity on this issue: hard work in order to contribute to the group. If one person was too lazy to read the readings (though I knew who didn’t read out of laziness and who didn’t read out of other reasons), then the group suffered. The individual let down the rest of us.

    I also pushed students to be able to explain themselves. Students felt ashamed sometimes when they couldn’t. Nevertheless, I would push them; I would not let up. They had to learn to explain themselves, otherwise they would be subject to other people’s ideas.

    I don’t have trouble using my authority in the classroom to push people to achieve for the sake of the greater good. Sometimes, students are ashamed when they don’t deliver.

  31. I agree, but not to the extent you describe.

    Having been shamed by teacher (s), I can tell you how bad it is.

    And I can tell you, your solution is the same as the teacher above describing shame for ‘the greater good.’

    They are one size fits all.

    We need individualization of our education. We had more of that on the frontier in one room school houses than we have today.

    IMHO.

    ghost.

  32. I apologize, I should have written, similar. In that they are one size fits all, they are similar. As soon as I hit the post comment button, I read what I wrote and regretted that action.

    There is a huge difference between someone desiring positive growth and someone using their position, because they can.

  33. DJ Swift says:

    Great post, You have good voice and the idea is clear. Good job.

  34. Insightful, but I think it is an individual responsibility to get over the fear of failure. Schools do not have the authority nor the ability to instill that mindset. That mindset starts at home. It is the responsibility of the parents, who already have their children’s confidence, to encourage them.

    Problem is, everyone has fear of failure. How can anyone encourage anyone before having overcome it themselves?

  35. Sometimes the fear of failure runs so deep you have parents doing student’s work for them and this is at the University level. What will happen when these students graduate and get out into the work world?

  36. sourcookies says:

    Great post. I think all educators should bear in mind that there are more than one “correct” answers to a topic and they must encourage the variety of opinions among students!

  37. isguardiola says:

    I personally think that good teachers and educators teaches student that failure is a form of experience and if you learn from that experience it propels you forward. And I don’t believe that teachers intentions are to make students feel like failures by informed them whenever a wrong answer to a question is delivered. I think this information helps or encourages student to study harder or stand by their response if they feel strongly that the one they have given is in fact correct. Teacher are humans; they make mistake like all us and students need to be aware of this and stand by whatever answer they give, but in order to do so, he or her must be completely sure of their answer by studying hard and proving them self. This feeling like a failure and being shame because you did not give a correct answer could be related to a self esteem issue. A possible solution to this problem might to elevate the self esteem of our children so that when they have to face this harsh world, they are confident enough to know that, right our wrong, their opinions and thoughts are valid.

    • I have come to understand that shame exists in every human. I have not met anyone who hasn’t experience shame. The sense that, ‘I’m not enough” is hard-wired into us. I think shame in us is ignited by criticism, demeaning comments and failure. I don’t think any amount of doing good things or doing good work is going to erase shame, because there will always be something to come along that will trigger the shame in us.

      There has to be something or someone bigger than us that can lift us up beyond our shame. We cannot do it ourselves, as hard as we may try. I would encourage anyone to explore the story of shame in the Bible. Try it on and see if it makes sense to you, the reality we (humans) are spiritual beings, created by a Creator. We lived, in the beginning in a perfect place and in a perfect relationship with the Creator. All was harmonious and loving in this relationship.

      However, we (humans) were not content. We had to have more, be more, become gods of our own world; become our own masters of the universe, so to speak. When you step back from this and just see the world events happening all around us, you will see evidence for this reality. It is really quite fasicinating. Go to CNN.com right now and see for yourselves.

      The antidote to shame is love. God, who is love, entered our world and offered to make things right in love. He expressed this love in humanness, Jesus Christ, his son. The one thing I found fascinating in the Jesus story is that humans could not find him falling short, doiing harmful things, saying hurtful things, letting others down, etc. He completely expressed love and gave them the opportunity to choose a life of love by following Him. He did not offer an easy way, an easy life, a smooth path.

      He did not offer humans religion. This is what frustrates me the most, because the image of Jesus is colored by the Christian religion, not something Christ offered when he gave the invitation to follow Him.

      Thanks for your post! I have been really intrigued by Brene Brown’s TED:talks concerning shame. So….good!

  38. dimanadoneva says:

    You not only have something to say, but also know how to say it. I don`t know what your plans for the future are, but you would be a great teacher/professor. Congratulations for the wonderful post and greetings from Bulgaria.

  39. JohnDough says:

    You are right, shame and guilt, are two of the best controls to use when trying to cull a behavior in any rational indiviudla. Your ideas are akin to the Negative Reinforcement Training Model. A negative reinforcement is not always a physical punishment, it is any negative information perceived in response to a behavior you offer. After repeated perceived negative responses, a logical and rational being would offer that behavior less and/or extinguish depending on how sever the negative association is.
    In order to correct this, all education training should be changed. Teachers and Parents need to learn the Positive Reinforcement Training Model. This is the most successful training model for any cognitive species. When raising a child, you have to assume they are a blank slate with no knowledge of how to behave other than basic survival instincts. When an undesired behavior is offered, you do not reward that behavior. You simply teach them the correct behavior for that situation. It is a process of baby steps and building blocks.
    I really hope you take a chance to look at those methods of teaching and try mentally applying it just to see for yourself.

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