During a segment on today's NPR Morning Edition on WHYY in Philadelphia, family therapist and Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Dr. Dan Gottlieb discusses a study in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine that links popularity to weight gain. Adolescent girls who perceived themselves as less popular were more likely to gain excess weight over the study's two-year period.
The culprit, Gottlieb believes, are our competitive schools. Competition raises pressure, and, "since there's no self-worth in doing better than others," only lowers self-esteem. Low self-esteem makes girls form cliques and alienate, scapegoat, and bully one another.
The solutions, Gottlieb proposes, are reducing school competition and "encourag[ing] our daughters to be with peer groups who are socially accepting and not as competitive."
By now, Gottlieb's concerns and solutions are old hat. Our schools have long striven to raise self-esteem by lowering academic competition. They've reduced academic tracking and academic awards, and increased social promotion and "cooperative learning."
But this has heightened social competition. Cooperative learning requires all students to work in groups with peers--even those who prefer working alone. Many classrooms don't offer each student a "socially accepting" peer group. In general, the more time in groups, the more occasions for alienating, scapegoating, and bullying.
All this grows particularly nasty during junior high and high school, not just because adolescence is adolescence, but because much of the group work is homework. It occurs not in classrooms, where teachers might supervise students, but in dens and living rooms from which parents tend to keep their distance.
Cooperative learning thus lowers the social self-esteem of the unsocial child, who once could avoid all but the most accepting of peer groups. And it reduces his or her chances for academic esteem. However much we'd like to believe otherwise, there is self-worth in doing better than others--lots of it. Reducing academic honors while increasing social competition simply favors the socially savvy over the analytically talented.