Is Laziness Just a Myth?"
I am now reading a book by Dr. Mel Levine, and I must admit that my mind is not completely open. The name of the book is The Myth of Laziness, and it argues that no one is truly lazy. After all my years of teaching, I find that argument very hard to buy.
I'm only about half-way through the book, but my skepticism has not been eased. Dr. Levine argues that every child yearns to be productive, and if they're not, it's because they are suffering from "output failure," which he says can be caused by various neurodevelopmental disfunctions. Wow, is that a mouthful! One of those specific neurodevelopmental disfunctions is "low mental energy." To tell the truth, that sounds an awful lot like laziness to me.
I had thought about buying this book for a couple of years because one of my strongest beliefs is that effort is the greatest determinant of a student's performance in school. The lack of effort of some kids always amazes me, and I had usually viewed that lack of effort as laziness. Dr. Levine is telling me that there is no such thing.
Dr. Levine seems oblivious to the efforts schools have been making to identify and accommodate children with learning disabilities, and his treatment of schools and teachers ranges from condescending to insulting. He is not afraid to blast a school based strictly on what he is told by parents. In one case, he describes a boy he calls Clint who is a terrible speller and is unable to remember things that he has learned. The boy had been adopted by parents who seemed to have high expectations for him, and who also had a biological daughter who was a very good student. Levine gives no indication that he ever had any contact with the school, which is hundreds of miles away from his medical center, but he tells us as fact that the boy's teachers "had convinced him that laziness was his moral crime in school." Never fear, though, because it's Dr. Levine to the rescue. He also tells us, "Our center had found him innocent."
It seems to me that this child's learning problems would quickly become apparent, so I can't imagine that teachers would jump to the conclusion that he was lazy. Reading between the lines of this case led me to suspect that the laziness charge might actually have been leveled by the parents who wanted the boy to do better academically. Levine tells us that the boy expressed concern that his parents would regret having adopting him. But, let's face it, it's much more prudent for the good doctor to criticize a bunch of people who work at a school hundreds of miles away than it would be to criticize the parents who are paying his bills.
Of course, Levine has the luxury of working with his clients one on one, while teachers work with 25 or 30 kids at a time, and he is not adverse to preaching to those of us in the trenches from his ivory tower. My favorite example of this is in a paragraph that he begins by telling about a girl who would frequently ask her teachers if she could leave the room to go to the bathroom despite not really having to go. He concludes the paragraph by saying, "Isn't it odd that kids get criticized for being fidgety when they should be commended for implementing a strategy that significantly elevates their attention." Gee, why have I never looked at it that way?
I really believe that the setting in which Levine works with kids prevents him from seeing an unpleasant reality--some kids are lazy. He does a marvelous job explaining why learning can be painfully difficult for some kids, but every year I see some kids work hard despite that. In my experience, I've seen kids who will try hard in almost any situation, and others who won't. This summer I am working in our high school weight room for five hours a day. Dr. Levine does a great job telling us why it is so hard for some kids to write essays and spell words correctly, but I wonder if he could explain why it is that the kids who are the most consistent at coming in to do their workouts are also the kids who most consistently did their school work during the school year, and why the kids who are the least consistent at coming in for their workouts are the same kids who were the least consistent at turning in their math, English, and history assignments. My answer would be that some kids have a better work ethic than others. Some kids make the decision to do the work, and some make the decision not to do it. Dr. Levine makes it sound as if their is no personal choice involved in these actions at all.
It might surprise you to know that I actually think that this is a good book for educators to read. It can be damaging to label someone with legitimate learning problems as lazy, and Levine clearly makes this point. His explanations of how the brain works are interesting and valuable, and the book is loaded with ideas for helping kids with various learning problems. I also think that most teachers have enough experience and common sense to take what Levine says with a grain of salt.
On the other hand, I shudder at the thought of parents reading this book, and I'm afraid that, overall, it does more harm than good. There are a lot of frustrated parents of students who perform poorly, some because they have learning problems, but very often, laziness is a factor. Many of these parents will see Levine's message that nobody is lazy as gospel truth, and they will latch onto it like a drowning man reaching for a life preserver. I have no doubt that this will end up providing excuses for a lot of students who could perform better if they ever decided to try.
In the book that I wrote, I described a student who was diagnosed as being ADHD. The girl was doing very poorly in her classes, so we had a meeting with her parents. I had her in class, and she didn't do one reading assignment during an entire marking period before the meeting. That's about twenty-five reading assignments and, to top it off, the parents insisted that this girl was a speed-reader. Every teacher at this meeting was convinced that a big part of this girl's problem was that she was very lazy, but her parents insisted she was not. They were adamant on this point because, they told us, the doctor who had diagnosed the girl had emphasized to them that she wasn't lazy. I'm sure Dr. Levine would have agreed with that assessment.
The parents of the student in this case were responsible people, and I don't doubt that this girl was legitimately diagnosed with ADHD. But I also have no doubt that she was lazy. The doctor may have seen her for an appointment or two, but the other teachers and I saw her day after day for nearly a year. I'm willing to concede that her medical condition could have caused her to miss some of those reading assignments. But all twenty-five? She also never took notes. Did her condition make it impossible for her to do that? Every day? I don't think so. I believe this fairly bright girl used her disability--and her parents concern about it--as an excuse to do nothing. Once she had the authoritative word of a doctor that she wasn’t lazy, she had it made in the shade. The only problem was that the person who ended up being hurt the most by this was not the doctor, or any of the teachers, or either of the parents--it was the girl, herself.
I know it's not easy to be growing up today. There are some problems for young people today that weren't nearly as prevalent in the past, and there are some problems today that didn't used to exist at all. Nevertheless, I think one of the biggest problems we have in public education is that we make too many excuses for kids. Dr. Mel Levine seems to think we don't make enough. If he was put in charge of education policy in America, he would probably replace "No Child Left Behind" with "No Excuse Left Behind."
Well, I hope I've made my point. I'm going to have to be getting back to the weight room tonight, and I've got just enough time to either mow the lawn or take a nap. I think I'll opt for taking the nap. My wife probably won't be very happy about that when she gets home and sees the lawn never got mowed, but what the heck--I'll just explain to her that I had a little output failure. I'm sure she'll understand.