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Being Good versus Feeling Good: The Case for Working Hard

January 21, 2011


The actor Fernando Lamas was a strikingly handsome and admittedly vain man. He died at the young age of 67. Not too long before his death, he made an appearance on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. As he entered the stage, Lamas said, “You look marvelous, John.” In reply, Carson quipped, “Well you look great, too.” Lamas then uttered one of his more famous lines. He said, “I’d rather look good than feel good.” At the time Lamas was probably already suffering from pancreatic cancer. The comedian Billy Crystal was watching that night and found that short exchange so amusing that he based his famous character “Fernando” and Fernando’s catch-phrase (“You look mahvelous”) on that segment.


Before you start thinking that this post is about comedy, I’ll tell you that it’s about education and raising children. However, I just can’t hear the words “feeling good” without thinking about Fernando Lamas’ famous quip. I was reminded of The Tonight Show exchange while listening to a segment of National Public Radio’s Marketplace dealing with education reform. During that segment, commentator and educator Michelle Rhee stated, “We’ve become so obsessed with making kids feel good about themselves that we’ve lost sight of building the skills they need to actually be good at things.” [“Education reform needs a new starting point,” 18 January 2011]. Thanks to Fernando Lamas’ famous line, I immediately translated that comment into: “I’d rather feel good than be good.”


Ms. Rhee used her own daughters as examples. She reported that they play soccer — with a certain lack of skill. Yet their rooms are “adorned with ribbons, medals and trophies.” Rhee stated, “You’d think I was raising the next Mia Hamm.” She continued:

“I routinely try to tell my kids that their soccer skills are lacking and that if they want to be better, they have to practice hard. I also communicate to them that all the practice in the world won’t guarantee that they’ll ever be great at soccer. It’s tough to square this though, with the trophies. And that’s part of the issue. We’ve managed to build a sense of complacency with our children. Take as a counterpoint South Korea, where my family is originally from. In Korea, they have this culture that focuses on always becoming better. Students are ranked one through 40 in their class and everyone knows where they stand. The adults are honest with kids about what they’re not good at and how far they have to go until they are number one. Can you imagine if we suggested anything close to that here? There would be anarchy.”

In a number of past posts about education, I have pointed out that politicians and business people are concerned about the state of American education [see, for example, my post entitled Update on Education in America]. In that post, I noted that many countries are moving to educational systems that stress problem solving (a system started in the U.S), while the U.S. seems to be headed to towards a system based on rote memory and standardized tests — the very system being abandoned by countries that are changing. Rhee continued:

“There are many nations who have figured out what works in education. Look at Singapore. Last summer, I heard the prime minister gave a speech in which he outlined the plan for making Singapore number one in the world, financially. His economic plan was rooted in education. He knows that if the country can make its education system the best in the world, economic success will follow. That’s the opposite of what we do here in America. We see education as a social issue, not an economic one. And what happens to social issues in times of economic hardship? They get swept under the rug. We need to change our national conversation on education and our national culture on how we encourage kids. I think what’s becoming clear with all of this, is that if we don’t start to shift our perspective, we’ll never regain our position in the global marketplace.”

In other words, we need to start impressing our children with the importance of being good rather than feeling good. The latter follows the former. If you do good, you will feel good. Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson writes, “Almost everyone who worries about America’s ‘competitiveness’ in the world bemoans the sorry state of U.S. K-12 education.” [“To foster high-achievers, think beyond the classroom,” 10 January 2011]. Samuelson goes on to report that critics claim, “The Chinese and others do better. We need to catch up.” Samuelson, however, is not so sure. He explains:

“From President Obama to CEOs, the refrain is to ‘fix the schools,’ almost as if it were an engineering problem. ‘The urgency for reform has never been greater,’ Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently wrote in The Post. The diagnosis spans the political spectrum. But what if it’s not true? There are grounds for doubt. For starters, economic competitiveness depends on more than good schools, which are important but not decisive. To take an obvious example: The Japanese have high test scores, but Japan’s economy languishes. Its export-led growth has foundered. Next – and as important – American schools are better than they’re commonly portrayed. We now have a massive study of the reading abilities of 15-year-olds (roughly 10th-graders) in 65 systems worldwide showing that U.S. schools compare favorably with their foreign counterparts. The most pessimistic view of the study is that, on average, American schools do as good a job as schools in other wealthy nations. We’re worse than some and better than others. The overall loss of economic competitiveness is likely modest and would be swamped by other factors (government policies, business management, exchange rates, the willingness to take risks). But a more detailed evaluation of the study – comparing similar students in different countries – suggests that U.S. schools still rank high in the world.”

Samuelson further makes his point by detailing some of the results of the study, called the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which was conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. His conclusion about the U.S. education system, “Good, perhaps. But not great.” Samuelson is more concerned about how America educates black and Hispanic children than he is about the overall state of education in the U.S. He explains:

“The overall scores don’t tell the full story. The U.S. Education Department examined the American scores by race and ethnicity. This report (“Highlights from PISA 2009″) allows comparison with countries whose ethnic and racial compositions are more homogeneous than ours. For example, you can compare the scores of white non-Hispanic Americans with the scores from Canada, a country that is almost 85 percent white. This is an admittedly crude approach, but it suggests that U.S. schools do about as well as the best systems elsewhere in educating similar students. Among non-Hispanic white Americans, the average score was 525 – not very different from Canada’s 524, New Zealand’s 521 or Australia’s 515. All these countries are heavily white, and all ranked in the top 10 of the 65 participating school systems. The story is the same for Asian Americans. Their average score was 541 – somewhat below Shanghai, about even with South Korea and ahead of Hong Kong (533) and Japan. Again, all these other systems were in the top 10. American schools are hardly perfect. Math scores, though showing the same pattern, are lower than reading scores. We can learn from other countries better ways to teach math. But the most glaring gap is well-known: the stubbornly low test scores of blacks and Hispanics. In the PISA study, their reading scores were 441 (blacks) and 466 (Hispanics). Changing this is the great challenge for schools, because the share of black and Hispanic students is growing. It was 23 percent in 1980, 35 percent in 2009.”

On one point, Rhee and Samuelson appear to be in complete agreement, “Americans have an extravagant faith in the ability of education to solve all manner of social problems.” I suspect that Samuelson, like Rhee, doesn’t view the state of the U.S. educational system as a social issue. Like Rhee, he lays the blame on parents and others who refuse to hold students to higher standards and who fail to teach them about personal responsibility. He concludes:

“In our mind’s eye, schools are engines of progress that create opportunity and foster upward mobility. To the contrary, these persistent achievement gaps demonstrate the limits of schools to compensate for problems outside the classroom – broken homes, street violence, indifference to education – that discourage learning and inhibit teaching. As child-psychologist Jerome Kagan points out, a strong predictor of children’s school success is the educational attainment of their parents. The higher it is, the more parents read to them, inform and encourage them. For half a century, successive waves of ‘school reform’ have made only modest headway against these obstacles. It’s an open question whether the present ‘reform’ agenda, with its emphasis on teacher accountability, will do better. What we face is not an engineering problem; it’s overcoming the legacy of history and culture. The outcome may affect our economic competitiveness less than our success at creating a just society.”

To demonstrate how difficult it may be to overcome cultural traditions, I only have to point out the numerous articles dealing with Amy Chua’s controversial new book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. In a Wall Street Journal article [“Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” 8 January 2011], Chua writes:

“A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it’s like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I’ve done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:

“• attend a sleepover
“• have a playdate
“• be in a school play
“• complain about not being in a school play
“• watch TV or play computer games
“• choose their own extracurricular activities
“• get any grade less than an A
“• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
“• play any instrument other than the piano or violin
“• not play the piano or violin.

“I’m using the term ‘Chinese mother’ loosely. I know some Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish and Ghanaian parents who qualify too. Conversely, I know some mothers of Chinese heritage, almost always born in the West, who are not Chinese mothers, by choice or otherwise. I’m also using the term ‘Western parents’ loosely. Western parents come in all varieties. All the same, even when Western parents think they’re being strict, they usually don’t come close to being Chinese mothers.”

Whether you believe that Chua and other “strict immigrant parents” go too far or not, one point is incontrovertible — to be good at something takes hard work. If you want successful children, you need to teach them how to be successful by teaching them how to work hard. I agree with Samuelson that if parents took more interest in their children’s education and held them to higher standards, we wouldn’t be lamenting the sad state of education in America. We’ve carried the notion that it is more important for children to feel good than be good to the extreme. I’ve even read of cases where mothers have called their grown children’s bosses to criticize them for making their children feel bad by giving them a less than stellar performance review. As I noted above, if we can get our children to do good (i.e., perform at much higher levels) they will inevitably feel better about themselves — and they would have earned that feel good moment.

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