A Little Pain Is Good For You
The WSJ article describes the value of teachers who give “constructive, even painful, feedback.” A research study, published in the Harvard Business Review in 2007, found that top performers across a diverse range of fields “deliberately picked unsentimental coaches who would challenge them and drive them to higher levels of performance.”
In his recently published book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, Timothy Keller argues that contemporary Western culture is the worse historically in providing its members with the resources for dealing with pain and suffering. Modern secularism, with its characterization of the human self as an autonomous consumer and of human purpose as maximizing the fulfillment of one’s desires, has conditioned us to believe not only that pain is an inherent evil that must be avoided but also that we have a kind of right or entitlement to a pleasure-filled existence.
I see this attitude manifested in the classroom in at least two ways. One is in the expectation that learning must happen quickly, and thus easily. Many are unwilling to go through a lengthy process of acquiring knowledge, which, as Malcom Gladwell concludes from his finding that true expertise requires about 10,000 of practice, is normative. The typical student just gives up when knowledge doesn’t come immediately. The second is in the belief that if a student is struggling to learn in school, there must be something wrong, either with the student, or, most likely, with the teacher and/or curriculum. The belief that anything worth learning about is going to be a challenge, which I often tell my students, is contrary to the norm most of them bring into the classroom that success equals the absence of struggle.
Contrast this mentality with that expressed by the famed 20th century British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, who after being converted to Christ in the latter part of his life, devoted his pen to the task of explaining and defending the faith:
Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experience that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful with particular satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my seventy-five years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my experience, has been through affliction and not through happiness, whether pursued or attained. In other words, if it were ever possible to eliminate affliction from our earthly existence by means of some drug or other medical mumbo jumbo…the result would make it too banal and trivial to be endurable. This, of course is what the cross signifies. And it is the Cross that has called me inexorably to Christ.
If you are not a Christian, mere pragmatism should convince you that this pain-free approach to education should be rejected. Experience unequivocally shows that attaining expert-level knowledge, the kind necessary to actually be useful and economically valuable, is an unavoidably painful process. If you are a Christian, your opposition should go beyond pragmatic concerns to a recognition that this desire to avoid suffering, and expectation that anything of lasting good can happen without it, runs contrary to the essence of your faith. The paradigm of the cross demonstrates that God works through suffering to accomplish His purposes to eradicate sin. Our educational methods and expectations should be more aligned with the apostles’ perspective. As Peter writes,
Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because whoever suffers in the body is done with sin. As a result, they do not live the rest of their earthly lives for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God. – I Peter 4:1-2
Next time your child is having a hard time with a class, a certain concept, or a particular assignment in school, resist jumping to the hasty conclusion that something is wrong with him, or to shift blame externally to the teacher or educational environment. Instead, help your child to embrace the pain and give him reason to hope that this momentary pain will yield for him a better, more satisfying future.