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Mel Levine is known for his
best-selling book A Mind at a Time that promotes a tolerance to the
differences between children and a reluctant attitude towards diagnosing mental
disorders in children. The Myth of
Laziness takes a similar stance of sympathy towards the psychological
problems of children and advocating creative approaches to helping them
overcome those problems. His advice is
humane and sensible. He describes a
number of different children he has encountered and the way that his
perspective differed from those of other clinicians and teachers.
Although the book's title refers to
laziness, Levine actually discusses a broader range of labels attached to
children with learning and behavior problems.
The central idea is very simple: we often tend to blame children for
being lazy when in fact their difficulties are due to quite specific cognitive
deficits, motor problems or the emotional troubles that come with such
deficits. In using labels such as
'lazy' we just compound the students' low self-esteem, and these labels just
show our own ignorance.
Levine's message is potentially
important and could have widespread implications for parents, educators, and
clinical psychology. The new schoolteachers
I meet universally repudiate the adjective "stupid" as applied to
students, although they may still tell students that particular actions are
stupid. On the other hand, they often
complain that students are lazy. Even
if they would be reluctant to tell students to their faces that they were lazy,
they would not necessarily contradict parents or even the students themselves
when they describe themselves as lazy, and they would use more neutral but
similar words such as "unmotivated."
If they follow Levine's advice, then they would in ideal circumstances
change teaching methods to accommodate the specific needs of children. With the right encouragement and increased
success in learning, the students will increase in their motivation and do a
great deal better.
Levine does not want his approach
to be used as an excuse or cop-out. He
argues that people need to take responsibility for their lives when they are
given the chance to do so, and he optimistically expresses the belief that
everyone wants to succeed and be productive.
His ideas raise crucial questions of how we should conceptualize
psychological disorders and deficits, and there are certainly many
neurodevelopmental dysfunctions that often are not identified. He is surely right that education and
child-rearing will be improved when we are able to more accurately identify the
problems of children that cause them to fail to produce and when we are able to
provide solutions to those problems. Especially
when it comes to children, attitudes of compassion and understanding are
wonderful and we can only hope that parents and teachers can adopt those
attitudes to children.
Given the positive attitude Levine
conveys, his non-judgmental stance and his stories of success, it seems
churlish to express reservations about his approach. It is undeniable that words such as lazy and stupid are full of
negative connotations, and telling someone that she is lazy or stupid is likely
to hurt and even damage her. But on the
other hand, the trend in medicalizing or psychologizing people's problems
raises the worry that our language will become morally bland and we will simply
give people excuses for their lack of productivity. While Levine says that laziness is a myth, most people would
disagree. We can point to many examples
in our own lives where we themselves or those around us have simply been lazy,
and would say that it is sometimes appropriate to tell a person that he is
being lazy. Plain language contains
simple truths. In distinction to stupidity,
laziness is something that we can normally do something about. Indeed, a person who is unable to stop being
lazy doesn't really count as being lazy at all; they have a different
Personally, I have to confess I not
only tend to think about some people using judgmental language such as 'stupid'
and 'lazy,' but I fully intend to continue to do so. They are crude words, but we need crude words in our language:
there are many different ways for people to be stupid and lazy, and psychology
can help to identify all the complexities.
For my own purposes, when I encounter someone who has great difficulty
understanding simple ideas, I am often not interested in working out what are
the particular causes of their difficulties.
When I see someone who sits around doing nothing much, getting away with
a minimum and cutting corners, I am not particularly interested what particular
emotional or cognitive deficits have led to this productivity failure. It is possible that not all such people are
lazy, but many are. Levine claims that
nobody is innately lazy, but he does not provide any argument. It is just as plausible to think that
selfishness and laziness are indeed common human traits that may well have
evolutionary advantages. Maybe we
should not blame people for being stupid, although if we continue to praise
others for being intelligent, then it could be reasonable to expect people of
low intelligence to at least realize their own limitations. When it comes to genuine laziness, however,
the moral issue is much clearer -- if we hold people responsible for any
character flaws, then laziness should be a prime example.
The Myth of Laziness is a
popular book for parents, clinicians and educators, and so it doesn't present
scientific evidence for the success of its methods. Levine simply presents a number of cases, and these don't count
much as evidence. If he is correct that
his approach is a genuinely better way to help children, then he will have a
strong case that adults should not use the word "lazy" to describe
children. His compassionate attitude is
certainly admirable and this book could be enlightening to many families. Yet I would be reluctant to completely
eliminate the moral language of words such as "lazy,"
"stupid," and "selfish" when educating children. Of course, we should not use them in abusive
or aggressive ways, but they can be powerful guiding concepts in teaching
children what traits they should try to avoid.
The audiobook is ready by Levine
himself, who does a good job. I have
some reservations about the sound quality of the recording of the voice, which
seems slightly muffled.
© 2004 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of
the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at
Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online
Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine,
psychiatry and psychology.