Let’s start with an obvious truth: high self-esteem must be earned, it cannot be handed to us. This is a truth that has apparently been lost on educators who have embraced the notion that by simply pouring praise into the heads and hearts of their students, no matter whether they deserve it, their self-esteem will rise and they will perform miracles. Or at least, they will pass their tests and make the teachers look good. This is absurd. Its absurdity was augmented in California not long ago when a school board member was confronted by data that showed that heaping praise on students doesn’t improve their performance one whit. His response: “I don’t care what the data show, I know it works.” Methinks the man is brain-dead. Perhaps he didn’t get enough praise as a child. But unwarranted praise doesn’t improve performance. You know it. I know it. Kids know it, too.

Maureen Stout knows it. And she knows whereof she speaks. Indeed, she has written a book that seeks to undermine the self-esteem movement in the schools. She says, in part, “The self-esteem movement infiltrates virtually all aspects of schooling from teaching methods to evaluation to curriculum planning. It is the most popular of all the fads [in education], and the most dangerous. But . . . it is not essential. In fact, it doesn’t even make much sense.”  The fact that Ms Stout taught in the public schools for years, holds a PhD in education, and now teaches in one of the prestigious California teaching colleges carries no weight with the education establishment. What she said in her book has been widely ignored. The education establishment doesn’t take kindly to criticism from the outside — or the inside, apparently. The self-esteem movement has taken over the schools.

As a result, as Ms Stout points out, “Schools are providing more courses in ‘life skills’ and paying less attention to academics, which is the core of a liberal education. The very essence of public schooling is thus being transformed. We are in danger of producing individuals who are expert at knowing how they feel rather than educated persons who know how to think. This is a radical transformation in the role of schooling.” And it is by no means clear that this transformation is of benefit to the children or society. On the contrary.

Nevertheless, the movement has so much steam that it has passed into the world of the elderly as well — though they worry more about lower self-esteem, which, they are told, is a function of aging. Only by continuing to act young and foolish will they maintain some semblance of their self-esteem. But it’s quite possible, as Wallace Stegner reminds us, that it is society that lowers the self-esteem of the aging, not age in itself. He has a powerful passage in The Spectator Bird that makes the case as only he can. After his narrator receives a questionnaire in the mail he vents as follows:

“Who was ever in doubt that the self-esteem of the elderly declines in this society which indicates in every possible way that it does not value the old in the slightest, finds them an expense and an embarrassment, laughs at their experience, evades their problems, isolates them in hospitals and Sunshine Cities, and generally ignores them except when soliciting their votes or ripping off their handbags and their Social Security checks? And which has a chilling capacity to look straight at them and never see them. The poor old senior citizen has two choices, assuming he is well enough off to have any choices at all. He can retire from that hostile culture to the shore of some shuffleboard court in a balmy climate, or he can shrink in his self-esteem and gradually become the cipher he is constantly reminded he is.”

Hyperbole, perhaps. But it is certainly the case that the elderly don’t get the praise they have earned, while the kids get praise they don’t deserve. Ironic, isn’t it? Maybe by the time today’s kids become elderly their self-esteem will have been boosted so high it can’t be lowered by treating them with disdain. I doubt it. They will feel cheated all over again. Things today, including praise, are simply too easy: nothing costs anything. And we don’t even have to wait until tomorrow to get what we want. This is unhealthy, and it breeds self-contempt, not self-esteem.

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