In a recent blog I argued that the self-esteem movement that permeates the schools has also infiltrated other aspects of our culture — such as religion. My argument may or may not be sound, but it occurs to me that it really doesn’t matter unless I can make a strong case that the phenomenon we call the “self-esteem” movement is not necessarily a good thing. On its face we would think that we would want our kids to feel good about themselves and that an educational theory built around the concept of self-esteem would be a sound one that guarantees success in the classroom and later in life. Not so.
I will call on Maureen Stout who holds a PhD in Education from UCLA and now teaches at California State University in Northridge. In 2000 she wrote the book on the self-esteem movement, titled The Feel-Good Curriculum: The Dumbing Down of America’s Kids in the Name of Self Esteem. The book is based on careful research and first-hand experience. One of the key chapters begins as follows:
“. . .the self-esteem movement has slowly infiltrated education to the point that today most educators believe developing self-esteem to be one of the primary purposes of public education. As a result, schools are providing more courses in ‘life skills’ and less attention on academics, which are the sore 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 individuals who know how to think.. . .The self-esteem movement infiltrates virtually every aspect of schooling from teaching methods to evaluation to curriculum planning. It is the most popular of all the fads, and the most dangerous. . . .The preponderance of evidence illustrates that self-esteem is irrelevant in all areas of education.”
Now whether we agree with Dr. Stout that this movement is “dangerous” it is certainly worth careful scrutiny. We can see how insidious it is by means of a brief thought experiment. Imagine, if you will a young child faced with a barrier. We have lowered the barrier in order to allow the child to step over it easily. After she has done so we applaud her and tell her what a terrific job she has done. As she stands basking in our praise she notices other children stepping over the barrier and also receiving applause and affection. It appears to be the norm: all of the other children make it over the barrier easily and all receive praise. As she reflects on this her sense of having achieved something special disappears in a cloud of disappointment and a suspicion that something just isn’t right.
Compare this with another child who is asked to hop over a barrier that is quite a bit higher. She will have to move back and make an effort. At first she fails, but we assist her and tell her she can do it if she tries a bit harder. We give her some tips on how to do this sort of thing successfully. Other children around her are also trying, many of them are failing, but several make it over to our applause and sincere praise. She wants this praise as well and she makes an extra effort and finally also clears the barrier. Her sense of accomplishment is genuine, as is our praise and appreciation. Her growing sense of self-worth is genuine as well and not likely to fade in disappointment as was the case with the first child.
While this little thought experiment may appear transparent and overly simple, it makes an important point — one that has been confirmed by numerous experiments that the “self-esteem” advocates who drive educational practice simply ignore. Self esteem must come as a result of real effort; our job is to set the bar higher and help others over it; failure is a fact of life and helps us grow; children sense the dishonesty in plaudits that are not earned; and when things are made too easy this lead to an unwarranted sense of entitlement. Maureen Stout is right: this movement is dangerous and it is wide-spread. Things worth doing are worth doing well and praise must be earned in order to translate into a genuine sense of self-worth.