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.

We Owe Our Kids

Sigmund Freud is looked down upon by a great many modern psychologists because he based many of his theories on his analysis of neurotic Victorian women who had sexual hang-ups. He is especially vilified by the angry feminists in our universities who see him not as the father of modern psychology but as enemy #1. I had a colleague in the psychology department, for example, who had a profile of Freud mounted on her bulletin board with a red circle surrounding it with a diagonal line cutting across. She refused to teach anything the man wrote, she hated him so much. But Freud had a number of important things to tell us about the human animal. One thing he insisted upon was that character is pretty much formed by the time a child is five or six years old. Let’s consider the implications of this for today’s world.

What happens, typically, in those early years? In many cases working parents drop the kids off at day care, which is often little more than glorified baby-sitting, and then pick them up at the end of the day too exhausted to spend any quality time with them. So they set their children down in front of the TV where they watch ill-mannered kids mouthing off to their parents, or violent cartoons that send mixed messages. Mostly they are bombarded by hundreds of chaotic images each minutes until their brains are addled.  But what they can make out they imitate. All animals learn from imitation, as we know, and as we too are animals we also learn from what we see. So the kids finally go to grade school with their brains stunted by too much TV and their character weakened by being ignored by their parents, watching weak role models on television, and thinking theirs is a violent world.

In school overworked and underpaid teachers are told to help build learning skills in these ill-prepared students while at the same time helping to mold the character that has been too often ignored at home. When this does not happen, as is often the case, the parents blame the schools for their own failures and the students (who are not supposed to be left behind) are left behind to fend for themselves as uneducated and flawed adults. Meanwhile the parents holler aloud when the teachers want more pay and better working conditions.

In sum, we have kids growing up in families where the parent or parents work. They are handed over to day-care and come home to empty houses, eat junk food, and sit down in front of the TV. They watch whatever comes on, and being the animals they are (we all are), they imitate what they see on TV. As they head back to school their parents expect the harried teachers to instil good behavior in their kids — kids whose brains have been fried, as Jane Healy tells us, before they ever sit down in first grade. The teachers are supposed to teach them reading, writing, and arithmetic — while also raising the child to be a good adult. Sometimes it happens, and it is surprising how often is does happen, because there are dedicated teachers out there; but often it doesn’t work.  The result is then a spoiled brat whose parents cannot deny him anything because they have been told that discipline is a bad thing and they feel guilty about leaving him alone so much. He often has ADD, is prone to violence, and has no idea whatever how he is supposed to behave in the world around him.

What I have sketched here is based on generalizations, of course. And generalizations always allow of exceptions, as I have noted. There are bright and capable kids who have turned out to be good students and well-adjusted adults in spite of working parents, TV,  and day care. There have also been adults with weak character who have turned out to be bad eggs in spite of being raised at home with a loving parent. But there is usually a core of truth in generalizations that are based on careful observation and the expert testimony of people like Jane Healy who work with kids daily. And the increasing failure of our schools and the growing numbers of out-of-control kids who turn into narcissistic adults raise profound questions about our priorities and the obligations we have to our kids and to one another.