Education Opinion

The Sentimentalizing of ‘Self-Esteem’

By Mike Schmoker — September 06, 1989 4 min read

A single word can wield enormous power.

The word I’m concerned with--its current use and its influence on educational as well as behavioral standards--is “self-esteem.”

At first blush, the word seems innocuous enough. But in finding its way into education, it has brought along some of the baggage of pop psychology--the fatuous implication that what is precious can be gotten cheaply. Nonetheless, the word has an almost incantatory power. Every discussion in education takes a bow in its direction.

Of course, educators must be concerned with the character trait this word denotes. That should mean we work to create an environment where it can grow.

What disturbs me is that self-esteem has been sentimentalized: It has become less a quality to be slowly earned than one quickly and easily given; not something wrought but spontaneously realized.

The emphasis, where this word is used, more commonly falls on creating good feelings than on connecting self-respect to effort and attainment. Indeed, there is a real resistance to tying it to achievement.

This is an understandable reaction to a difficult problem: Many children are burdened, through little fault of their own, with negative, defeatist feelings. We want to help them.

But it is mystifying that with time we have not seen this impulse for what it is. There’s something sadly comical about whole auditoriums full of students being told, indiscriminately, to feel good about themselves, even to stand up (I’ve seen this) and give testimonials on how much they like themselves. Never mind any concern for humility or any mention of the price that real self-respect demands. We’re all just swell, and if we only knew it, the world would be our oyster.

This is a flimsy notion, and no one believes it. Not for very long, anyway. Like it or not, self-esteem is very much a function of such unyielding realities as what we can do, what we’ve done with what we have, what we’ve made of ourselves.

Yet you’d never know it if all you read were education journals. Certainly, self-esteem is also to some extent a matter of luck, the vicissitudes of such factors as relationships, opportunities, and upbringing. But these are not, at least primarily, the school’s province. The school--with every effort toward sensitivity, compassion, and encouragement--is in the business of teaching: of cultivating ability, talent, decency, and the capacity for sustained application, the belief that you get what you pay for.

And in addressing interpersonal relations (a focus of our concern with self-esteem), we’d probably do well to make education more participatory and provide more opportunities for performance and interaction. Having students speak, discuss a story, explain a math problem, or read a paper to classmates would go a long way toward building the connections that help foster self-respect. These kinds of activities offer the best opportunity for promoting self-esteem, albeit on the wreckage of emotional misfortune some students bring with them into the classroom.

Shortcuts, such as lowering academic standards, do not work. Ask any teacher, in a moment of candor, if he can get average kids, the majority of students, to put forth a sufficient effort in school, make good use of class time, or apply themselves fairly conscientiously to homework and other assignments. An alarming number of teachers don’t think they can. Many complain that only about half of their students will even do homework.

Yet promotion is nearly automatic, and grades, which might point up these tendencies, are higher than ever. Can we, in an attempt to be “encouraging,” be so accommodating and still expect the level of achievement that makes for real self-esteem?

What grade inflation suggests, at least tacitly, is that what students are doing is good enough, and that our insistence on quality is a bluff.

It’s ironic that the rationale often cited for generous grading and a reluctance to fail students centers on developing self-esteem. In the name of self-esteem, we are asked to give young people something they didn’t earn in the mistaken hope that they can go on to master what is presumably harder than what they have already failed to learn.

What they do learn is to play the game--the essence of which is that standards are not based on what students should do, or are able to do, but on what they will do, no matter how low the common denominator. Which is, as we know, pretty low: Among industrialized nations, our performance in every academic category is embarrassingly poor.

But you’ll seldom see these deficiencies reflected in American report cards. The plain, unpleasant truth is hidden behind the good grades, lost in the inordinately upbeat climate that too often prevails in our schools. If you’re not sure that’s true, consider the results of a recent international survey': Korean students rank at the top in mathematics, it showed, and American students at the bottom. But when the students were asked whether they thought they were good at the subject, the Americans ranked first, and Koreans were at the bottom.

It is a commonplace that too much groundless praise can breed complacency. It can, and it has. There is a point at which even a good thing, however well-intended, becomes excessive, where a misguided concern with self-esteem is inimical to what we are trying to accomplish; it can keep young people from doing their best.

For our part, the best we can do is teach them, in an atmosphere of compassion and perhaps more active participation, that self-respect is earned, often with considerable difficulty, and equip them to earn it.

A version of this article appeared in the September 06, 1989 edition of Education Week