Education Opinion

To Redeem Self Esteem as a Worthy Goal

By Walt Gardner — March 07, 2011 2 min read
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Public schools in the U.S. have long been overly hospitable to educational trends that eventually run their course and disappear. But the one that has managed to maintain its hold the longest is self esteem. I reject the use of the word “fad” to describe self esteem because it is a worthwhile goal as long as it does not become the end-all and be-all of what transpires in the classroom.

Unfortunately that has not been the case. In Everyone’s a Winner (University of California Press), sociologist Joel Best describes how a “congratulatory culture” in this country explains the obsession to include more and more students in the winner’s circle. For example, there was a time when the title of valedictorian was bestowed on one student at graduation. Now some high schools have dozens of students bearing that honor.

Perhaps students have become smarter and therefore deserve to share the honor. But there’s another explanation: Parents have threatened to sue schools when they believe their children’s class rankings are close enough to the top to warrant inclusion. In 2003, the parents of a second-ranked high school senior at Plano West Senior High School in Texas hired a lawyer to get the school board to name their daughter co-valedictorian. They claimed that their daughter was “hurt” because her grade point average was miscalculated.

The issue, however, is not altogether new. In Inside American Education, which was published in 1993, Thomas Sowell wrote that “the benign banner of self-esteem” has shortchanged students by elevating “feelings over thought.” He has a point. No one wants to shred the egos of students. But I think we fail to understand that the young are more sophisticated than we think. Students instinctively know when they have earned the awards given to them. As a result, we lose their respect when we try to shield them from the fact that in life not everyone can be No. 1.

The issue of self esteem moved to center stage with the publication of Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. It has become a bestseller because it pushes all the right parental buttons. What is the ultimate goal of raising children? If it is primarily to develop exceptionalism in a particular field, regardless of the potential damage to their psychological well being, then Chua serves as a valid model. But I think most parents shudder at the thought of the price their children will pay down the line by following her lead.

More recently, Ronda Holder, a mother in Tampa, became so frustrated with her son’s failure to get good grades despite her best efforts that she made him stand on a street corner with a sign declaring in essence that he was a dunce (“Florida mom Ronda Holder uses humiliation to get teen son James Mond III to do better in school,” Daily News, Feb. 21). Although psychologists warn that embarrassment and shame are harmful to a child’s ego, readers overwhelmingly applauded the mother.

Good teachers have always been sensitive to the emotional needs of their students. But as pressure mounts to produce quantifiable results, eventually something has to give. In today’s accountability movement, the odds are that test scores will push aside all other considerations in the classroom. That will mean self esteem in the best sense of the term will take a fatal hit.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.