The battle cry “Self-esteem for all!” has echoed in schools throughout the land in recent years. Children are being taught that they are special, and what’s the harm in that? Well, for starters, we are creating a generation of self-centered underachievers, charges education professor Maureen Stout in her new book The Feel-Good Curriculum: The Dumbing Down of America’s Kids in the Name of Self-Esteem (Perseus). Assistant Managing Editor Rachel Hartigan spoke with Stout about the perils of self-esteem education.
Q.When you talk about self-esteem, what do you mean?
A. For me, self-esteem is feeling good about yourself and having confidence because you have done something to merit it: You’ve worked toward a goal, worked hard in school, or helped your family. I do think it’s very important for children to feel good about themselves, but it’s dangerous if it’s for no good reason. Unfortunately, that’s the way it seems to be taught.
Q.Proponents of self-esteem say that if children feel better about themselves, they will probably do better in school. Does that seem likely to you?
A. There is no research-based evidence that high self-esteem of the kind that is currently promoted improves student achievement or reduces behavioral problems. In fact, a couple of studies say that high self-esteem is an indicator of future aggressive behavior. Do we want people to feel good about themselves for no reason at all? What we have are students saying, “I’m so wonderful, I’m so smart,” whether or not their actions merit it. We’ve divorced our feelings about ourselves from our actions. I see it in self-esteem manuals: Just because Johnny cheated on a test or beat up his friend doesn’t mean he’s a bad boy.
Q.You write that “if we expect children to do well, they will.” How is that different from the self-esteem education that you describe?
A. In the current way of thinking, you must tell Johnny, “You are perfect, and if you decide to work hard, great. If not, you are still perfect.” In my conception of self-esteem, you don’t want kids to feel bad; you want them to feel good when they’ve achieved something.
If you tell kids that they are great the way they are, it is not doing them a favor. That’s what makes me very angry. I think we are cheating kids. I see my students—future teachers—feel embarrassed and upset because they thought they were A students. When they get to college, they have to take remedial classes because they were given grades that they did not deserve—to preserve their self-esteem. Getting the grades they earned does not hurt kids’ self-esteem, but not telling them the truth about their achievement certainly does.
Q.Why did you decide to write about self-esteem?
A. I teach future teachers and assume that we all share the same general idea of what it means to be educated. But my students have some unusual ideas about education. For example, they think grading, which is essential to education, is negative. I would point out to them that evaluation is a gauging process. Grades give information on how kids are doing to teachers and to the kids, but many of my students don’t see it that way.
Also, according to them, competition is bad for students’ self-esteem. But competition is a very useful motivator for some students. If you have ever been involved in sports, you know it can help you understand that you are capable of doing something and thus help you feel good about yourself.
Q.Where do your students pick up these ideas?
A. This is what we teach in colleges of education. Where does the buck stop? It stops with professors of education. I was recently sitting in a faculty meeting, and we were talking about the usual things, including why kids aren’t reading at grade level. I asked who was responsible for this. Some of my colleagues answered teachers, some said politicians. Then I asked, “What about us?” They said, “It’s not our fault.” Now, I’m not trying to blame my colleagues, but it’s a matter of each one of us taking responsibility for what we teach and how we teach it.
Also, there seems to be a global attitude of entitlement—I should get an A for effort or for just turning up in class. And even students who show just a little of these attitudes seem to think that education is about learning about oneself. Education should only be partly that—it should primarily be about learning about the world.
Q.How does this play out in the classroom?
A. Some of it depends on how strongly teachers were indoctrinated in their education classes. A lot depends on experience. It is very gratifying when I see former students a few years later, and they say, “I really see what you were talking about.” They have learned that you can be caring as well as demanding, have control of the classroom and still have meaningful interaction with students. We need a balance. But some teachers want to be their students’ best friend when the important thing is that students learn from them. They also don’t realize how damaging it can be not to expect the best of all students. For them, the teacher is there to entertain, and the student is the consumer.
Q.How did this idea of “self-esteem” as an educational goal develop?
A. You can take it back to the progressive movement in the early part of the century. Progressivism introduced the idea that schools should center around the needs of children, which I think is a positive thing, rather than viewing them just as passive objects. But we’ve gone from one extreme to another. People took the idea of the child-centered school and ran with it. That combined with the rise of anti-intellectualism in the United States has led to an overemphasis on emotions in schools. There seems to be less reliance on evidence, the scientific method, and the importance of truth, as well as an increasing dependence on anecdotal evidence.
Q.You write that emotion has replaced power as the dominant force in society. Could you explain how that fits in with teaching self-esteem?
A. The analogy I was trying to make is that power recognizes only itself. If you have a system that functions only on the basis of power, then nothing other than power is considered legitimate. Today, the only thing that is considered legitimate is feelings. But you can’t have a rational society if people only speak from emotions. It leads to barbarism because the only way to avoid societal breakdown is to rationally discuss issues of common concern.
Q.What’s the solution?
A. In the same way Clinton tried to initiate a discussion on race, we need something like that on education. We need to ask, “What is our philosophy of education?” There has been discussion of school reform—vouchers, charters, etc.—which is important, but not the core issue. We need to ask, “What does it mean to be educated?” We’ve gotten away from the core purpose of education, which should be to develop the intellect and create responsible, happy, and productive citizens.