The word “self-esteem” has become an educational incantation. Every educational discussion, every stated school district goal and mission takes a bow in its direction. Its influence on academic and behavioral standards in our schools cannot be overstated. There is even a California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Social Responsibility, and the University of California recently published a book linking low self-esteem to social problems.
At first, the word seems innocent enough and something about which we should be concerned. But if the meaning of a word is its use, we must look to pop psychology, which gave us this word, in order to fully understand its importance: Before it reached education, it had already taken on the fatuous implication that what is precious can be gotten cheaply. Self-esteem, as it is now used, isn’t something earned but given. It isn’t wrought but spontaneously realized. Such thinking is inimical to what schools should be trying to accomplish.
What disturbs me is that self-esteem has been sentimentalized. The new self-esteem has less to do with forging a connection between it and achievement and more to do with simply creating good feelings.
This is an understandable reaction to a difficult problem. So many young people are burdened with negative, defeatist feelings, not all of which, certainly, is their fault. We want to help them, and the quicker the better. But as time has passed, it is mystifying that we have not seen this impulse for what it is. I’ve seen whole auditoriums full of students being told, indiscriminately, to feel good about themselves, being asked at random to stand up and give testimonials on how swell they are, and that by clinging to this confidence they will succeed mightily.
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 and what we’ve made of ourselves. And so the school--with every effort toward sensitivity, compassion and encouragement--should reinforce this, while cultivating ability, talent, decency and the capacity for sustained effort, the belief that you get what you pay for.
Shortcuts, such as routinely heaping inordinate praise on shoddy work, or lowering academic standards, do not work. Ask any teacher, in a moment of candor, if they can get average kids, the majority of students, to make a sufficient effort in school, make good use of class time or do fairly conscientious work on homework and assignments. An alarming number of teachers don’t think so. Many complain of a malaise among students, that only about half their students will even do homework. Despite this, there has never been more pressure for teachers to be enormously upbeat in dealing with students and student efforts. Promotion is nearly automatic, and grades are higher than ever.
What this tells students, at least tacitly, is that what they are doing is good enough and that our insistence on quality is a bluff.
Its ironic that the reason often cited for generous grading and a reluctance to fail students centers on self-esteem. In the name of self-esteem, then, 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, we are embarrassingly ranked in every academic category.
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 peculiarly positive climate that too often prevails in our schools. If you’re not sure that’s true, consider this: A recent international survey showed that South Korean students rank first in mathematics, American students near the bottom. When asked where they thought they ranked, the American students ranked themselves at the top and the Koreans at the bottom.
It is common knowledge that too much groundless praise can breed complacency. It can. And it has.
For our part, the best we can do is teach young people, in an atmosphere of compassion, that self-respect is earned, often with considerable difficulty, and equip them to earn it.