|Back to July Ed Reporter|
|NUMBER 186||THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS||JULY 2001|
Self-Esteem Needs Boot Camp |
It is a fact that educrats and psychologists are kind of an incestuous breed. When some theory sounds good, even if it flies in the face of common sense, educrats will cling to it and try it as a new panacea that will eventually mean absolute perfection. The tried and true usually gets dumped for the latest sociological or educational theory no matter how inane or foolish.
Before the national self-esteem movement began, kids earned self-esteem or absorbed it naturally from their parents. When they accomplished something, whether or not they received praise for it, they understood that they had done something good.
Long ago and far away, kids often did things for the sheer joy of doing them. From earning a Scout merit badge to plumbing the depths of long division or Latin verbs, from memorizing Shakes-peare to memorizing the times tables, these efforts produced something that no one could take away. It did not require phony love-ins with teachers drumming into their heads how wonderful they were because they had learned a skill of some sort. The accomplishment engendered self-esteem and not vice versa.
However, as the sociologists and educrats of the '60s applied the psychological theories to the schools, education went downhill. The results have been disastrous. Test scores, reading and math ability of American children have spiraled downward. "New" concepts in math and reading were tried. No matter that the results have been devastating, the education establishment will not give them up.
But the fact is that even psychologists have begun to understand what a disaster the self-esteem movement has been for America's children, especially black children. America's children may feel good about themselves, but according to some scientists, that is the problem.
As it turns out, more scientists believe that this overblown self-esteem may actually be one of the causes of violence in public schools and elsewhere. As one who has been around teenagers for many years, as a teacher and a mother, I know that "dissing," or disrespecting, is the worst thing you can do to a kid. If you look at the kids involved in the shootings at Columbine and other places, "dissing" or disrespecting the violent kid has been isolated as one of the prime causes for the violence. Add the drugs these tender psyches needed to get them through the school year and the result is the brave new world of education.
We have had years of counseling, therapy, drugs, and touchy-feely non-academics, and what we have gotten for this is dumb kids who feel good about being dumb and violent.
It is very possible that bullying has gone up in direct proportion to self-esteem movements. Bullying has been around forever, but it used to end with a schoolyard bloody nose or a parent getting involved and slamming some doors in the school administration office. Whatever happened to parents? Whatever happened to demanding that a child not be bullied and expecting the school to respond? Whatever happened to kids fighting back?
Why does the response for bullying end in murder rather than a bloody nose? Are modern kids' egos so fragile that no amount of self-esteem classes will help? Why are schools more interested in making kids feel good about being rotten at something than in helping them develop the tools and academic skills to succeed?
Both the bully and the kid who indiscriminately responds with violence toward the bully have no ability to put themselves in another's shoes, nor do they have self-control. That is what the experts are finally having to come to terms with. This is both a spiritual and a psychological problem, but no amount of self-esteem training or diversity or sensitivity classes will change it.
Recently, researchers have taken a more critical look at the benefits and possible detriments of self-esteem development programs in the schools. In the April issue of Scientific American, Dr. Roy F. Baumeister, a renowned expert on the concept of self-esteem, has come down hard on it. Baumeister suggests that the low self-esteem model, which explains violent behavior as caused in part by low self-esteem, is untenable and that "on empirical and theoretical grounds . . . we must reject the view."
Baumeister also suggests that the benefits and positive consequences of self-esteem programs are likely to be minor, while inflated self-esteem carries an assortment of risks and dangers. He believes that the time, effort and resources a school puts into self-esteem programs will not improve school performance, citizenship or other outcomes.
Another psychologist, Dr. Barbara Lerner, is in favor of "good self-esteem" rather than "feel good now self-esteem." She also believes that earned self-esteem is less "vulnerable to ego-threats than possibly inflated "feel good self-esteem." What this boils down to is that the experts are rediscovering the wheel.
Al Shanker, former head of the American Federation of Teachers, stated not long before his death: "The kind of self-esteem that has you thinking well of yourself, whether or not you have any basis for doing so, also has a dark side - conceit, pride, feelings of superiority and entitlement. How many parents would want to encourage these attitudes in a child, and how would they feel if they thought the child's school was doing so?"
Baumeister's contention is that self-esteem drilling may actually be harmful, particularly when it is not founded in reality - which is the kind of self-esteem supporters have been advocating for the schools. Baumeister and his colleagues found that studies done by many different researchers linked unfounded self-esteem with bad behavior of all kinds, from schoolyard bullying and juvenile delinquency to murder, rape and other crimes of violence. These studies show that a person who thinks he is great - and who has no objective reason for thinking so - is likely to turn on people who fail to share his good opinion of himself. And as he tries to assert his superiority, violence is likely to erupt.
The American Psychology Association has stated that the studies conducted by psychologists Brad Bushman of Iowa State University, and Baumeister (of Case Western Reserve University), "explored the connection between narcissism, negative interpersonal feedback, and aggression in 540 undergraduate students." Narcissists, according to the authors, "are emotionally invested in establishing their superiority, yet while they care passionately about being superior to others, they are not convinced that they have achieved this superiority. While high self-esteem entails thinking well of oneself, narcissism involves passionately wanting to think well of oneself. In both studies, narcissism and self-esteem were measured, and participants were given an opportunity to act aggressively toward a neutral third party, toward someone who had insulted them, or toward someone who had praised them."
When researchers Harold Stevenson and James Stigler compared the math achievement of American and Asian elementary school students, they found that American kids did considerably poorer than Japanese and Chinese students. But that's okay, because American students felt good about their performance even though it stunk.
American kids are encouraged to think positively about themselves regardless of how bad their academic performance is. From kindergarten through college, this attitude has produced illiterates and grade inflation. Now there is a movement in teaching math that tells the kids there is no right answer but that all answers may be acceptable. The same goes for teaching English, spelling and grammar.
A recent article in National Review quoted a political science professor as saying that incoming freshmen can't read or write. Grade inflation at Harvard and other prestigious schools has led to problems for Professor Harvey Mansfield, who does not believe in grade inflation for any reason. Mansfield maintains that everyone is expecting an A, no matter their level of competence. Most of the time, professors routinely give them out.
As I discovered when I went back to graduate school several years ago, only a complete ninny would not get an A these days. Compared with what it took to get them in the late '50s and early '60s, I can see how a reasonably bright person who can write a coherent sentence now almost automatically gets an A. Professors used to make assumptions about a certain level of competency in various subject areas and a majority of them could not do that today. About a third or more incoming freshmen are required to take remedial classes in reading or math.
Sandra Graham of the UCLA School of Education said that false praise can actually undermine confidence because it sends a message that the teachers don't expect much. In many classrooms, Graham said, "it's just scripted that, if the low achiever does anything, you praise them."
Bushman of Iowa State University notes that "if kids begin to develop unrealistically optimistic opinions of themselves and those beliefs are constantly rejected by others, their feelings of self-love could make these kids potentially dangerous to those around them."
GWB, forget more money for schools. Forget the U.S. Department of Education - it is a home for incompetents. Forget the public school system - it is a mess and fixing it won't do any good.
A profound change needs to take place in American society: a tsunami of a revolution in what and how we are teaching our kids. They don't need phony feel-goodism; they need to learn the times tables and memorize some Latin derivatives. They need phonics and not self-esteem. Kids need both parents, if possible, to be involved, to instill character and to offer love.
Dump the self-esteem - it will come with success. The problem of self-esteem resides with the family and not with the schools. But unless we raise the standards for ourselves as a nation and re-instill self-discipline, nothing will change; the rest of it is window dressing and "sound and fury, signifying nothing."