The Self-Esteem Fraud: Feel-Good Education Does Not Lead to Academic Success

Article excerpt

Americans have lost confidence in their public schools. A 1996 Washington Post survey asked people what worries them about the future. They were given dozens of choices, from high crime rates to increasing drug usage to economic anxiety. Of all these, they considered the deterioration of public schools to be the country's most pressing problem. "The American educational system will get worse instead of better," said 62% of them.

This is not a new concern. Frustrated by everything from a long-term decline in test scores to the rise in juvenile violence, many Americans are left scratching their heads in bewilderment. What has gone wrong? What can reverse these trends? Desperate for anything that might boost the academic achievement of their charges, many schools have turned to self-esteem theory, which promises that teaching children to feel good about themselves will help them perform better as students. This pedagogical approach has begun to dislodge the more traditional emphasis on basic subjects such as reading, writing, and arithmetic.

This is fundamentally wrongheaded. There is little reason to believe self-esteem leads to academic achievement or is even necessary for academic success. It is therefore crucial to delegitimize the education establishment's mindless glorification of self-esteem. As Richard Weissbourd has written in The Vulnerable Child: What Really Hurts America's Children and What We Can Do About Them, schools gripped by self-esteem theory "are, in essence, producing a generation of poorly educated adults who will lack the habits of hard work and perseverance that have historically been necessary to achieving true success."

There is no shor-tage of ways to define self-esteem. Perhaps the simplest one is found in Webster's Dictionary: "satisfaction with oneself." The Basic Behavioral Science Task Force of the National Advisory Mental Health Council offers a fuller explanation: "Self-esteem begins to develop early in life and has been studied in children as young as seven years of age. As children learn to describe aspects of themselves, such as their physical attributes, abilities, and preferences, they also begin to evaluate them. Researchers conclude that, contrary to intuition, individuals have not one but several views of their selves, encompassing many domains of life, such as scholastic ability, physical appearance and romantic appeal, job competence, and adequacy as a provider."

Psychologists generally split self-esteem into two types: earned and global. The concepts of each differ in critical ways:

Earned self-esteem is attained by individuals through their own accomplishments -- satisfaction from having scored well on an exam, for instance. Psychologist Barbara Lemer indicates that earned self-esteem "is based on success in meeting the tests of reality -- measuring up to standards at home and in school." Earned self-esteem possesses all of the positive character traits that ought to be encouraged and applauded, because it ultimately is based on work habits.

Global self-esteem refers to a general sense of pride in oneself It is not grounded in a particular skill or achievement. This means that an underachieving student still can bask in the warmth of global self-esteem, even if the door to earned self-esteem is shut. Although theorists contend that this feeling of self-worth will inspire academic success, the reality is different. At best, global self-esteem is meaningless. At worst, it is harmful. William Damon, an educational psychologist at Brown University, warns that heightened global self-esteem can lead children to have "an exaggerated, though empty and ultimately fragile sense of their own powers ... [or] a distrust of adult communications and self-doubt."

The fundamental difference between earned and global self-esteem rests on their relationships to academic achievement. The idea of earned self-esteem says that achievement comes first and that self-esteem follows. …