Academic journal article Journal of Thought

A Case against Heightened Self-Esteem as an Educational Aim

Academic journal article Journal of Thought

A Case against Heightened Self-Esteem as an Educational Aim

Article excerpt

During the latter part of the twentieth-century and into the twenty-first century, educational systems have increasingly placed a high value on heightened self-esteem as an important aim of education. After all, who of us would want our children not to feel as good about themselves as possible, especially when leading educational researchers proclaim that self-esteem provides a crucial building block on which all our actions and experiences are based. "People who think positively about themselves are healthier, happier, and more productive ... self-concept is fundamental to enhancing human potential, from early development and school achievement, to physical/mental health and wellbeing, to cultural identity and social justice" (Shavelson, 2003, p. xiii). The corollary is that low self-esteem is responsible for almost all individual and social difficulties. So pervasive is this phenomenon that many contemporaries "cannot think of a single psychological problem--from anxiety and depression, to fear of intimacy or of success, to spouse battery or child molestation--that is not traceable to the problem of low self-esteem" (Branden, 1984, p. 12). Given that self-esteem has such profound consequences for every aspect of our existence, it would be unpardonable for schools, educators, and educational researchers to neglect the cultivation of this core human resource. Thus, it is not surprising to find a dramatic and steady increase in research reports and writings about self-esteem cited in major databases such as ERIC, PsycINFO, and Web of Science from 1960 to the present.

Nonetheless, an important attitude of free inquiry is a willingness to put even our most trusted bromides to conceptual, theoretical, and empirical analysis and evaluation. When self-esteem has been examined in this way, the results and interpretations forthcoming have been much less conclusive than the foregoing statements and sentiments proclaim. In what is perhaps the most comprehensive evaluative review of research and theory concerning the educational and social effects of high self-esteem, Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger, and Vohs (2003) reach the following general conclusions:

   The benefits of high self-esteem fall into two categories: enhanced
   initiative and pleasant feelings. We have not found evidence that
   boosting self-esteem (by therapeutic interventions or school
   programs) causes benefits. Our findings do not support continued
   widespread efforts to boost self-esteem in the hope that it will by
   itself foster improved outcomes. (p. 1)

Of added relevance to education and schooling is their further conclusion that "the modest correlations between self-esteem and school performance do not indicate that high self-esteem leads to good performance. Instead, high self-esteem is partly the result of good school performance" (p. 1) (also see Kohn, 1994).

Although extremely helpful, there is a tendency in such evaluations to give priority to empirical issues and data, as if these alone might resolve the complex social and educational matters at stake. However, questions of educational aims cannot be decided on empirical bases alone, as vital as such information obviously is. For example, given evidence that "self-esteem does lead to greater happiness" (Baumeister et al., 2003, p. 1), should it be promoted actively in schools despite evidence that "efforts to boost the self esteem of pupils have not been shown to improve academic performance and may sometimes be counterproductive" (Baumeister et al., 2003, p. 1)? Any possible resolution of questions such as this requires a turn to educational argument that involves conceptual, theoretical, and critical consideration. As a prelude to such consideration, it is helpful to place our current focus on the self-esteem of students within an historical context that makes connections to the cultural evolution of both educational aims and conceptions of selfhood. …

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