The Self-Esteem Movement Crosses the Pond
Apparently we Yanks are being blamed for the spread of a movement to teach happiness in British schools:
At a time when Britain's schools face serious difficulties in providing children with a good education, they are to be charged with providing happiness lessons. Recently it was announced that Martin Seligman, a well-known US psychologist, has been invited to train British teachers in the art of making pupils happy. Anti-depression classes will be piloted from September next year. Advocates of happiness education claim that lessons using cognitive behavioural therapy techniques will help children deal with emotional problems and raise self-esteem.
This initiative is the latest technique adopted in a futile attempt to tackle the crisis facing the classroom through the management of children's emotions. Making children feel good about themselves has been one of main objectives of US schools during the past three decades. By the time they are seven or eight years of age, American children have internalised the prevailing psychobabble and can proclaim the importance of avoiding negative emotions and of high self-esteem. Yet this has had no perceptible impact on their school performance.
In Britain too, educators who have drawn the conclusion that it is easier to help children feel good than to teach them maths, reading and science, have embraced the cause of emotional education. During the past decades they have also adopted a variety of gimmicks to improve classroom behaviour through helping children relax. Some schools have opted for yoga, others use aromatherapy or chill-out music to improve concentration and learning. At least these gimmicks are harmless. They are certainly not going to help raise educational standards but there is no reason why they should have a negative impact on the classrooms.
Not so with some of the other more intrusive initiatives which are designed to teach children how to be happy. The elevation of happiness into a classroom subject will consolidate the shift in focus from learning about the world to dwelling on the internal lives of pupil. Even by the confused standards of British educational policy this is an unusually stupid idea. Happiness can not be taught. People have always pursued happiness. But until recently, happiness was not seen as an end in itself or something that could be promoted in its own terms. Teachers hoped that their students would be happy with their experience but they did not set out to teach their pupils how.
Can someone be taught how to be happy? I don't think so. Polite and courteous, absolutely.
We can't make kids learn how to be happy any more than we can give kids self-esteem. Nor is self-esteem the answer to helping increase kids' achievement. Kids know when they're being bamboozled. If everyone gets an award, is the award really meaningful? How well I remember sitting through the year-end awards night as it dragged on for over three hours. 80% of the student body at our middle school received some piece of plastic or wood pressboard or piece of paper, which inevitably filled boxes or shelves in the students' houses. Do students look at this schtuff and think how special it is to have so many awards when every one else has a box or shelf just as packed?
One of my favorite animated movies has a character state: "Saying everyone is special means no one is." I do not use the term "self-esteem" with my students. Why? Because, unfortunately, the "self-esteem" movement has led to the focus on emotion over accomplishment, especially in the crucial adolescent years. For too long, we have forcued on "affective development" over academic achievement as a vital component of the "middle school philosophy." Is it any wonder that now we see the achievement of middle school students spiraling into a gravity well, and we wonder why?
Too often "self-esteem" means "everything I do is good enough." It means "trying hard" should equal an "A." You know, I try hard at tae kwon do class, but that doesn't mean I'll ever be able to kick as high as a 16 year old. I try hard to control my temper, so does that excuse me when I do lose it? I don't think so.
Instead, I talk about promoting "self-respect." Self-respect means being willing to struggle, and being willing to assess oneself honestly. I believe that self-respect is far more honest than self-esteem. Self-esteem is all about excuses. Self-respect is about building character.
I do not think we Americans can be blamed for all of this, however: witness the uproar in France earlier this year over changes in job security for young people. Last year I opened this blog with an article from England about the Professional Association of Teachers debating a motion to remove the word "failure" from the educational lexicon (the motion was defeated). There have been articles about how Chinese society is undergoing a challenge dealing with privileged offspring of one-child families. This is a problem all modern societies face. We all want our children to be happy. But insulating them from any bumps or bruises or struggle doesn't lead to them being any more successful.