A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Sunday, July 30, 2006

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.


At 7/30/06, 9:24 PM, Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Another excellent post, Ms. C. You are good!

Overall, I definitely agree with you. I think the best way to build one's self esteem is to help that person excel at something. Most schools offer a wide variety of opportunities for kids to find something their really good at--academics, the arts, sports, music, you name it. And as you said, you can't bamboozle kids about whether or not they're really good at something.

I do, however, think the self-esteem movement has helped teachers to be more tactful in dealing with kids who may not be good at something because of ability. I say that as someone who grew up at a time when teachers could get away with doing some idiotic things. For example, my wife had a series of ear infections that caused her to have a severe hearing problem when she was in elementary school. She once had a substitute teacher spank her in front of her class because she couldn't pronounce her own name correctly. That would never happen today, partially due to our concern for kids' self-esteem. Also, according to Michael Barone, our workers are the most productive in the world and they are the happiest workers we've had in our history. So maybe all that emphasis on self-esteem hasn't screwed them up too badly.

But overall, I definitely agree with you. I think getting rid of honor rolls because the kids who don't make it will feel bad is ridiculous. And as you pointed out, giving awards to nearly everyone cheapens the awards that should mean something.

As I said at the beginning--great post!

At 7/30/06, 10:23 PM, Anonymous Mrs. Bog said...

The most valuable lesson and experience I ever had with my Destination Imagination team happened when we had a total disaster on stage.

These kids had worked like dogs all year. The challenge, build a roller coaster for tennis balls, had a number of difficult challenges and was probably one of the most difficult challenges ever written.

They did everything three times. I remember my son working, laying in the driveway, in the rain. I remember them reworking and reworking a component. I remember snacks pushed aside and them rushing back to the house after basketball games and working in their uniforms.

Competition day came. We had an awesome solution and skit. They were prepared to shine.

And then disaster struck. Part of their electrical components failed. Because of the way the competition goes there was absolutely NOTHING I could do. I had to sit on my hands, keep my face neutral and watch as they adapted their solution on the spot, kept their skit going and finish within the time limit.

They came off the stage, bloodied but their heads held high. I was NEVER so proud of a team.

And they did it all on their own. Their pride was internal and I think that is the key to self-esteem.

At 7/30/06, 11:36 PM, Blogger Janet said...

I heard about this in passing the other day and was shocked.

Are American kids really that well adjusted that we need to make the Brits more happy? They're in school, they wish they were somewhere else like we all did at some point or another, British, American or otherwise.

Deal with it.:)

At 7/31/06, 9:27 AM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Maybe it's that "stiff upper lip" thing....

At 8/2/06, 11:55 AM, Blogger Teacher lady said...

Hi, new here and can I just say? I'm so glad you blogged about this. The promotion of "self-esteem" over much else is why I have college seniors who can barely string together a sentence, yet protest when I give them a "D" on their nonsensical papers (I will admit to grade inflation on my part - I'm still a little spineless.) One student wrote, "I'm just as good as the average college writer, if not above average." This young man was SO far below "average" compared to his peers, his diploma will not be worth the paper it's printed on. So frustrating.

At 8/2/06, 3:26 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

What I ascribe as being detrimental in the "self-esteem" movement the underlying message that we are all perfect just the way we are.

But to treat kids with tact and understanding is just part of being a good role model in their lives. Several words in Dennis' post scream out at me: "Substitute" and "spanking" are just two of them.

Nonetheless, just because you are not good at something doesn't mean you shouldn't be willing to try.One should be able to provide honest feedback to a student without them feeling emotionally crushed. (And yes, there are two meanings to the previous sentence.)

At 8/2/06, 10:50 PM, Anonymous Mike said...

At the beginning of each school year, I give all of my new kiddies the following little speech/lesson. It is particularly important that I do, because by the time they've reached high school, they are completely indoctrinated in the incomparable glory of self esteem.

"Welcome to English class. It is important that we understand something immediately: I don't care--at all--about your self esteem..."

At this point, there are audible gasps, some students faint, ceiling tiles fall to the floor, elephants trumpet, pandemonium reigns, etc.

"That's right. It's meaningless. I do care about your self respect. Here's the distinction. Self esteem means only that you feel good about yourself. Period. There may be no objective reason for you to feel good about yourself. In fact, you may be a complete slacker, absoluetly dishonest, profoundly unreliable, utterly selfish, stupid and proud of it, and one of the worst human beings ever, but you can be just brimming with self esteem and think terribly highly of yourself. That might seem like a contradiction, but in the realm of self esteem, it isn't. Why not? Because self esteem means only that you think highly of yourself.
Are there some people who obviously think highly of themselves with no justification?"

The kiddies, thinking of just such people (some will even point to them in the room!) nod their heads vigorously.

"But how can this be if self esteem is so important? It's simple: Self esteem is something you give yourself, with or without justification. It's essentially meaningless, feel good slop. But I know something better. I know what I really care about, and what I care about, deeply, for each and every one of you. Any ideas?"

Many ideas are bandied about, but in many years of doing this lecture, not a single student has come up with the answer (how about you, colleagues?)

"It's simple: self respect. Self respect is not simply given to you by you, it must be earned. Self respect is not simply liking yourself, with or without justification, it is earned by meeting high expectations and external standards, by real learning and accomplishment, by living up to qualities and behaviours outside of ourselves that every competent, decent, caring, together person finds valuable, honorable and necessary.

When you, after days of effort and many drafts, complete an excellent essay, when you raise your algebra grade from a C to a B, when you play a prize-winning trumpet solo, when your kindness lifts the spirits of another, when you learn and successfully practice any useful skill, you are deserving of self respect and the respect of others.

Do you get it? Self esteem is internal only. It's only within you. It may be completely unjustified, indeed it can keep you from doing the right thing--from doing what you need to do to become a better person--because you're so blinded by how wonderful you think you are. A happy slacker is still a slacker. But if you have self respect, you've earned it, by definition and in fact. And with self respect, you'll always have others who will recognize your right to have it. They'll show you by giving you their respect.

OK. Show of hands. Who would rather have self respect than self esteem?"

Do I need to tell you the response?

Jump on the self respect bandwagon, folks. Self esteem is, and always was, destructive narcissism.

At 8/3/06, 5:46 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Teacher lady: welcome, and you are welcome! This has been one of my pet screeds for a long time.

Mike: You are my brother under the skin! I swear that I have almost the exact same speech!

Self-RESPECT: Let's create a NEW Latest Thing in Education!

If a student really respects himself, he expects more from himself.


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