'Self-esteem' is the enemy of learning and civility

The 'feel good' educational doctrine has savaged intellectual standards and crippled the learning process.

January 09, 2000|By Judith Schlesinger | Judith Schlesinger,Special to the Sun

Despite all our techno-ingenuity, "dumbth" continues to spread. This is Steve Allen's term for the long-running epidemic of intellectual laziness and the official sanctioning of the slipshod. National surveys keep reminding us how many students cannot read, write, or apply whatever concepts they do manage to retain.

In 17 years of teaching college, I've witnessed a steady deterioration in academic skills and interest and a growing reliance on quilting. Students scoop other peoples' ideas off the Web and stitch them into clumsy patchworks they mistake for term papers. These kids cannot paraphrase what they just "wrote," but since they were taught to believe that effort is more valuable than comprehension, their first concern is how many pages it takes to get an A.

For many -- not all, but more every year -- learning is something that must be endured to get a credential, not pursued to enrich a life. Much of the blame belongs to schools where sharing feelings is more important than learning to think: a philosophy sprung from The Wonder of Me '60s, it has produced a whole generation of kids with swollen, empty heads.

This was the spark for a scorching new book, "The Feel-Good Curriculum: The Dumbing Down of America's Kids in the Name of Self-Esteem" (Perseus Books, 320 pages, $26). Author Maureen Stout, assistant education professor at California State at Northridge, argues that self-esteem is a fuzzy concept that has never been proven to enhance academic performance. "Everyone talks as if self-esteem means something," she says, "yet where's the evidence?" (Another question: If self-esteem is inherently beneficial, why do sociopaths have so much of it?)

Proof was irrelevant to the 1989 California Task Force on Self-Esteem, whose leader declared that "all the research in the world will not change my mind about [its importance]." Its report had a lasting impact on public policy, including the 1996 Ebonics disaster that was scrapped a year later. Stout indicts "feel-good education" for such intellectually destructive practices as social promotion, ungraded report cards and the ascension of multiculturalism, which "places the learner's ethnic and linguistic identity at the center of the learning process." It also created entitlement, the victim mentality and alienation, which in turn undermines civility, which begets road rage, air rage and ski rage.

All of this makes sense and urgently needs to be said. Once education deified self-esteem, it knocked academics into the mud, producing a generation that cannot differentiate thinking from feeling. Stout's own research shows that a majority of recent education majors believe emotional intelligence (the ability to harmonize with other people) is more crucial for life success than intellectual intelligence.

Administrators have also been known to address image before substance: when two-thirds of New York state eighth-graders failed a new math test, the remedy was to lower the passing grade to 50 to improve the standings and protect the children's view of themselves. In a system where each child fully expects to be celebrated simply for being himself, and where every idea, act and person is precisely as worthy as any other, motivation becomes irrelevant -- besides, to fully protect kids from the unspeakable horror of disappointment, they must be discouraged from reaching beyond their grasp.

Genuine self-esteem comes from meeting challenges, not eliminating them, but "feel-good education" spins a gooey cocoon from which failure -- and its character-building aspects -- are excluded.

Perhaps worst of all, students who lack adequate instruction in logic and deductive reasoning will be ill-equipped to detect sham and manipulation, becoming easy prey for any huckster with a shiny package and a snappy soundbite. If Stout occasionally goes overboard -- for example, blaming eminent psychologists for the posthumous distortion of their ideas -- her fury can be forgiven as the panic of the last sentry at the last outpost of a losing war: After all, her students are future teachers.

In fact, her reactions seem positively breezy after reading some dispatches from the other side. While it's generally better to like than to loathe oneself, the maintenance of self-esteem has been bloated into "the prime motivation for all behavior" -- at least according to "100 Ways to Enhance Self-Concept in the Classroom" by Harold Clive Wells and Jack Canfield (Allyn & Bacon, 290 pages, $36), which has required 30 printings since its arrival 23 years ago.

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