The Fallacy of Self Esteem

January 24, 2012

Columbus, MS, Culture, Education, News, Politics

An article in the January 16, 2012 Washington Post debunks the myth of ‘self esteem’.  After years of praising young children for the most insignificant achievement or progress in an attempt to build confidence, eagerness, and a desire to learn, educators are now realizing their mistake and finally accepting what common sense has told all of us – praise the praiseworthy, criticize rigorously but fairly, and promote according to merit.

A growing body of research over three decades shows that easy, unearned praise does not help students but instead interferes with significant learning opportunities. As schools ratchet up academic standards for all students, new buzzwords are “persistence,” “risk-taking” and “resilience” — each implying more sweat and strain than fuzzy, warm feelings.

“We used to think we could hand children self-esteem on a platter,” Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck said. “That has backfired.”

Dweck’s studies, embraced in Montgomery schools and elsewhere, have found that praising children for intelligence — “You’re so clever!” — also backfires. In study after study, children rewarded for being smart become more likely to shy away from hard assignments that might tarnish their star reputations.

But children praised for trying hard or taking risks tend to enjoy challenges and find greater success. Children also perform better in the long term when they believe that their intellect is not a birthright, but something that grows and develops as they learn new things.

The movement to promote self-esteem and the related theory of ‘multiple intelligences’ was part of a larger movement to promote social and racial equality.  If all students were considered equal in the eyes of their teachers, this perceived equality would pass to the student body.  All students, regardless of real ability, received trophies and rewards for excellence; and all students were lauded for some ability, whether to draw, play sports, or sing.  If we were all great, the argument went, it would be harder for students to racially or ethnically profile others.

This of course never worked.  Smart kids always knew who the dumb ones were, regardless of their ability to color within the lines.  Jocks were always admired if not envied by the smart kids, especially the geeks who took solace in knowing that they would probably end up with money and an interesting job.  Social engineering was extended to include a restructuring of classrooms where, through ‘collaborative’ or ‘cooperative’ learning, brighter students were instructed to help those less academically able.  We were supposed to ignore the fact that even though you were ‘otherly abled’, academic achievement (the primus inter pares intelligence) was in fact important.  No Child Left Behind and other incentive programs forced schools through another impossible hoop, so teachers babbled on about multiple intelligences and oozed treacly praise to boost self esteem while having to face the fact that school was, in fact, about schooling.

So this PC BS is ending — finally — and we can get back to the business of educating students properly.  As I have written before, it is still a big leap for these same teachers, administrators, and unreconstructed ‘progressive’ school boards to return to classrooms divided by ability (e.g. students assigned to math and reading sections according to ability), renewed focus on innovation, risk-taking, and creativity, and above all the education of the individual student, not the class as a whole.  Still, eliminating a big impediment to educational development has to be applauded.

You’ve got to love these educators, though.  They do not admit their mistakes without reservation – i.e., we totally messed up.  We were guided by misplaced social ideals and lost our focus on teaching.  We lost the individual student in our desire to raise the group – they blame the brain!  Our social ideals were just fine, they say.  We just didn’t know that our programs had neurological consequences.  How were we to know?

To make matters worse, they are going back to their old self-esteem ways, and making students feel good (self esteem) about their brain activity:

But on a January morning at Rocky Hill Middle School in Clarksburg, the smiling grandmother gave nothing away. One seventh-grade boy returned to the overhead projector three times to rewrite a sentence, hesitating each time, while his classmates squirmed in silence.

“You like that?” Hellie asked when he settled on an answer. He nodded. Finally, she beamed and praised the progress he was making — in his cerebral cortex.

It is hard not to laugh at all this posturing, this groping for some kind social glue that holds us all together.  If it is not multiple intelligences and self esteem, it is brain architecture, synapses firing in a purposeful, equal, and fair way.  We are all the same, after all.

Ron Parlato is a writer living in Washington, DC. He has close ties with Columbus which he visits frequently.  His writings on literature, politics and culture, travel, and cooking can be found on his own blog,

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3 Comments on “The Fallacy of Self Esteem”

  1. Berry Hinds Says:

    There was an article in Parent magazine discussing children need to learn they will not not always win, and in fact could lose in games and other activities. That they need to learn this fact starting at an early age. We do them no favors not keeping score and always praising them for everything they do. So for those of us that learned from out parents, grandparents and teachers that work and effort are the things that will make you a successful. Having been raised in a family business I learned early that if you don’t do it you won’t eat or have a home no one else would provide it for you.


  2. Adele Says:

    Thank you, Ron. We always knew the emperor had no clothes.


  3. einstein749 Says:

    What refreshment common sense provides. My mother always said you shouldn’t be rewarded for simply doing what you are supposed to do, and I heartily agree as we raise our own child. She is only two, but I only give her outstanding praise when she makes real progress. For simply obeying or doing something she has long-since mastered, a simple ‘thank you’ or unenthusiastic ‘good’ is sufficient. There should be differentiation between accomplishment and stagnation. If she does something wrong, she is told so and corrected, even punished if necessary (as with bad behavior or deliberate disobedience). You are not doing children any favors by coddling or padding self esteem. You are merely setting them up for disappointment once confronted with the reality of a world that quickly and glaringly notes their mistakes and shortcomings.


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