Viewpoint: Outlawing failure excludes possibility of success in school

If hell is paved with good intentions, then late 20th century schools were paved with self-esteem. S

If hell is paved with good intentions, then late 20th century schools were paved with self-esteem. Self-esteem disciples so urgently wanted students to know the joys of success and self-confidence that they inadvertently condemned them to fail.

The modern self-esteem movement was the brainchild of a California psychology professor. He designed a questionnaire to identify kids who didn’t feel good about themselves. Based on his survey, he concluded that achievement, clear expectations, and “firm and consistent discipline” tend to make children self-confident, while excessive “freedom” typically lowers a child’s self-image, yielding kids who achieve less and are less responsible.

In short, the more you let kids rule the roost, whether that roost is the living room or the classroom, the less successful they’re likely to become.

Even if you accept the inconveniently unproven premise that high self-esteem enhances achievement, schools have spent the last generation moving heaven and earth to foster self-esteem by ignoring the study that invented it. Far from endorsing consistent expectations and discipline, self-esteem boosters have for years condemned teachers who value the maintenance of order in the classroom as a condition of learning. Self-esteemers neglected, even scorned, their own prescription — responsibility, hard work and good deeds. That’s because once you expect some commendable level of school performance, whether academic or behavioral, failure becomes a possibility.

I was raised on tales of great men who overcame failure. Whether it was Washington’s resolve at Valley Forge or Edison’s thousand unsuccessful light bulbs, I was taught that failure and self-doubt were a normal part of life. Picking yourself up and dusting yourself off was the stuff heroes were made of.

Self-esteemers turned that classic virtue on its head. Rather than coaching students to pursue high standards in academics and conduct, pursuits at which you can fail, they contrived to eliminate altogether the distressing possibility of failure. Self-esteem manuals began advising kids to unconditionally “express the growing sense of love” they have for themselves.

One self-esteem exercise involves a “magic box” with a mirror inside. Students are instructed to look in the box to answer the question, “Who is the most special person in the world.”

Then there’s the middle school checklist of self-esteem commandments titled “How to Love Yourself.” The first commandment sets the tone: “Stop all criticism. Criticism never changes a thing. Refuse to criticize yourself. Accept yourself exactly as you are.”

Obvious nonsense

That’s nonsense. A person who’s taught never to criticize himself, and who isn’t subject to criticism from others, such as teachers and parents, will never change for the better.

When I do something wrong, I’m supposed to feel guilty. Excessive guilt may be unhealthy, but it’s no worse than excessive self-satisfaction and complacency. Self-esteem boosters have claimed for years that low self-esteem results in all sorts ills, from delinquency to dropping out. More recent studies suggest that America’s obsession with self-esteem has actually increased substance abuse and inclined students toward frustration and violence when the world’s measure of them falls short of their own inflated view of themselves.

Self-esteemers have lately been on the defensive. In the journal Middle Ground, an expert conceded that “praising kids for a lack of effort is useless,” adding “I think we’ve learned that.” The fact that educators ever praised kids for not making an effort demonstrates how far from common sense education has strayed over the past decades.

As obvious as the theory’s lunacy should have been, we’ve apparently only lately learned how insanely we’ve been running public schools.

When you outlaw failure, you exclude the possibility of success. Decades of inflated grades have spawned a disincentivized generation who feel entitled to A’s and B’s. Our apprehension that kids might feel burdened by guilt over their bad behavior led us to be more concerned with the emotional effects of “behavior challenges” on the perpetrator than we are with the wounds he inflicts on his victims.

We sowed self-esteem, and reaped mediocrity and chaos.

Children shouldn’t feel they need to earn love. They also shouldn’t carry the burden of believing their worth consists of how talented, beautiful, smart or tall they are. It doesn’t take most of us long to notice that some of us are more talented, beautiful, smart or tall than the rest of us.

Accurate measure

That’s why it’s vital to instill in students an accurate gauge of their self-worth, beyond their innate value as human beings. Everyone isn’t a star, but each of us can work hard. Each of us can tell the truth and behave decently.

Middle Ground claims that self-esteem is powerful, that if schools “build it,” students “will flourish.” Sadly, the experts have it backward.

If we — families, schools and society — teach and expect children to strive after noble, achievable virtues such as diligence in their studies, honesty in their dealings and decency in their conduct, then their esteem will flourish. And rightly so.

It isn’t self-esteem the nation needs to build.It’s character.

Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vt. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion

Leave a Reply