Posted by Rojas @ 8:38 pm on February 14th 2007

Memo to America’s kids: you suck

There’s nothing terribly new in the research revealed in this week’s New York Magazine regarding self-esteem and young people’s academic performance. The proposition that a high degree of self-regard is a necessary component of academic achievement has been thoroughly discredited for a long time now, and the research is accessible enough that one of my teenage students was able to write a competitively successful speech on the topic five years ago. Granted, it was a particularly gifted student, but there was no way I was going to tell her that about herself. She wasn’t unaware of that fact–genuinely smart people rarely are–and was prinicipally motivated by the desire to demonstrate her skills empirically rather than to obtain relatively meaningless and entirely subjective praise.

What is remarkable is the degree to which this inconvenient conclusion remains unchallenged within the world of American professional education. It’s not as though the subject of student self-esteem is ignored, either; rather, the institutional machinery seems to be intent on reinforcing the same 60s research with the same sloppy conclusions. Anecdotally, I can say that the teacher preparatory institutions I myself have attended–in two seperate states and with radically divergent overall ideological orientations–have pushed the cure-all benefits of student self-belief at every opportunity, treating them as a matter of scientific fact.

The article discusses, in excellent detail, exactly why that approach is harmful, and I won’t belabor the point. It is, of course, far wiser to encourage children to recognize their POTENTIAL–and to positively reinforce those behaviors that seek to develop it fully–than to encourage them to think of themselves as intrinsically skilled.

What strikes me about the article is that it speaks to a broader willingness within the educational establishment to believe what we want to believe rather than what the facts demonstrate. This is an indictment, of course, that is most often made of creationists in my home state of Kansas, who have demonstrated the tendency amply and embarrassingly before the State Board of Education.

But their mistake is replicated by many thousands of people within the educational establishment–both in the ivory tower of academia and on the actual battlefield–who really ought to know better. We’re altogether willing to treat the most preliminary results of the most questionable research as proof positive that a change needs to be made–a shift to block scheduling, incorporation of specific faddish reading training techniques into non-English coursework, “open classrooms” or “pod design” in school architecture. If it strikes us as a USEFUL belief, we’ll find research to justify it.

I cannot speak to whether this credulence is as pervasive in other fields as in education, although the comic strip “Dilbert” suggests that the business world has a similar infatuation with poorly justified and faddish solutions. It does speak, more broadly, to the necessity of a more market-oriented approach to education, though. There is a real absence of rigor in the way we go about making decisions about how to reform our schools, and to the extent that we’re making decisions on faith more than facts–where students’ self-esteem is concerned, or in any other area–we ought to be held accountable.


  1. When I was at school, our marks were averaged out every term and we got told where we were in the class order. Two of those terms, we also had exams and got a form order from those, too. I liked it, actually.

    Comment by Adam — 2/14/2007 @ 9:18 pm

  2. Another reason I DO NOT want to send my kids to a public school. I’ll home school the little brats at the Mises Institute for Boys and Girls.

    Comment by weltschmerz — 2/14/2007 @ 10:25 pm

  3. a shift to block scheduling, incorporation of specific faddish reading training techniques into non-English coursework, “open classrooms” or “pod design” in school architecture.

    Bwah hah hah! When I went to my junior year at Emporia High School, we had block schedules and open classrooms. What did they think having no rear wall was supposed to do for us?

    I remember how Fridays seemed to whiz by, because you’d go to each class for 45 minutes, and you’d take in all this information, then just when you were about to start falling asleep (which would be halfway through your block schedule class) you’d get up and go to a new class. It eased the monotony of public education.

    As far as my kids are concerned, school will be, going to the zoo, and watching the history channel, and doing algebra at the kitchen table. &$*% ACADEMIA. You know you all hated it. You know it was miserable.

    Comment by weltschmerz — 2/14/2007 @ 10:29 pm

  4. Let me be clear – Fridays we’d have a normal schedule, with 8 blocks, not 4.

    Comment by weltschmerz — 2/14/2007 @ 10:30 pm

  5. […] complement Rojas’ post about overconfident kids is this story, that played on NPR this morning, about the varying fortunes […]

    Pingback by The Crossed Pond » Memo to America’s kids: How to avoid sucking. Maybe. — 2/15/2007 @ 11:12 am

  6. […] make life fair and shouldn’t try, we can’t make everyone equally talented and we shouldn’t pretend that everyone is equally talented, but we can give people a chance to achieve their […]

    Pingback by The Crossed Pond » Guns! Sex! Education! (but mostly Education) — 2/16/2007 @ 12:19 pm

  7. […] of self-esteem Gone Wild that Rojas has talked about, and tackled, from an educational perspective before. It was well described by, of all people, Chuck Palahniuk (which is ironic because there are few […]

    Pingback by The Crossed Pond » America Fiddles While Paris Burns — 6/9/2007 @ 7:48 pm

  8. […] obstacle to personal growth, it’s remarkable that he turned out as well as he did. My usual screaming about the culture of self-esteem aside, it seems to me that asking students to reflect on their choices and on the quality of their […]

    Pingback by The Crossed Pond » Mo can't fly — 7/30/2007 @ 11:30 pm

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