More and more educators are falling out of love with self-esteem. Years of experience have taught them that empty praise does not enhance performance. It detracts from it.
None will admit that they are following in the footsteps of the Tiger Mom, but they are.
The Washington Post reports: “For decades, the prevailing wisdom in education was that high self-esteem would lead to high achievement. The theory led to an avalanche of daily affirmations, awards ceremonies and attendance certificates — but few, if any, academic gains.
“Now, an increasing number of teachers are weaning themselves from what some call empty praise. Drawing on psychology and brain research, these educators aim to articulate a more precise, and scientific, vocabulary for praise that will push children to work through mistakes and take on more challenging assignments.”
Happily, this new trend also aims at building character by inculcating better values: “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.”
It’s a good day when therapy culture values are being overthrown in America’s schools.
The cultural transformation has been fueled by the free market. Increasingly, parents and teachers are seeing that American children are falling behind children from other countries.
Self-esteemism has been reality-tested. Now, more and more people are seeing that it has failed.
The Post writes: “Underlying the praise backlash is a hard seed of anxiety — a sense that American students are not working hard enough to compete with students from overseas for future jobs.”
Empty praise is a lie. Young children will accept it uncritically but adolescents know that it is patronizing. They know when they are being lied to.
Moreover, if you are being told that you are great when you aren’t, why bother to strive to do better. Worse yet, if you know that you are being lied to you will be less likely to take a risk that might show the world the truth.
We must, however, temper our optimism. Today, one of the major recipients of empty praise, a veritable monster of high self-esteem, is residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
He will be there for at least another year, and, perhaps even for four more years. If that does not cause you to temper your optimism, nothing will.
This morning Newsweek reminded us how far Barack Obama has gotten on empty praise. Apparently desperate to create buzz, the newsweekly published a cover story in which Andrew Sullivan showering Barack Obama with empty praise.
Sullivan does not think the praise is empty, but, in truth, his article is more campaign literature than serious essay. It has no place on the cover of a so-called news magazine.
In many ways Barack Obama is the product of a culture that tried to run on empty praise. He was elected president on the grounds that he was too smart to have ever accomplished anything.
Now, after three years of watching Obama flounder in his job and do everything in his power to divide the American people, most of his supporters have come to their senses and offered their mea culpas.
You do not need exceptional intelligence to see that the Obama administration has failed. You do need a modicum of integrity.
Having long since overdosed on therapy, Sullivan has none left. So, he falls back on his love for Obama.
Only someone who has been blinded by love could claim that Obama’s failures are successes, that his inadequacies are tactical, and that he is smarter than everyone else.
In order to support his claim that Obama is smart, Sullivan is obliged to claim that all of Obama’s critics are “dumb.”
Inadvertently, Sullivan is revealing one of the more appalling consequences of the self-esteem, i.e. empty praise, movement.
When you praise mediocrity, what happens when you encounter true intelligence? Sullivan shows us that you will need to dismiss it, disparage it, or demean it.
The victims of the self-esteem movement have been those children who really are exceptional.
Take a classroom. If everyone is called brilliant or if everyone’s answers are declared to be insightful, regardless of whether they are right or wrong, the child who is truly brilliant will decide that working hard is not worth the trouble.
If his effort or his talent is not recognized, why bother.
When teachers fail to differentiate between brilliance and mediocrity they are demoralizing those children who have real brilliance.
In addition, a teacher who wants to raise the self-esteem of mediocre children might well be led to demean the achievements of the bright children.
If a teacher knows that Johnny will always have the right answer, she might decide not to call on Johnny. She might keep calling on Jimmy even though Jimmy rarely has the right answer. She might even make it her mission to praise Jimmy regardless of whether his answer is right or wrong.
Clearly, the tactic will tell Johnny that he is being punished for being smarter. He will figure out that having the right answer is wrong because it makes Jimmy feel bad for being a dolt.
The self-esteem movement punishes people harshly for making others feel bad.
The teacher might believe that she is leveling the playing field and producing greater classroom equality. She will, in fact, be victimizing the children who have true talent, teaching them that the system is rigged against them. .
If you want to make Obama look smart, you can skew the evidence, as Sullivan does. But you also need to label all of his critics as dumb, because if you compared his intelligence to theirs, his would not withstand judgment.