As long as the nation has been awash in self-esteemist pedagogy, critics have been warning of the dangers inherent in such methods.
Janice Fiamengo brilliantly captures the danger in a single concept: self-esteemism has rendered American children "unteachable."
The problem, she explains, originated with a man who is lionized as an educational reformer, John Dewey:
The unteachable student has been told all her life that she is excellent: gifted, creative, insightful, thoughtful, able to succeed at whatever she tries, full of potential and innate ability. Pedagogical wisdom since at least the time of John Dewey — and in some form all the way back to William Wordsworth’s divinely anointed child “trailing clouds of glory” — has stressed the development of self-esteem and a sense of achievement. Education, as Dewey made clear in such works as The Child and the Curriculum (1902), was not about transferring a cultural inheritance from one generation to the next; it was about students’ self-realization. It involved liberating pupils from that stuffy, often stifling, inheritance into free and unforced learning aided by sympathy and encouragement. The teacher was not so much to teach or judge as to elicit a response, leading the student to discover for herself what she, in a sense, already knew. In the past twenty years, the well-documented phenomenon of grade inflation in humanities subjects — the awarding of high “Bs” and “As” to the vast majority of students — has increased the conviction that everyone is first-rate.
Dewey and his followers saw education as self-realization or self-actualization. They did not want to teach children to memorize or analyze information. They did not want educators to transmit traditional civilized values. They wanted children to learn how to introspect to discover their own innate ideas.
It’s a throwback to Plato. Socrates used it first in the Platonic dialogues. It defies tradition and ignores both past and future. It produces children who are not only ignorant, but are also unteachable.
Worse yet, it mistakes education for therapy. It did so before psychoanalysis became the rage.
Fiamengo explains that self-esteemist pedagogy punishes all students, unequally.
In her words:
The intelligent ones see their indifferent, mediocre, or inept counterparts receiving grades similar to their own, and the realization offends their sense of justice. Moreover, there is little satisfaction in consciously playing the system.
It's worse for the less intelligent students. They are never allowed to improve, because they are told that they need not improve. They are never challenged and never criticized but are always rewarded regardless of their achievement. To put it simply, they are systematically lied to. They are never learn how to succeed because they never learn how to fail.
They are being allowed to develop character flaws that will haunt them in later life.
In contrast, the weak student who believes in his high grades has also had a disservice done him. He has been misled about his abilities, falsely persuaded that career paths and goals are open that may be out of reach. Eventually, the fraud will be revealed: by an employer who finds him inadequate, by his own dawning recognition that he cannot achieve what he hoped. The reckoning will likely be bitter; evidence exists that the pedagogy of false esteem can even cause psychological harm. When students who have always been praised must confront the reality of their low achievement, their tendency is, as researchers James Coté and Anton Allahar report, not to confront the problem directly but to hit back at its perceived source — the teacher who has given them the bad news, the employer who does not renew a contract. Far more than their adequate peers when faced with difficulties, these students experience a range of negative reactions, including anger, anxiety, and depression.
In the interest of making education more therapeutic, the educational establishment has adopted a technique that will not only render students unteachable but will them avid consumers of psychotropic medication.