Self-esteem vs. self-improvement (Proud to be Canadian November 12, 2008)

My generation was prepared for university by high school teachers with little interest in how we “felt” about the subjects they taught, and a great deal of interest in what we actually knew.

Grades were awarded according to the degree of one’s knowledge and one’s rhetorical skills in presentation. Motivation and performance were thus joined in elegant symbiosis.

Well, that was then. According to a just-published study by Ellen Greenberger, a professor of psychology and social behaviour at the University of California-Irvine, two-thirds of university students today believe that if they’re “trying hard,” their grades should reflect their effort, not their actual achievement. One-third of the 400 undergrads interviewed for the study felt they deserved a B grade just for attending most of a course’s classes.

These students are the product of a decades-long, therapeutic educational culture in which personal self-esteem is privileged over knowledge, coherence of expression and academic integrity. Their chutzpah is the logical conclusion to a pre-university lifetime of reassurance from teachers that everything they said or wrote was “creative,” even if it was full of objective mistakes.

The self-esteem movement began in the 1970s, when ideology-inspired social engineering — the aim to “construct” a happy, confident person — replaced knowledge-based learning as an educators’ mandate.

The idea was to reduce the supposedly bad stress caused by competition and objective standards, whose disparate consequences were thought to undermine less successful children’s fragile self-esteem. Instead of linking reward to achievement, children were rewarded for completing tasks, basically just for showing up.

All children were thenceforth to receive gold stars, not just the elite few. Predictably (by any non-intellectual), the effect was to render gold stars equally worthless in the eyes of indifferent and aspirational students alike. It didn’t take long to inculcate the unrealistic and actually quite harmful idea that self-esteem is an entitlement, not striving’s reward.

In their 2007 book, Ivory Tower Blues: A University System In Crisis, University of Western Ontario professors James E. Côté and Anton L. Allahar indict the self-esteem movement as a principal reason for the increasing dysfunctionality of the university system today: “Students with high self-esteem based on false feedback are much more difficult to teach because many cannot take criticism and feedback without assuming that it is personal. Experimental research suggests that such people attempt to preserve their self-esteem, not by altering their behaviour so that it becomes more based in reality, but by attacking the source of the threat.”

Anyone with common sense could have predicted that students high in bogus self-esteem but low in feelings of competency and control over material — what the book’s authors call “self-efficacy” — would also lack both humility and motivation in their approach to higher learning.

The domino effect of the self-esteem movement does not augur well for university culture. Students disengage from anything that looks like actual work, for which they have not been prepared, yet view a university degree as a right, a licence for a job.

Accordingly, they balk at the very idea of failure — an abomination against which they have been bubble-wrapped since kindergarten. Then, constrained by fear of poor evaluations and by silence or denial from above, professors necessarily become complicit in the charade of student “achievement.” They must even turn a blind eye to cheating and plagiarism, once-taboo habits now routinely incorporated into students’ “research” process, but rarely punished by shaming of any kind, let alone expulsion.

Côté and Allahar conducted an in-depth analysis of the self-esteem movement’s consequences at the University of Western Ontario in the faculties of arts, social science and natural science. More than one third of the profs they interviewed identified fewer than 10% of their students as “fully engaged.” Over 80% of professors said they had dumbed down their course work, and had reduced the frequency and difficulty of assignments.

More than half the students in courses at all levels were receiving either an A or B. Objectively, grade distribution should be: 10% A, 20% B and 40% C or lower. If graded accurately, up to 20% would regularly fail. In fact, at Western about 5% fail. Not surprisingly, only about half the professors consulted find the teaching part of their jobs satisfying.

The moral of the story is that you can have “higher education” as we used to call it, which depends on high effort and high levels of engagement amongst students. Or you can have high across-the board self-esteem amongst students, producing mediocre education by disillusioned professors to unmotivated, disengaged students. You can’t have both.

It’s time to break the conspiracy of silence on this important subject. Even if — oh the horror! — it means some misguided educational theorists take a hit to their precious self-esteem.

©2005-08 - Barbara Kay is a columnist at Canada’s National Post newspaper.  Her column appears here at weekly, with Barbara Kay’s express permission.