Why did the self-esteem movement fail?

Most of us have heard that the self-esteem movement is a failure, and many believe that the emphasis on self-esteem resulted in a generation or two of entitled yet under-performing students. In math, for instance, it is often quoted that American students think they are great at math, but in reality they are near the bottom of the pack. But why would the self-esteem movement fail? It is certainly well-intentioned and plausible. It seems reasonable that students who feel terrible about themselves are going to have some trouble with learning, so wouldn’t raising self-esteem provide a necessary precondition for learning?

I wonder if the educational emphasis on self-esteem was really just a creative way to address shame and other difficult emotions. When people struggle in school (and in work), it feels terrible. School is an important part of a young person’s identity. When school is going poorly for students, their relationships with teachers and peers are in jeopardy, and they are probably struggling with shame. When we bolster student egos without addressing the underlying educational and relationship issues, we may have helped the students repair relationships, but the shame is still there. If we fail to address the core issues, we are simply helping the students to hide and manage their shame (and as educators became complicit in the hiding). If we fail to challenge students in their education, we communicate to them that we don’t trust them and don’t believe they are capable, which can serve to cement the shame and further disempower and alienate students. I think the real question is how we all learn to deal with failure and shame while staying powerful and connected.

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