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Self-Reliance and Higher Standards

3/9/02

    How refreshing it was to read in the February 3, 2002 New York Times Magazine Lauren Slater’s article "The Trouble with Self-Esteem." Readers of TeacherTalk have no doubt detected my chagrin at the extent to which this modern construct has all but overwhelmed the talk of people working in education today. It’s gotten so bad that  recently upon correcting a student and pointing out the deficiencies of his work, he said to me, "Why are you telling me all of this. It’s not good for my self-esteem." How wonderful it was then to read Slater telling us what we should have always known, how it is perfectly possible to have a profound liking of oneself while being an anti-social monster. Slater would have us change our focus from self-esteem, a blanket cultivation of the appreciation of oneself to self-appraisal, the art of assessing one’s strengths and weaknesses so as to be able to work on improving the latter. Certainly schools are better equipped to help students learn to critique themselves and their accomplishments. Good schools have been doing this forever. They are not very well equipped to help students develop self-esteem, even if we believe the idea to have some importance.

    In addition to helping students to master the art of self-appraisal, if we are serious about raising academic standards, there is another "self" word we ought to think about - self-reliance. It seems to me that the students I meet in our schools grow less self-reliant over time. So often their first response to being given a task is to conjure up all of the reasons why they are incapable of doing it. Their parents often call us to complain about how the work we assign is too difficult, how it requires their children to work too long or too hard. Sometimes, parents whose children are faced with a challenging assignment simply do part or all of it for them, thereby not only robbing them of the possibility of learning to be self-reliant but teaching them a lesson in dishonesty to boot. I’d like to advance the radical idea that it is good for young people to tackle hard things, that it is good for them to struggle and stretch themselves, even if they don’t get an "A" for everything they do.

    Parents who are truly interested in what their children learn and in the development of their academic skills support teachers who challenge their children to try things they aren’t sure they can do. They know that if they do, their children will be equipped to face the challenges that life will surely present to them. They know that the world really doesn’t care what we think of ourselves. It cares about the things we can do and hopefully about depth of our humanity.

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