TT #23 – The Self-Esteem Movement

As promised in the last entry, Traditionalist Teacher is spending the summer examining some of the bad ideas spawned by ‘progressive’ educators in the last half-century.  This is being done in hopes that teachers who did not have the misfortune to live through them will recognize a set of old and bad ideas when they come around under different name.  Trust me, they will.

The idea of the day has to do with the Self Esteem Movement.

The Self Esteem Movement was the brainchild of Nathaniel Branden, protégée (and one-time lover) of Ayn Rand, author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. For most of the 1960s, the Nathaniel Branden Institute was the vehicle through which Rand’s “Objectivist” ideas were peddled to the public.  Branden split from Rand personally and professionally in 1968.

In 1969, Branden wrote The Psychology of Self Esteem and proceeded to make his living on the idea for over a decade.  In it, he spelled out his “six pillars of self-esteem”:

  • Living consciously: being aware of what you are doing while you are doing it.
  • Self-acceptance: ‘owning’ your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors and being kind toward yourself.
  • Self-responsibility: accepting your actions and owning your capacity to be the cause of the effects that you desire.
  • Self-assertiveness: treating your needs and interests with respect and of expressing them in appropriate ways.
  • Living purposefully: formulating goals and implementing action plans to achieve them.
  • Personal integrity: maintaining alignment between your behaviors and your convictions.[1]

It was the late 1960s and there was a lot of self-help stuff out there, and Brandon’s ideas were pretty similar to a lot of the other pseudo-psychological stuff on the market.

However, Brandon’s work got mixed up with some of John Dewey’s ideas and got translated into the schools.  Here Traditionalist Teacher is going to quote from the Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society:

John Dewey and William James were among the early psychologist proponents of the importance of the self. Dewey discussed “intuition of self” in his seminal 1886 work, Psychology, using knowledge of self as the talisman for knowledge gains in general. Selfhood was, in this view, essential to freedom. But it was James who, in 1892, first used the term self-esteem with an explicit scientific definition. A key task in socializing children, in James’s view, involved helping them gain the capacity to develop “self” and, with it, the capacity to adapt to different social settings with appropriate projections of self. Self-esteem, more specifically, involved the kind of perceptions that, properly honed, were crucial to achievement and success.[2]

It is almost like a recipe for a bad stew.  Start with a little bad advice from John Dewey.  Mix in a lot of 1960s psycho-babble.   Let the mixture ferment for a couple decades.  Yield: a fine slumgullian mess of ‘progressive’ education theory.

The basic theory was simple:

  1. Kids weren’t learning because they didn’t think that they could.
  2. Kids didn’t think they could learn because they didn’t like themselves.
  3. Therefore, teachers could help kids learn by helping them to like themselves.

How could teachers help their students like themselves?  A lot of stress was placed on something called ‘positive reinforcement’.  The idea was that teachers often spent a lot of time correcting students – telling the students what they were doing wrong.  Since students couldn’t differentiate between failing at some task and being failures, the teacher became one of the reasons that the students believed that they could not succeed.

So, teachers were told to “catch them doing good,” as the saying went.  Every child, the theory said, craved attention.  Ignoring bad behavior would cause it to stop, because kids who did not like themselves acted badly – preferring negative attention to being ignored.  Complementing good behavior would meet the child’s need for attention, and the child would respond by doing more of the good behavior.

Other bits of practical advice in this vein went along these lines:

  • Correct only the most egregious mistakes.
  • When marking a student’s paper, include at least two good comments for every bad comment.
  • Stop using red pens for corrections.  Green ink communicates a more positive impression.
  • Never criticize a student’s ideas, only (if absolutely necessary) the way the idea was stated.
  • Send each student at least one “Happygram” a week.

Traditionalist Teacher will never forget the way that the self-esteem movement was introduced to the faculty by a principal who was instituting those ideas.  It was a fairly normal faculty meeting in 1992 or 1993.  At least it was normal until the end, when the self-esteem program was presented.  The assistant principals passed out a handout with a story on it called “Three Letters from Teddy.”  The story is a hardy perennial, and several versions of it can be found on the Internet.  The Vimeo people have made a short film which can be viewed at

Perhaps the point of the story can be summed up in a quotation in which the narrator, Teddy’s teacher, in response to Teddy’s situation said, “That’s when I stopped teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic – and began teaching students.”

We were a pretty hard-boiled bunch of high school teachers and our reactions were not all that the principal, whom we had never regarded as much of a disciplinarian, desired.  He was disappointed in the way that we received the program.  Traditionalist Teacher et al were not totally sure that we were ready to abandon reading, writing, and arithmetic.  Finally, the principal said, “Look, if we can help some of these kids do better by building their self-esteem, WE ARE GOING TO DO IT!”

Case closed.

Of course, it didn’t work.  In fact, it proved to be counter-productive.  Student achievement went down and unacceptable behavior went up.  This was one ‘progressive’ idea that was such a disaster that even the progressives denied it.  A good example of the reaction can be read at, where Alfie Kohn – in many other ways a progressive’s progressive – describes in detail the flaws that underlay the self-esteem concept and its failures.[3]

The self-esteem movement told teachers that academics were not as important as the student’s well-being.  If standards needed to be relaxed, then we should do so.  Teachers who objected were accused of caring more about their subjects than they did about their students.  Of course, a few years later, the politicians got wind of the public’s reaction to the lowered academic and discipline standards.  They blamed (of course) the teachers.  The politicians’ solution was more standardized testing.  We all know where this one is going.

However, don’t think that means that the idea is dead.  There are still those who fly the self-esteem flag.  The biggest reason that this idea will come back again is that it is just too easy.  Administrators get to do what they do best – tell teachers how to teach.  Administrators won’t have to do the hard part that so many of them do badly – actually punish students for their bad actions.

Then, they will blame the teachers – again.

[1] Language simplified by the author.  Brandon’s sequel, entitled The Sex Pillars of Self-Esteem can be sampled at


[3] The article can also be found in the December 1994 issue of Phi Delta Kappan.  Since PDK is a journal of ‘Progressive’ Education, readers are encouraged to get a copy and put it away, just in case their administrators trot out some of these ideas.

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