The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
Setting the bar as low as possible and aiming only for the lowest common denominator may inhibit failure, but it also prevents success.....  ...Maureen Stout, The Feel-Good Curriculum: The Dumbing Down of America's Kids in the Name of Self-Esteem (Perseus Books, Cambridge, MA, 2000).
Commentary of the Day - April 23, 2000: The Feel-Good Curriculum: The Dumbing Down of America's Kids in the Name of Self-Esteem - A Review:
The Feel-Good Curriculum by Dr. Maureen Stout is a book that is, in many ways, flawed.  Nevertheless, it is an important book that should be read by every parent of a school-aged child, by every teacher, and by every school administrator.

Dr. Stout is an Assistant Professor in the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies department at California State University, Northridge.  Her treatment of the self-esteem movement in American education suffers from three major weaknesses.  First, her uncontained anger over the effects of the self-esteem movement on the intellectual development of her students has caused her to write what amounts to a jeremiad;  second, she does not provide a sharply focussed view of the techniques and theories that led to the emphasis on self-esteem in the school curriculum; and third, she frequently overreaches in an attempt to connect too many of the ills of society to the narcissism generated by unwarranted self-esteem.  Her anger is understandable.  Those of us who teach at the university level have become increasingly frustrated by students who feel that their ignorance is just as good as our knowledge.  More and more we hear students asking "why do we need to know this", or "will this be on the test".  Some of us more superannuated fossils find ourselves becoming rankled when our education school colleagues press us to make our classrooms more "student-centered" when, in our naiveté, we had thought that a university classroom should be "idea-centered".  Dr. Stout works very close to the source of fad-driven approaches to education.  For her, the contrasts between the idea-centered classroom and the student-centered classroom must be all the more extreme.

In spite of its shortcomings, The Feel-Good Curriculum deserves to be read if only for the way in which it exposes the myths of the self-esteem movement in education.  These myths include the following: (1) expectations must be lowered to avoid damaging students' self-esteem, (2) testing and grading damages self-esteem, (3) teaching and learning must be "relevant", (4) effort counts for more than achievement, (5) competition should always be replaced by cooperation, (6) social promotion is necessary to preserve self-esteem, (7) discipline damages self-esteem, (8) teachers should focus on students' feelings rather than their intellectual development, (9) the responsibility for learning rests with the teacher rather than the student, and (10) the student's emotional health is more important than his or her intellectual development.  There is, however, another reason for reading Dr. Stout's book.  She has looked at the evidence behind each of these myths.  Most importantly, she finds that -- contrary to popular opinion -- there is no evidence that connects high self-esteem to better learning.  At the same time, she shows that excessive concern with students' self-esteem leads to a curriculum with lowered expectations and few intellectual challenges for students.

Although her voice at times is strident Dr. Stout is by no means an extremist.  Instead, she calls for a return to a sensible balance between the need for teachers to be sensitive to the emotional development of students, and the need for school to provide students with the intellectual tools that they must have to succeed in life.  In the end, she understands that while self-esteem may be given, self-respect must be earned.
The Feel-Good Curriculum: The Dumbing Down of America's Kids in the Name of Self-Esteem (ISBN 0-7382-0257-6) is published by Perseus Books.  It is available through major booksellers.

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