The Feel-Good Curriculum

The Feel-Good Curriculum: the dumbing down of American kids in the name of self-esteem

by Maureen Stout, Ph. D., Perseus Books, New York 2000

The so-called self-esteem movement, a radically child-centered, therapeutic model of schooling, has transformed schools into clinics and teachers into counselors, creating a generation of self-righteous, self-absorbed, underachieving children.  The Feel Good Curriculum provides devastating evidence that our belief in the power and importance of self-esteem in education is misplaced and unfounded.  It shows that by dumbing down curricula to make kids feel good about themselves, we have robbed them of the opportunity to develop their full potential and, in the process, develop genuine self-esteem, the kind that comes from success, not the other way around. This book passionately urges us to replace the coddling, indulgent approach to building self-esteem in children with a sense of authentic self-confidence developed through intellectual, physical and moral effort and achievement.


When did the purpose of schooling become to discover oneself rather than discover the world? When did we begin to replace the historic purposes of the common school- teaching a core of knowledge, preparing citizens to be active participants in the democratic process, providing a skillful workforce- with the ideology of the self-esteem movement? What is clear is that the cultivation of self-esteem was never an overriding interest and was only considered (if it was considered at all) a consequence of achievement, hard work, and responsibility.  Only recently in the history of American schooling has self-esteem become the end goal of education.

In fact, the absence of a clear definition of self-esteem is one of the most dangerous aspects of our addiction to it. Teachers and professors of education refer to it as if we all know what we are talking about, but we don’t really understand what it means until it is too late, when we see its effects: grade inflation, lowered expectation, and social promotions, among other things.  No one bothered to tell parents that education researchers in their wisdom decided that giving Johnny the C he earned would be bad for his self-esteem and that they decided he should get the A he didn’t earn instead..  What they also didn’t tell them- or Johnny for that matter- was that as a result of this practice, Johnny will not be aware of what he hasn’t learned until it is too late, when he graduates from high school and finds out he really doesn’t know very much of anything at all. Then just how good is he going to feel about himself? But no one wants to answer that question.  As one observer puts it, “If self-esteem is our goal, we’re making our kids feel terrific about doing less and less.”

One of the themes of this book is that self-confidence is important but it must be authentic.  Authentic self-confidence develops from intellectual, physical, and moral effort and achievement, and can come as much from lessons learned from failure as from success.  Children develop strength from experience- the good, the bad and the ugly.

It is trite, but nonetheless true, that suffering creates character.  I am not suggesting that children should suffer, but today’s kids, for all that they may have been indulged, have been deprived of the privilege of being challenged. If they are indeed a “me” generation, it is primarily because their faith has been questioned by the cynicism of the self-esteem movement, their intellects left unused, and their curiosity dulled.

Under the same section they also criticize competition, arguing that when there are few winners and many losers, it may be easier to protect one’s sense of self-worth by not trying, than to try and still not succeed. I always find it interesting that psychologists view failure and low self-esteem as a necessary result of competition, when competition can simply mean trying to do one’s best. Indeed, the most meaningful kind of competition is arguably competition against oneself; setting one’s own goals and trying to meet them.

The maxim “nothing succeeds like success” has driven educational practice for decades and as a result, success has become the means and the end of education and become a higher priority than learning. To ensure success educators keep standards and expectations low, mistakenly believing that it is more important for kids to experience success than to actually learn something; sadly, it apparently matters little whether or not that success is a fiction.

The idea of the teacher as friend, one of the more enduring myths of the self-esteem movement, is just as dangerous.  Many parents have unfortunately adopted this idea for themselves, and the idea of parent as a friend is also hugely popular.  In both cases, the danger is the same.  By becoming a child’s friend, teachers and parents lose their authority and thereby their ability to direct the child in any pursuit, academic or behavioral.

Competition is an integral part of human biology and sociology.  Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest is in essence the explanation of how competition between animals (or people) with different strengths and abilities creates an environment in which the best competitor wins. That competition is what ensures the survival of the species.  It is also the underlying principle of capitalist economies and is therefore what makes America tick. In fact, the economic consequences of a lack of competition provide a very instructive lesson for schools. As a result of being protected from competition, industries in the former communist states often experienced very low productivity and worker disengagement….There is little reason to think that the consequences would be any different for kids in school. Without competition, kids have little reason to produce any work. They become alienated from school because they have no reason to be there and no goal to work toward….No competition, no success, no independence, no future.

Theorists of the self-esteem movement believe that developing reason and critical thinking skills- the foundation of a classical liberal education- is not as important as learning about interpersonal relationships, family dynamics, and personal feelings, and therefore schools should be teaching the latter and not the former.

Parents today need all the support they can get because their natural instinct to guide and discipline their children has been so undermined by self-esteem dogma that many have lost faith in their abilities and even their motives in parenting.  Having been told for twenty years that setting ethical and behavioral standards for their children will destroy their self-esteem, some parents are experiencing a crisis of confidence in their parenting skills.

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