Cover image for The feel-good curriculum : the dumbing-down of America's kids in the name of self-esteem
The feel-good curriculum : the dumbing-down of America's kids in the name of self-esteem
Stout, Maureen.
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Publication Information:
Cambridge, Mass. : Perseus Books, [2000]

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xiii, 313 pages ; 24 cm
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LB1117 .S83 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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The so-called "self-esteem movement"--a progressive, child-centered, discovery model of schooling--has transformed schools into therapeutic clinics and teachers into counselors, creating a generation of righteous, entitled, underachieving children. An insider's account of the pernicious aspects of this seemingly well-meaning movement, The Feel-Good Curriculum provides devastating evidence that our belief in the power and importance of self-esteem in education is misplaced and without basis.Avoiding political posturing and political correctness, The Feel-Good Curriculum identifies the four specific effects of self-esteem's stranglehold on our schools--narcissism, emotivism, separatism, and cynicism. It prescribes clear antidotes to them--empathy, rationality and morality, connectedness, and skepticism--and offers a hopeful view of educational philosophy for the next millennium. Professor Stout urges us to replace our coddling, indulgent approach to building self-esteem in children with a sense of authentic self-confidence developed from intellectual, physical, and moral effort and achievement.

Author Notes

Maureen Stout is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the California State University, Northridge

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

In a country where every other auto bumper bears a sticker proclaiming that the driver's child is an "honor student," this attack on the "empty and very dangerous" concept of self-esteem couldn't be more timely. An education professor at California State University-Northridge, Stout traces how the ideology of self-esteem developed from early 20th-century progressive schooling through the influence of educational psychology to what she views as the current "idiotic" idea that school should be a kind of therapy. Along the way, she excoriates a number of educational fads and theories, including "whole-language," Ebonics, emotional intelligence and Howard Gardner's theories of multiple intelligences. Stout reserves her harshest criticism for those who teach teachers, arguing that today, "almost every aspect of public schooling, including evaluation, standards, curriculum, and class environment, reflects the goals of the self-esteem movement," and that its worst effects have been on language and literacy. Identifying four major symptoms of the "addiction" to self-esteem--narcissism, separatism, emotivism and cynicism--Stout raises serious questions about the reasons for the current state of public education in the U.S. Unfortunately, her arguments are often weakened by reductive treatments of history and the theories of those she disagrees with. At times, she writes in a dated style ("It is reason that has permitted man to create civil societies") and is occasionally given to wild exaggerations, to the point of appearing to blame the self-esteem movement for murder. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

The title and subtitle of this passionately argued and fluidly written attack on contemporary education philosophy and practice says it all. According to education professor Stout (California State Univ., Northridge), the root problems of American education can be traced to the tragically mistaken belief that self-esteem is a primary goal of education. She maintains that self-esteem should instead flow from a student's substantive achievements. Her targets are the usual suspects that "back-to-basics" adherents attack: Ebonics, Carl Rogers, social promotion, identity politics, moral relativism, and the Montessori Method. To support her position, she refers to the works of many critics of today's education and culture, including Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism and Neil Postman's Technopoly. Although she hits home with some of the colorful subtitles of her chapters ("Psychoanalysis and Education: A Marriage Made in Hell") and scores points against some of the absurdities of how progressive education is practiced today--such as social promotion, overmedication with Ritalin, and racial separatism--Stout is prone to overgeneralizations (e.g., "Americans have always been an isolationist people and tend to look inward for answers"). Provocative but short on solutions, this is of primary interest to professional educators and future teachers and of secondary interest to educated lay readers.--Jack Forman, San Diego Mesa Coll. Lib. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Stout (California State Univ.) provides a fascinating and provocative discussion of the impact of the "self-esteem movement" on American education. She begins by tracing the evolution of the self-esteem movement with special emphasis on her experiences as a school of education professor in California. Stout argues that the emphasis on self-esteem results in lowered academic achievement and inhibits students from reaching their full potential. In the book's middle section, Stout identifies ten myths of the self-esteem movement and the corresponding effect on students and teachers. The last section addresses four impacts of the self-esteem movement--narcissism, emotivism, separatism, and cynicism--with the possible remedies of empathy, rationality and morality, connectedness, skepticism, and hope. She closes by providing lessons for parents and teachers to use in developing student moral and intellectual values. The Feel-Good Curriculum is important for readers interested in issues and questions regarding the performance of American education and can serve as a supplemental text for undergraduate and graduate students. J. A. Beckwith; Northeastern Illinois University



Chapter One What Is School For, Anyway? I read Shakespeare and the Bible, and I can shoot dice. That's what I call a liberal education. --Tallulah Bankhead Historically, public schooling has served both the public interest of creating good citizens as well as educating individuals, providing them with a solid foundation of skills and knowledge. Despite research indicating that most parents still support these purposes, the prevailing wisdom among professors of education seems to be that schools should be redirected to cater to children's emotional and psychological needs. Preparing them to enter society or giving them a classical liberal education is seen as considerably less important. In fact, the ideology of the self-esteem movement poses a serious threat to the ideals of liberal education and is threatening to replace them as the core purposes of public education. But before examining the traditional purposes of schooling and the effects of the self-esteem movement on them, we need to gain an understanding of what this movement is all about. Question: What Does It Mean? Answer: Not Much Despite the enormous amount of writing on the subject of self-esteem, both in the popular press and in academia, few self-esteem advocates appear to feel the need to establish a generally acceptable working definition of it. But definitions are important because they indicate how a particular concept is used and reveal one's worldview. Some observers regard self-esteem as the value we put on characteristics that differentiate us from others while others equate self-esteem with self-respect, arguing that it should not be a reward for stacking up well to others in some area but should be a basic right of an individual in a just society. The current definition of self-esteem used by educators and psychologists seems to be what we might call an "entitlement" view of the self: feeling good about oneself irrespective of individual or social attributes or characteristics.     If self-esteem refers to the value that we put on ourselves, the current notion seems to be that we should all put a high value on ourselves, whether we deserve it or not. Put crudely, this view of self-esteem means feeling good for no good reason . It is entirely divorced from any concept of merit; the idea is that we are all entitled to feel good about ourselves, no matter what others think or whether we have done or said anything to warrant it. This way, of course, all of us can have high self-esteem because there are no criteria for it. All we need to do is claim it for ourselves and we have it. Self-esteem advocates Matthew McKay and Patrick Fanning write that "the problem of self-esteem is this human capacity for judgment." In other words, self-esteem may be damaged by judgment (by oneself or by others), which must therefore be avoided at all costs.     Typically, self-esteem is not defined at all in self-help books or teacher manuals, but one gets a good feel for the current thinking about it by its associated words and phrases: working on the "inner light," thinking positive thoughts, rejecting the negative, self-love, positive self-talk, and so on. John P. Hewitt in The Myth of Self-esteem describes the "conventional wisdom" about self-esteem, noting that today people relate self-esteem to many different aspects of their lives, from how they view themselves physically to their success in business to how they raise their children. He contrasts the current wisdom on self-esteem--that it's something we can and should control individually--with what he terms the "old-fashioned" view on self-esteem: that it should be something that is earned. The latter view constitutes true self-confidence, which I propose in this book. I believe that self-esteem is not something that we are entitled to simply by existing. It should be based on some idea of competence; that we merit self-esteem and, perhaps more important, the esteem of others because we have done something to deserve it.     Hewitt does not try to arbitrate between these two perspectives, since his interest is primarily in how and why members of a culture choose to believe in a particular concept and not specifically whether or not the concept can be proved or disproved with evidence. But my concern is with precisely this issue. All observers, whether promoters or critics of self-esteem, agree that it has become one of the most important concepts in American life, and it clearly exerts profound influence over virtually all school policy and practice. But surely, if we are going to decide what and how our children learn, how we raise our children, and how we interact with one another based on the idea of self-esteem, we need to be sure that the concept is useful, meaningful, and definable. If it is going to be what the California Task Force on Self-Esteem envisioned it, the "unifying concept to reframe American problem solving," we need to be pretty confident that we are basing our decisionmaking, policymaking, and problem solving on something reliable. This book examines the reality of self-esteem and how the public has been tragically misled by academics, policymakers, and educators into believing in a concept that is not only empty but very dangerous.     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 expectations, and social promotion, 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 that 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."     I suggest, then, that meaningful self-esteem (or self-confidence), in addition to being based on competence, should also have moral dimensions; that we should be judged by others and judge ourselves on how we treat others and how we conduct ourselves in the world. This is in direct contradiction to the prevailing view of self-esteem, which claims that positive feelings of self-worth are necessary before we can achieve anything worthwhile in life and, moreover, that we should never judge others. But anyone who has ever given something to another without any expectation of reward or recompense will say that the reason they feel good about themselves is precisely because they have given something to another, and in the act of giving have discovered something good in themselves. In fact almost any activity that requires an investment of the mind, body, or soul and leads to self-improvement or the betterment of others is an activity that will naturally lead to feelings of self-worth. That is meaningful self-esteem: feeling good about oneself because of intentional effort aimed at improvement and accomplishment.     These criteria seem to me to be reasonable and indeed "reasonableness" should be the principal criterion of appropriate self-esteem, according to one observer, Richard Keshen. In Reasonable Self-Esteem he identifies six guidelines for reasonableness, all of which are markers to which the reasonable person would refer when deciding just how good about herself she should feel: weighting, adequacy and truthfulness, consistency, sincere assent, universalizability, and harmonization. The first three refer to the individual's willingness to be as accurate and honest as possible when determining her self-worth. The "sincere assent" guideline is particularly important, since it says that a reasonable person will revise a reason for self-esteem if, upon reflection, she finds that it was unjustified. The "universalizability" guideline is also important, since it suggests that a person should hold the same standards of worth in others' attributes as in her own. And, finally, the "harmonization" guideline says that the reasonable person will ensure that her sense of self-esteem is consistent with her overall value system.     Although we are unlikely to take the time to go over each of these guidelines every time we happen to feel good about ourselves, they do provide a very useful grounding for a commonsense notion of self-esteem that is based on something : competence, honesty in self-evaluation, respect for others, or other similar notions. Keshen's discussion tells us that, contrary to the prevailing dogma, it is not reasonable for each of us to decide, quite arbitrarily and with disregard for any objective criteria, that we should feel good about ourselves. There must be reasons for our self-esteem--good reasons--and we must be honest enough to admit to ourselves and others when we have been puffing ourselves up with no reason at all. The Attraction of Self-Esteem The goal of the self-esteem movement is, of course, high self-esteem: we all want to feel good about ourselves. The idea is simple: Each of us must work on loving ourselves. We must accept ourselves and others for who and what we are. Tolerance is important. We must not judge ourselves or others, nor demand much of anyone. Children, especially, are to be accepted nonjudgmentally and must not be challenged academically or disciplined, since that might make a dent in their self-concept. It is the "I'm OK, you're OK" view of the world.     This is a very seductive notion. Who among us likes to be judged? We all crave acceptance. So for many the self-esteem movement doubtless seems like a wonderful guide for life because it does not include the demands made by, for example, organized religion. Most religions require that man admit his imperfections and spend his life trying to become a better person. This means, if not following specific religious teachings, at least generally adhering to some basic rules of civilized conduct. But the self-esteem movement says that we are all just fine the way we are and that the only conduct we need concern ourselves with is our own. In the language of self-esteem, we need only "discover" ourselves; get to know "who we are" in order to be self-sufficient. We don't have to explain ourselves to anyone else, apologize for, or even admit to, bad behavior, or follow anyone else's rules, since we answer only to ourselves. Why look to religion for emotional and spiritual sustenance when you just have to look in the mirror and find it? Why look for a God elsewhere when you have one right in front of you?     Whereas religion and society try to constrain us and demand that we conform to rules and accept our social obligations, the self-esteem movement promises us the opposite: liberation from all constraints. To many Americans who believe their liberties are being slowly eroded by the state or by corporate or other interests, this is a very appealing idea. The self-esteem movement has in fact given new ammunition to civil libertarians, who fight any attempt to modify rights with responsibilities, while fostering what Christopher Lasch identified twenty years ago as a culture of narcissism. And the very strong individualism that characterizes much of American culture no doubt explains why the self-esteem movement has become more popular here than anywhere else in the world.     The idea of self-esteem also appeals to Americans because it refers to the concept of self-reliance, which is the underlying principle of the American Dream: study hard, work hard, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and you too can be a success. It is the perfect expression of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Of course, as Thurgood Marshall once pointed out, "None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We got here because somebody ... bent down and helped us pick up our boots." Nevertheless, the dream and the faith in self-reliance persist. Finally we have a religion that doesn't tell us we're sinners and a god that accepts us as we are. This must be nirvana. But the relationship experts have this right, at least: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is Addiction and Its Effects The self-esteem movement is the original naked emperor, promising much but, when unclothed, revealing itself as a false god. Religious doctrine can be used to manipulate, alienate, and control people rather than enlighten them, and the doctrines of self-esteem are no different. In fact the self-esteem movement is probably a greater threat to our intellectual freedom than more visible fringe religions or cults because it is insidious. It is represented by no church, mosque, or synagogue, yet its doctrines are well-known; it does not often appear as the subject on a course syllabus in colleges of teacher education, yet it pervades all subjects. It is not a formal part of the curriculum in public schools, yet its effects are seen in the attitudes, behaviors, and skill levels of children from public schools across the country. There is no accredited school or formal training for self-esteem (apart from various self-help workshops) yet thousands have set themselves up as "experts" in it and sell us books on how to get it for ourselves.     But what do we learn from these books? Sadly, we learn very little, but their authors and the self-help industry in general gain a lot from us, the unwitting consumers. The movement creates a dependence on self-help books, which feed off our endless insecurities and personal traumas but promise that if we read just one more we'll be thin enough, smart enough, and "emotionally intelligent" enough to get through life intact. The trick here of course is that if the road to salvation lies in "knowing yourself," which is very likely a never ending process, so people buy countless books on how to become happy but never actually reach that state, for two reasons: first, because absolute happiness is probably impossible to achieve, and second, even if were possible, it would be unlikely to come about through endless navel gazing.     The self-esteem movement also creates a permanent state of victimization. The student is inadequate--a victim of bad parents or mean teachers and an uncaring society--and must be "cured" by a variety of therapeutic practices and teaching methods designed to foster self-esteem. This is particularly evident with kids who fall outside our expectations of what is "normal" either intellectually or behaviorally. They are immediately identified as "learning disabled" (so the special education teachers have something to do) or are diagnosed as having attention deficit disorder and put on a variety of medications whose long-term effects on children are unknown. In a tragically self-fulfilling prophecy, these kids will only achieve what is expected of them: very little. They are likely to begin thinking of themselves as victims, which they are: not of imagined illnesses but of the self-esteem movement.     This sense of entitlement and victimhood extends into society, as well. After the Enlightenment man exchanged religious worship for the ideals of progress and liberalism. But these gods, their image now tarnished, have themselves been replaced. Man now worships himself. But we also have a concept of civil society, a social compact, in which individual rights and liberties are balanced with individual responsibilities. We have a shared understanding of, if not a common good, at least how to peacefully coexist. It seemed that man had finally learned that unfettered individual or social excesses threaten the social contract and the happiness of each individual who shares in it.     But the self-esteem movement has spawned a new kind of barbarism. As anyone who has been the victim of road rage--or the latest, air rage--can attest, there is an increasing sense of entitlement permeating society at large. The idea is, sadly, already familiar to us: I want to do what I want, how I want and when I want, and nothing and no one is going to stop me. The self-esteem movement has given us a new golden rule. No longer is it "Do unto others as you would have them do unto to you" but "Do it to others before they do it to you"! Self-Esteem in Schools One need only pick up a local or national paper to get a (bad) taste of the current state of America's public schools. Just glancing through some of the research on schools I find the following: Only nineteen states require students to pass state tests to graduate from high school and only six have laws that will link students' promotion to test results in the future. No states are truly holding teachers accountable for their performance by either rewarding or sanctioning them based on how well their students perform on tests. In a recent survey of incoming college freshmen conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA only about 33 percent of freshmen reported doing more than six hours of homework per week, down more than 10 percent from a decade earlier. And the achievement gap that exists between whites and minorities in higher education, as well as K-12 education, continues. In the academic year 1994-1995 of a total of 1.16 million bachelor's degrees awarded, only 54,000 went to Hispanics and 87,000 to blacks, whereas 913,000 were awarded to whites.     From teacher quality to national standards to funding and minority issues, the state of public education leaves a lot to be desired. One could go on forever citing the ills that plague contemporary American schools. But there is also a lot to cheer about in America's public schools. Schools today educate a vastly more linguistically, culturally, racially, and economically diverse population than anyone could have imagined when the first common schools opened in the early nineteenth century. For example, in the city of New York there are about 120 different languages spoken and in Los Angeles there are at least 90. Despite this diversity, the national dropout rate is less than 10 percent, although it is much higher among some racial groups than others. And for the first time, the percentage of black students earning a high school diploma equals that of white students, according to a recent report by the U.S. Census Bureau on educational attainment. Since 1990, six states have shown improvement in fourth and eighth grade mathematics scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. And in 1999 twenty-three states provided financial assistance to teachers seeking national board certification, up from only thirteen in 1998.     Schools also provide basic health and welfare services that would otherwise simply not be available to some children, although, as I discuss in the next chapter, providing these services may be putting an unnecessary strain on the school system. We are also educating more adult learners and new immigrants to help those who did not profit from their formal education or who were educated elsewhere to become literate, acquire a high school diploma, and gain the skills they need to become full participants in American life.     Clearly it is a mixed bag. The bad news--and the embarrassing truth--about many of our current school problems is that they are consequences of the self-esteem movement. The movement's practices and methods do nothing to foster authentic self-esteem--the confidence that arises from achievement--but rob children of a real education and make a mockery of the school system in the process. Until very recently, words like "standards" and "achievement" were virtually taboo because the education establishment views them as "uncaring"--the most damning word in the self-esteem lexicon. The good news, as I explain throughout this book, is that many of the movement's negative effects can be easily remedied by getting rid of its more dangerous practices and replacing them with proven, commonsense policies, methods, and practices.     And the best news of all is that the tide is turning. Since I began researching this book about three years ago, I have witnessed two dramatic changes. The first is that the public--particularly parents--have become more vocal about their dissatisfaction with what their kids are (or are not) learning in school. Parents cannot understand why little Johnny and Janie can't read in the third, fourth, or fifth grade; why they frequently don't have homework; why they don't have any grades on their report cards (if they receive report cards at all); and why the teacher insists that everything is fine. One thing that educators have gotten right over the years is that when parents become actively involved in their children's education, everyone wins. And as parental participation has grown, parents have become better consumers of education, have gained more knowledge about school policies and practices, and feel more confident about speaking up when they see things that concern them. (Continues...) Excerpted from THE FEEL-GOOD CURRICULUM by MAUREEN STOUT. Copyright © 2000 by Maureen Stout. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. ix
Acknowledgmentsp. xiii
Introduction: The False Prophet of Self-Esteemp. 1
Part I Creating a Culture of Therapy: How We Got Here from There
1 What Is School For, Anyway?p. 11
2 Inside the Ed School: The Politics of Teacher Educationp. 45
3 What's So Progressive About This? Child-Centered Education and the Transformation of the American Public Schoolp. 75
Part II Therapy Nation: Culture and Schooling in Contemporary America
4 The Rake's Progress: Self-Esteem Takes Overp. 99
5 Nothing More than Feelings: The Naked Truth About Self-Esteemp. 119
6 Practicing Self-Esteem: Magic, Myths, and Masqueradesp. 141
Part III Fighting Back: Challenging the Consequences of Self-Esteem
7 Too Many Degrees of Separation: Self-Esteem and the Death of Communityp. 175
8 The Return of Ethics in Education: Answering Emotivismp. 207
9 Back to the Future: From Cynicism to Skepticism and Hopep. 241
Epilogue: Education for a New Millenniump. 277
Notesp. 283
Indexp. 301