From self-reliance to self-esteem

Emersonian self-reliance — based on self-knowledge and the study of poetry and heroes — has been replaced in our schools by inflated self-esteem, writes Michael Knox Beran in City Journal.

(Emerson) believed, as most Americans do, that there is in every man a restless desire to better himself, along with an innate desire to transcend unworthy impulses. The modern school of self-esteem, however, sees no need to transcend, no reason to make what Emerson called an “effort at the perfect” to find out the best and strongest places in one’s soul. The modern proponents of self-esteem argue that the undeveloped self, however callow, should be praised as it is. In contrast to Emerson’s work, the primitivist ethic of the self-esteem movement promotes not the discovery but the abdication of the self.

The long essay also praises the McGuffey readers and disses John Dewey.

With a quintessentially American faith that runs from Ben Franklin through Emerson and Abraham Lincoln, McGuffey orchestrated the music of his Readers toward a single end: the stimulation of his students’ desire for self-improvement. “The education, moral and intellectual, of every individual,” one of his utterly Emersonian lessons reads, “must be, chiefly, his own work. Rely upon it, that the ancients were right; both in morals and intellect, we give the final shape to our characters, and thus become, emphatically, the architects of our own fortune.”

In Emersonian fashion, McGuffey tried to guide the student’s inchoate desire to better himself. His primers are, like the early Greek poetry itself, intended to be shapers of ethos, character. The Readers praise hard work and thrift; they warn against intemperance, gambling, and procrastination; they teach the importance of patience, self-discipline, perseverance, and courage.

By contrast, Dewey “fostered youthful complacency. Instead of encouraging kids to find out the depths of their souls, Dewey was content to let them navigate the shallows.”

Thanks to Kimberly for the link.

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  1. I don’t think the report has read Dewey. Or he misunderstands Dewey profoundly. I find the celebration of the McGuffy Readers just strange.

    Dewey’s entire philosophy revolves around developing the child as a pro-social being — as a moral agent — through cooperative learning strategies. Whether you agree with his methods or not, I don’t think you can say he “fostered youthful compacency.” The role of the teacher in the progressive classroom is to “…usher in the Kingdom of God” through the moral instruction of her students.

    I’m not an enormous fan of Dewey, but at least I’ve read his work.
    We may not be very Emersonian these days (although teenagers still find his work inspirational, fwiw), but I don’t think Dewey deserves the blame here.

  2. I believe the author has read Dewey. What he does not say (or see) is that educational theory, today, which purports Dewey as it’s basis is, in-fact, significantly altered due to the non-conformist (social) theories of the 60s, and earlier, by the technological requirements of the late 40’s and 50s. Dewey would not recognize Dewey today….

  3. THe McGuffey readers were wonderful! Moral lessons, good prose, historical tid-bits–what’s not to love? Young people today (I sound like own granny) think that just existing is cause for celebration–not their achievements or even efforts. Isn’t there some self-esteem expert who claims that feeling good about your results is a no-win situation, as you might (gasp!) fail at something, someday?

  4. Insufficiently Sensitive says:

    “I find the celebration of the McGuffy Readers just strange.”

    I don’t. They actually attempted to teach English and citizenship, instead of psychobabble and political correctitude. Let’s bring them back.

  5. Dewey had a hard time recognizing Dewey when he was alive, if I remember correctly. His theories have always been prone to being bastardized to fit agendas.

    I won’t argue the McGuffy Readers with you folks. I will say that they’re far more attractive to adults than to children.

    Emerson would argue that the sheer fact of our existence is cause for celebration. Re-read “Experience”.

  6. But I read the McG’s as a kid, and while they seemed old-fashioned at first, I got into them. Kids are far more curious if they don’t get a whiff of the teacher’s disapproval first.

  7. Insufficiently Sensitive says:

    It wouldn’t hurt to update McGuffy, were it just done by a competent party such as Joanne Jacobs or James Lileks or Mark Steyn. But saints and angels defend us against the contrived picture books my kids used to drag home.

  8. Kirk Parker says:

    > But saints and angels defend us against the
    > contrived picture books my kids used to drag home.

    You aren’t, perhaps, hinting at the B. B.’s series, are you?

  9. Neither I nor the original article mention any “whiffs.” Where did that come from?

  10. greeneyeshade says:

    diane ravitch wrote in ‘left back: a century of failed school reforms’ that it was possible for schools to combine a dewey-style approach with academic rigor, though it seems to require very highly informed and motivated teachers, administrators and parents, and possibly dewey himself, or someone a lot like him, running the shop. (ravitch sent her own kids to a progressive private school that was ‘academically rigorous and pedagogically venturesome.’)
    as for why deweyism seems to lose something in translation, maybe even more than most philosophies do, i remember reading when sidney hook, the philosopher, died, that dewey told him hook had made dewey’s philosophy clearer than dewey did himself. which suggests the problem.

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