Diminished view of high self-esteem

31st October 2003 at 00:00
Some of the young people and adults I taught in FE colleges ten years ago had profound social and personal problems. Yet my colleagues and I never thought of them as fragile, damaged or suffering from low self-esteem.

Instead, we recognised that social and political factors were one of the main reasons for their problems and hoped that their education would be inspiring and would act as a spring-board for new life chances. We didn't always succeed but the aspirations were passionately felt.

Of course, many educators still feel strongly that education should be like this but aspirations are changing in subtle ways. Since the 1980s, there has been a huge rise in the mention of "low self-esteem" as a problem that apparently affects most of us.

New Labour's belief that low self-esteem is one of the most destructive causes and effects of social exclusion is paralleled by media interest in the angst and vulnerability of famous people. David Beckham and Robbie Williams are just two examples of celebrities praised for showing their vulnerability, an attribute seen as more worthy because they are male.

More people are seeking therapy and counselling to remedy their difficulties. The popular view is perhaps epitomised by the claim of talk-show host Oprah Winfrey that "low self-esteem is the cause of all the problems in all the world".

That also seems to be the view of growing numbers of professionals working in education. The Socialist Education Alliance of schoolteachers sees the building of self-esteem as the foundation of good schooling, while both the Assessment Reform Group and the SEA regard stress and low self-esteem as one of the most pernicious effects of national tests. The National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education held a conference this year devoted to combating the low self-esteem that prevents many adult learners from taking part in education.

The idea of caring about people's vulnerability in an educational setting appears to be so obvious that to question it is taken as a sign of a lack of empathy and concern. Being supportive and building confidence is integral to teachers' professional role. Yet, in the United States and here, interest in self-esteem cannot be divorced from a wider cultural change in how we view people.

In his new book Therapy culture: cultivating vulnerability in an uncertain age, sociologist Frank Furedi argues that a therapeutic mind-set is changing how we regard each other and ourselves at all levels of culture and policy, particularly through the welfare state.

Images of people as frail and emotionally vulnerable or with "damaged learning identities" signal a retreat from seeing them as potentially resilient, able to deal with adversity collectively and individually, or wanting positive change.

The idea that striving for personal growth is a fundamental human drive has long been a cornerstone of humanist and liberal education. But in the current mood, it is not conservatives who depict people as frail and in need of help but those who might characterise themselves as liberal or left-wing. For a growing number of educators in adult and further education, people's vulnerability, and low self-esteem means that teaching should prioritise people's identity, life experience and feelings.

In some ways, appealing directly to these concerns enables professionals to bond with them, and to get round problems of disaffection and demotivation.

"Starting where learners are", is another cornerstone of radical and liberal education.

But starting with a preoccupation with students' low self-esteem not only suggests images of deficiency and weakness, it also diminishes aspirations.

Even if we believe that low self-esteem is the result of social deprivation and therefore "not people's fault", labelling them with the language of damage and vulnerability diminishes them and their potential.

Seeing people in terms of their feelings, emotions and self-esteem also legitimises professional "interventions" in the name of help and support and allows education and welfare agencies to intrude into people's lives.

A small but growing number of my adult students say they suffer from "low self-esteem" and that this makes feedback on their work and being challenged in a group difficult for them. These students are teachers from all parts of the education system. In this scenario, it is easy for professionals to claim similar problems as a way of showing empathy.

Otherwise, they run the risk of being uncaring or patronising. Or they play safe for fear of damaging self-esteem.

The temptation to see education as a comforting, low-risk enterprise was reflected in a speech I heard by a college principal. For her, the role of FE was to help students face a risky, scary future where "there are no experts". And for this to happen, teachers had to admit their own fears and vulnerability and share it with students.

Such notions, however well meaning, erode aspirations and high expectations that education should be a basis for change. They stop educators admitting that learning is often risky, challenging and uncomfortable. One way to combat the therapeutic mind-set creeping into education is to reject the goal of self-esteem outright, and not to collude in a diminished view of ourselves and our students.

We need to resurrect optimism that young people and adults can change, grow and even strive for social change. "I share your vulnerability", is no basis for education.

Kathryn Ecclestone is a senior lecturer in post-compulsory education at the University of Exeter

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