Diminishing Student Self-Esteem

One of the things I've noted now that I've been teaching for ten years or so is that my best students share one interesting characteristic: they have a kind of imperfect self-esteem. So for example, leaving aside the issue of whether there "really is" something wrong with the way they talk, the students who believe they speak imperfectly show a greater motivation for learning new content--and not just "grammar."

Two things follow: 1) this flies in the face of thirty+ years of pedagogy bullshit: the self-esteem stuff, which says, "you're perfect as you are," etc. Obviously, if you're perfect as you are, why should you pay attention in class, or do two hours of homework a night, or figure out what a gerund is? And consequently, 2) maybe we should reinforce this kind of low-self-esteem in our students. Not to grind them into feeling horrible about themselves, but to convince them (I think rightfully) that education can help them improve themselves.

This seems like it should be quintessential American pedagogy. It seems obvious to me. But I would be chased out of a conference of higher education if I presented such a vision. But think about the assumptions we make if we don't think this way: don't we then have to admit that class-structure is rigid and determinative? Only education offers a way out of that trap.

Self-improvement. Think about how that implies an imperfect subject at the starting point. I don't get the feeling that most of my freshmen think of themselves as incomplete or imperfect -- but the best ones among them think that way.


pure_sophist_monster said...
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pure_sophist_monster said...

I think you are right here. My father has been teaching for something like 50 years and he argues that a certain kind of high self esteem essentially undermines any kind of effective pedagogy. Being a student (and, I think you would agree, a wise person) requires the student to acknowledge the possibility of improvement and also the need the for it.

Obviously, this requires teachers to acknowledge, foster, and endorse students who have made such a risky decision: students who have opened themselves up to the radical possibilities of transformation. We should stand in awe in of such students (but, of course, don't let them see us do do).

Casey said...

Follow up: what makes the pedagogue most effective: letting on that he considers himself imperfect, or oozing confidence and self-assurance?

Or kairos?