ChildCare Action Project:
Christian Analysis of American Culture (CAP)


Developmentalism and Self-Esteem

by: Steven A. Kossor
Special Advisor - Child Psychology
ChildCare Action Project: Christian Analysis of American Culture (CAP)


Many professional educators and probably all parents are digging everywhere they can to find help with what is typically called self esteem in children. A number of ramifications are likely to manifest as the result of poor self esteem. But as Mr. Kossor points out below, attempts to bolster a child's self esteem with unmerited credit and unearned praise might not be the best thing for the child. Let Mr. Kossor explain, but as you progress try to interject the impact of the entertainment industry as well -- it is even more guilty than "destructive compulsory schooling practices" especially at fostering freedom from authority, accountability and consequences.

Following is a presentation of Volume 4, Number 13 of the Kossor Education Newsletter. In it Mr. Kossor offers great wisdom and constructive insight as well as practical analysis regarding the sometimes too exaggerated and sometimes underestimated learned personality feature called self esteem. Maybe if we returned to holding children accountable for their actions, behavior, and performance, children might develop a richer and deeper understanding of reality with much greater focus on the meat of the issue (self respect) rather than on the gravy (self esteem).

Thomas A. Carder
ChildCare Action Project: Christian Analysis of American Culture (CAP)

Volume 4 Number 13
SPECIAL EDITION: Developmentalism and Self-Esteem

Copyright 1996 S.A. Kossor
All Rights Reserved

The following is the text of a keynote presentation I gave at the 25th Anniversary meeting of Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum in Washington, DC on November 9th 1996. I followed John Gatto's presentation on the historical roots of American compulsory education (from 1859 onward) and am in the process of attempting to secure John's permission to publish a transcript of his presentation - it was that good. I hope that you will appreciate this summary of what I believe are the reigning psychological processes that underlie the sometimes rabid defense of utterly destructive compulsory schooling practices (even when the defense is offered by extremely altruistic, honestly concerned and dedicated teachers). In a nutshell, these people believe that, because THEY are so supremely concerned, giving and educated, their influence (and their employment setting) MUST have a positive influence on children. In my business, that might be called delusional thinking, but as you'll see, it's based on a pattern of indoctrination that very, very few teachers-in-training are capable of withstanding...


There are two kinds of self-esteem: a cheap kind and an expensive kind. I'll never forget the time that I first heard a school administrator tell his staff that they would have to start giving "Cadillac services at Chevrolet prices." I remember thinking, what an idiot. There's an expression that's been around for a lot longer than Cadillacs or Chevrolet - "you get what you pay for." That's what I'll be talking about today - the difference between the kind of self-esteem that's expensive and worth having, and the kind that's just a cheap imitation. John Gatto just explained how the compulsory school system in America was set-up by political and business leaders to serve their own interests since the late 1800's. I'm going to show you how they've managed to recruit and keep teachers to work for and defend their system.

To understand how the concept of self-esteem has become perverted, you have to look back to the writings of Rousseau and Hegel, and see how the concept of Developmentalism got started. I want to show you exactly how developmentalism and self-esteem are inextricably intertwined. If you understand developmentalism, I think, you will understand so much about the driving force behind the education "restructuring" movement that has been spreading like a stain across our country.

Rousseau argued that everything that comes from the hand of the Creator must be good (sounds good, but then he extended the argument). He said that human beings, having come from God, must therefore be good; and there, he substituted the concept of original "goodness" for original sin. He believed that formal schooling was not only unnecessary, (because children tend naturally to learn) but that formal schooling harms children by violating their natural inclinations.

Hegel took Rousseau's theme one step further and described child development as a process of "unfoldment [sic] toward a state of natural perfection." According to Hegel, schooling should be fitted to the child, in the interest of preserving the goodness inherent in the child's nature. After a little while, this "natural" or "developmental" view of education became embraced by some influential Europeans as a welcome change to the often harsh teaching methods that were popular at that time.

In America, at about 1907, the king of psychobabble, a guy named G. Stanley Hall, came up with what he called his "general psychonomic law" -- "Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny" (the human embryo goes through stages that shows its evolutionary progress from fish to reptile to mammal). He also dabbled in education philosophy.

"Teachers should strive first of all to keep out of nature's way, and to prevent harm, and should merit the proud title of defenders of the rights and happiness of children."

Do you see the developmental line in there - to keep out of nature's way… Hall's "child-centered" view of education shifted the burden of learning from the student to the school, which fit in perfectly with the drive to expand compulsory education that began back in the early 1900's. So here we have a developmental view of childhood taking root in American education, replacing the traditional view which was altogether successful at producing a population of highly literate, competent citizens.

Why did this happen? Well, the educational leadership back in the late 1800's and early 1900's started being infiltrated by the collectivist, or socialist orientation, with a strong interest in psychology as the means through which social reform could be achieved and through which productive workers could be created. Eventually, every influential education leader in America went through a system of training and certification in which they learned to appreciate the potential of combining education with psychology and behavior modification to produce the most modern, "scientific" and enlightened educational system on the face of the earth. Many of these education reformers and leaders still clung to their developmentalist beliefs and defended what they were doing because they were convinced that they could "bring out the inherent goodness of children" through their efforts, even as they were helping to create more and more oppressive, restrictive and obsessive-compulsive places for children to spend more and more of their time in.

These people were seeking to shape and mold children into beings who were "adjusted" for success in the future that they envisioned. Just like today's education leaders, the education leaders of the past thought of themselves as the owners of a special "vision" that lesser beings just didn't have. Like good developmentalists, they saw themselves then, and modern education "restructuring" leaders see themselves today, as the liberators of children from the constraints and limitations of government, parents and ignorance.

John Dewey declared "We teach for life adjustment." In that sense, there is absolutely no difference between the goals of compulsory public education going all the way back to the 1800's and the goals of compulsory public education in the 1990's. They still want kids to be adjusted for success in the future. The difference is, the official vision of the future has changed. One hundred years ago, the "official" goal of compulsory education was to make American children ready for work, consistently and predictably, without necessarily guiding them into any particular career path or turning them into dependents-for-life. Business and government were less globally-oriented and much less chummy 100 years ago, when modern public education came into existence.

But one hundred years ago, the socialists were just starting to colonize the halls of power in education. Today, they have achieved almost total infestation -- and the official vision of America's future has become progressively more and more socialistic. The union between business and government has never been stronger, either, in promoting this new socialist vision of America's future. Just four days ago, in his re-election acceptance speech, Vice President Al Gore declared the new goal for American children: that every child will be a part of the "new network economy."

You know what a "network" economy is? Think of managed health care. As long as you know the right people, talk the right talk, go along to get along, and do what's expected of you, you're allowed in the network and you're allowed to work. You can charge only what you are allowed to charge for the work you do. Nobody (except the managers) can rise any higher than anybody else. Buck the system and you're not in the network anymore - you're an outsider. A "network" economy is a socialist's DREAM. It is also a control freak's dream, and a developmentalist's dream.

If you run a network, you get to clear away the barriers so that everybody can get what you think they need - in order to grow and develop naturally, healthfully and fully, regardless of their individual wants, strengths or weaknesses. That's what developmentalism is all about - clearing away barriers and making everybody equally developed -- to YOUR standards.

One of the most popular statements of the "developmentalist" philosophy is the Policy Statement on Developmentally Appropriate Practice in the Elementary Grades, for Five to Eight Year-Olds, published in 1988 by the National Association for the Education of Young Children:

According to these "authorities" the following are developmentally INappropriate:

"The teacher's role is to correct errors and make sure the child knows the right answer in all subject areas. Teachers reward children for correct answers with stickers or privileges, praise them in front of the group, and hold them up as examples."

That is absolutely BAD advice, without a doubt, but it is Developmentalism, and so it sails on, unquestioned, as the official language of Goals 2000 and so many other education restructuring efforts in state after state.

According a recent report, people studying to become teachers in the past few decades have all been reading textbooks that say "a young person is ready to learn something when he has achieved sufficient physiological maturation and experiential background so that he not only can learn but wants to."

In other words, no responsible teacher - or parent - ever PUSHES a child to learn anything. That would be developmentally inappropriate. Don't push. Don't force. Don't reward performance. The developmentally informed teacher is supposed to simply offer the child experiences and opportunities that are compatible with the child's current interests ----- and learning will take care of itself.

Even though decade after decade of experience tells us that this philosophy is poison for kids who are stuck inside the compulsory public school environment, it's still clung to by educated, altruistic and compassionate, caring people from one end of the education spectrum to the other. Why? Developmentalism fosters inappropriate permissiveness, inhibits discipline and, in short, results in many of the catastrophic out-of-control behavior problems that have become so prevalent in schools.

This crazy allegiance to a developmentalist perspective needs to be explained. I think that, once you understand how this delusional belief system about children is maintained, you'll understand why it's so difficult to get people inside the education network to see reason - and to recognize that their reliance on so-called "developmentally appropriate" philosophy actually prevents them from recognizing failure, even when it slaps them, literally, in the face.

Kids who go to college to become teachers want to do something helpful for children. Almost from day one, they're exposed, over and over again, to the idea that educators have a "vision" of the future (and of children) that less-educated folk don't yet have. They're encouraged to see themselves as more sensitive to children's needs. They're encouraged to be more concerned about the general welfare of children. They're taught to become stronger advocates for children.

These kids who want to become teachers themselves, learn that they too can share the vision of the future, and of children, that their anointed professors have, if they want to. That's a very tempting offer - to be admitted to the network, to be among those "in the know." In education, everybody wants to be "in the know" and up-to-date. Nobody wants to be accused of being ignorant or backward. In education, everybody pats everybody else on the back, because that's how you stay in the network, and that's how you show how "smart" you are.

When the kids - the new teachers -- graduate, they stand to receive all kinds of encouragement, perks and privileges from influential business and government leaders, especially if they continue to show that they have this unique compassion for children and this special "vision" of the future.

If they hug trees, lead their students on "trust walks" or help them probe their feelings about death, sexuality and drug use, or do a hundred other things besides focus on academic achievement in objective, traditional terms, they're sure to win favor with the grant-awarding agencies and curry favor with their colleagues who have been similarly instructed in the educational "value" of such non-intellectual activities.

After rising through the ranks of the education bureaucracy and accepting their "anointed" status for a while, it gets harder and harder to throw it away, and give up all the good feelings and perks that go with it, just to walk on the same ground, breathe the same air and live in the same "village" as the rest of humanity.

That's why it's so hard to stop the education restructuring boosters and their leaders. Whether they're pushing New Math, Whole Language, OBE or any of the other intellectually bankrupt ideas that get cooked up in their self-absorbed little minds, they're convinced that they can give children something extra-special because they're extra-special - they have that "vision" that so few others have. They're swollen with delusions of grandeur. They've got too much self-esteem - and it's all the cheap kind.

Roy Baumeister, Joe Boden and Laura Smart did a research study on self-esteem that was published by the American Psychological Association earlier this year. They called it "The Dark Side of High Self Esteem." They found that kids with low self-esteem - the kids who are afraid of their shadows and can't stand up for themselves - are not the kind of kids you have to be afraid of hurting you. Sounds pretty common-sense, right?

Rather, it was the kids who think TOO MUCH of themselves - who are likely to punch you in the mouth -- if you burst their bubbles by telling them the truth about what they really know, what they really can do, or what they are really like.

What it gets down to, it this: By sticking to the DEVELOPMENTALIST, the PROGRESSIVE and the SOCIALIST philosophies that have taken-over in education, schools build layer, upon layer, upon layer of insulation - cheap self-esteem -- around children. Here's how it works:

[At this time, I picked up a balloon inflator from beneath the podium, with a balloon stretched over the tip, and began inflating it as I continued speaking...]

They protect kids from failure and constructive criticism all the time, as if failure and constructive criticism are some kind of terrible experiences. They don't expect the kids to spell correctly - heaven forbid, it might wreck their self-esteem to be corrected for misspelling "cat." [the balloon swells]

They don't expect kids to use proper grammar or punctuation. [more air in the balloon]

They let kids use calculators to solve the simplest math problems. [more air...]

They use rubrics to give partial credit for incorrect answers. And on, and on, and on.

So what happens, when the kid graduates?

[Here, I shot the balloon off the end of the inflator; it sputtered aimlessly and fell limply to the ground as all of the air that I had pumped into it was summarily expelled in a pitiful little metaphor of "cheap self-esteem in action"]

-- another vote for Bill Clinton...

A recent book called The Shopping Mall High School surveyed dozens of modern high schools in America and made some really frightening observations about them. The authors describe a system in which the concept of mastering an essential body of knowledge and skills gives way to the need to protect self-esteem and to avoid discipline problems and dropouts. The vast array of courses (one school's catalogue featured over 400) is seen as a way for students to avoid failure.

In Shopping Mall High Schools, students who work hard and who reach for excellence are accommodated, and praised and encouraged; but students who choose to do little or no hard work, reaching only for what feels good now, are also accommodated, and praised and encouraged even more.

The schools push "nobody beyond his or her preferences." These schools are remarkably neutral about those preferences, just like good developmentalists ought to be. What they see as essential is "for teenagers to plug into something that gives them support," or, as one student put it "a curriculum that everybody can do."

The assumption, then, in the modern Shopping Mall School, is that the non-achievers need more praise and encouragement because their self-esteem is lower - and that their low self-esteem makes them not work as hard, so by pumping up their self-esteem, they'll want to work harder. It just doesn't work that way, as we've seen for more than 20 years now.

So what do the children LEARN with all of this concern about indulging their preferences, inflating their self-esteem and entertaining them, after twelve years of schooling?

They learn that they will be lucky to get and keep whatever kind of job they can find when they graduate. Kids are now being told to expect to have five or six different careers in the course of their lives, whether they want that or not! Forget about being a professional anything.

They learn not to be too independent, or to stick their necks out too far, because they probably couldn't defend their opinions if they had to.

They learn that it's fun to fool around with pseudointellectual games rather than learn to read or use numbers beyond a second grade level.

They learn that it's more fun to fantasize than analyze. By the way, I believe that this failure to teach children how to analyze is responsible in large part for the fact that Bill Clinton could be re-elected when over 60% of those polled after voting said they didn't trust him!

They learn that disclosing their personal thoughts, feelings and attitudes indiscriminately to authorities is a good idea and that they can like themselves just fine if they wallow in ignorance, stupidity and vulgarity, just like everybody else is.

So, the question is, can public education be salvaged?

Not without lots of alternatives to public schooling, because ONLY the alternatives to public schooling - where developmentalism DOESN'T reign supreme - only those alternative schools (including "home" schools) will be able to show the world what children are REALLY capable of learning and doing!

Here are three recommendations that I think could really help to promote excellence in the education of children, no matter where they're being educated:

First of all, teachers and administrators should believe that the cultivation of thinking in a decent and humane environment is the primary goal of teaching.

Second, Children should learn the tool subjects (reading, writing and arithmetic) by the best available, proven methods, utilizing their interests whenever possible.

Third, The purpose of periodically evaluating learning progress should be to facilitate greater and more thorough learning by exposing children consistently to constructive criticism, so that they can tolerate it and learn to benefit from it.

NOBODY can predict the future. One thing about the future is certain, however. Literate, independent thinking people who can deal constructively with criticism will be more likely to be -- and remain - free, than people who are illiterate, dependent and who are intimidated by criticism.

Removing constructive criticism from school has obviously been a very BAD mistake.

The past two decades of accelerated deterioration in America's schools - public, parochial and private -- has shown that it's been a mistake to compromise everything in the name of self-esteem. American children who function at the lowest 25 percent in academic achievement - that means that 75% or three-out of four kids score higher than they do - those kids scoring at the bottom quarter think they're doing fine according to the U.S. Department of Education's own statistics. Those kids have self-esteem that they didn't earn and NOBODY deserves that kind of self-esteem - that's narcissism, not self-esteem. That's the cheap kind of self-esteem - the kind that's so easy to get, that's so superficial -- that it's expelled and lost just as fast as that air, rushing out of the balloon.

As Roy Baumeister and his colleagues showed, when they took an objective look at the research on self-esteem and violence, it's when you threaten the cheap kind of self-esteem that you get violent behavior. People who only have the cheap kind of self-esteem are so much more vulnerable than people who have the mature kind of self-esteem. Mature self-esteem comes from honest, earned success; as my friend Guy Odom says, there is no other source.

People with mature self-esteem can tolerate constructive criticism. They can endure the slings and arrows of a meaningful relationship. They can stay married! They can resist the temptation to be a "pal" instead of a parent.

They can listen to their conscience, and do what their conscience tells them is right, even if it means that their own self-interest isn't served right then and there - or at all. They can sacrifice. They can be grown-ups. That's what I want for my children. I know they won't get it in a school that is riddled with developmentalist philosophy and cheaply purchased self-esteem.

My final recommendation, and probably the most important, is that there should be a close relationship between home and school so each can reinforce the learnings fostered by the other.

Obviously, if the school is fostering learnings that are diametrically opposed to the learnings being fostered at home, the system breaks down. Successful parents don't buy the "developmentalist" model. They don't have cheap self-esteem themselves and they certainly don't want their kids to have cheap self-esteem.

They're leery of "partnerships." If parents are going to be "partners" with anybody in the business of educating their children, it has to be clearly understood by all concerned that the parents are the SENIOR partner.

So far as I can tell, however, that "senior" status of parents will never be tolerated by the education bureaucracy because it makes their delusions of grandeur - and their cheap self-esteem -- impossible to maintain. As Roy Baumeister and his colleagues showed, people with cheap self-esteem will defend their weak self esteem, violently if necessary. We've seen that violence erupt in school district after school district, all around the country, whenever the authority of "insider" bureaucrats and the developmentalists gets challenged by parents or other "outsiders." The insiders predictably start using slander, character attacks and other deceitful tactics to malign and discredit informed and concerned parents and other citizens who are only demonstrating REAL "critical thinking" skills.

But you know what? We know something about those "insiders" in the education bureaucracy...

They can't stand constructive criticism.

Ultimately, it will be our constructive criticism that will win the day for the return of sanity and responsibility to American education, and I'm as proud as all get-out to be among the group - this group -- that is leading the way in that struggle. Phyllis, keep up the good work with Eagle Forum. You're the most courageous person, with the highest integrity, that I know. Thank you.


Steven Kossor

An audio tape of this presentation is available.

The Kossor Education Newsletter contains timely, useful information for parents and others who are concerned about public education in America and can be sent to you for one year for $15. Steven Kossor is a Licensed Psychologist and Certified School Psychologist who is in private practice in Pennsylvania. He has debated William Spady and other top promoters of education "reform" and is available as a speaker nationally. He can be reached at (610) 383-1432 anytime. A bound collection of the first three volumes of The Kossor Education Newsletter (200+ pps of analysis and evidence) is available for $35. Volume 4 (spanning 1996) is available in a bound collection for $20.

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Volume 4 Number 13
SPECIAL EDITION: Developmentalism and Self-Esteem

Copyright 1996 S.A. Kossor
All Rights Reserved

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