Self-esteem and academic success are certainly correlated. However, contrary to popular belief, high self-esteem probably does not cause academic success. There are several other more likely explanations for high self-esteem and academic occur in the same students. From a common sense angle, it seems probable that academic success causes high self-esteem. That is, when students do well in school, they feel good about themselves. Another possibility is that self-esteem and good grades are both caused by the same factors such as income level, social circle, amount of time spent spent on various activities, or innate ability. Techniques used to artificially inflate children’s self-esteem may actually be detrimental to their well-being. When evaluating any teaching idea or technique, one should consider the end result and evaluate whether it will lead toward the overall goal of education. The goal of the education system should be to encourage academic and vocational achievement and provide the tools to advance learning. Nations should focus on producing an informed and useful populace that is competitive in the world market.
Many well-intentioned efforts to build students’ self-esteem just make them content with their past achievements and complacent in their quest for knowledge. This attitude may lead toward epidemic underachievement through the acceptance of mediocre effort and poor results as the best that students can do. When the ideal of teaching students to be smart is replaced with the ideal of making students feel smart, they may lose their motivation to succeed. Students of all levels are often held back by low expectations. The key is to motivate students to work hard to maximize achievement. Kathy Seal makes this point in her essay “The Trouble with Talent: Are We Born Smart or Do We Get Smart” in which she contrasts the American school systems which focus on talent with Asian school systems which focus on hard work. American schools lower the bar while Asian schools tell students to train harder to jump over it.
However, there are innovative ways for schools to legitimately raise students’ self-esteem without lowering the bar or compromising educational goals. For example, they could teach a larger variety of skills such as manual dexterity and mechanical intuition which are seldom emphasized in American schools. Encouraging these skills and others would serve the duel purpose of teaching all students to be proficient in many aspects of life while also providing an avenue for students who do not thrive in traditional subjects to apply their gifts.
In short, schools should be designed to motivate students to succeed in every aspect of life. They should provide the resources for students to achieve and maximize their abilities. They should encourage achievement rather than egoism. By accepting less than the full amount that students can accomplish, schools are really doing them a disservice.