Many people, myself among them, are fond of ridiculing the excessive interest by some parents and educators in fostering children's self-esteem. While it sounds good on paper, what often happens is that children develop inflated egos bearing no relationship with their actual accomplishments. Self-esteem too often becomes self-importance, feeding into the worrying advance of narcissism in modern culture.
On the other hand, there is a great truth underlying the (somewhat half-baked) theory: people form identites for themselves, which may far outstrip their true status and accomplishments. But having formed such an identity, a person will try to live up to it or risk losing his own respect. A powerful identity becomes at once a restraint against actions that conflict with it, and a standard to which the person can aspire.
A quick anecdote to illustrate the point:
A few years ago, the older members of my Scout troop went through Philmont, a series of backpacking trails in the Sangre de Christo mountains in New Mexico. Several campsites along the trail are staffed and have activities ranging from burro-racing to shotgun shooting. About halfway through our backpack we had come to Cimmaroncito, one of the campsites. One of the activities there was a rockface perhaps thirty feet high (though my memory is a bit fuzzy on this point). Climbers would be attached to a belaying line, and the belayer would sometimes give climbers a bit of a lift at a tough spot, but other than that there were no handholds or assists beyond what you could find in the rock.
So the guys began to climb, one after another. Some were able to get to the top in less than a minute, others took longer. There was one patch about halfway up where the obvious handholds were very far apart, which proved tricky for most of the climbers. One or two of the boys were stuck there for a few minutes, trying to make the reach; but in the end, everyone made it past. Then it was my turn.
By that point in the backpack, my leg-muscles were getting very tight, and the tricky patch gave me a lot of trouble. I just couldn't extend my leg far enough to reach the next foothold. I think I spent about twenty minutes on that one foothold, steadily dehydrating in the sun. It was miserable; at that moment there was nothing I wanted more than to give up and ask the belayer to let me down.
Why didn't I? Because I thought of myself as being able to tough things out. More than that, I had spent the entire backpack until then cultivating that impression among my friends, who were watching me from below. To give up then would be to betray my own identity, and worse, to do so in public. My identity and pride kept me on that rockface long after any sane person would have thrown in the towel. (As it happens, I ended up at the top, eventually.)
It seems to me that the prime mission of an educator is to have his students internalize the proper standards of morality, honor, and industry. Standards that are simply imposed from outside will be ignored whenever the outside pressure is absent; but standards that are part of a person's very being will always influence his actions. Unfortunately, it seems that in many circles, theories of education must lurch wildly between ephemeral ideas of self-esteem, and rigorous knowledge-based learning. That a student's identity can be influenced, carefully and judiciously, to provide an anchor and a beacon for him in his life, seems to have fallen by the wayside in professional circles.
Granted, much of this has to do with the grueling demands of an information society. Teachers feel that they need to teach vast amounts of data and skill for their students to have a chance in life. Yet this seems to be going at the problem from the wrong direction. Would it not be more effective to teach a student to love learning, to make it a part of his identity, so that he himself will be motivated to learn what he needs? Especially given that study after study shows that very little actual data is retained from our earliest years in school, it would seem better to spend that time helping students construct an identity that will benefit them in life.
Of course, many people are leery of intentionally guiding a student's identity. It smacks of brainwashing, or of forcing choices on the children, who (popular wisdom has it) should be able to make their own choices. This is ridiculous. A young child is perhaps better able to evaluate his interests and skills than a well-meaning parent or teacher, but is absolutely unqualified to orient his own moral compass without help. Similarly, the habits of tenacity, organization, or discipline are unnatural to most children and must be introduced into their souls by others; else we are left with a generation such as this one, which for all its virtues seems unable to focus its energies on a problem for any significant period (Exhibit A being myself...).
As a society, we need to relearn the importance of fashioning a collective identity, and teaching our children personal identities, that help guide and inspire moral, honorable and effective habits. It is the difference between rolling a heavy stone across a flat field, and rolling it down a sloping hill. People tend to go where they are inclined to go; therefore, we must pay attention to their inclination, and influence it as best we can.