The Seeker

A Meta-Cognitive Journal About Writing… Plus Other Stuff

How “right” is Maslow? (pt. 2)

with 3 comments


There are several threads of opposition to Maslow’s Hierarchy, the same as there are in regard to Freud or dream interpretation, the same as there were to electroshock treatments and Rorschach Ink Blot tests.  One of those threads posits that the hierarchy supposes that humans only act to fulfill deficits, and that stations on the hierarchy are in a constant state of flux as a result of that.  Others have supposed that physiological needs such as sex are taken only as physiological needs regardless of the emotional effect.  The best argument I have heard against it is that it is ethnocentric.  It is steeped in the culture of western civilization, which is dominated by a self-first bent.  What about other civilizations / cultures / societies that are community-first?  Where does that leave them in regard to Maslow?  From a spatial point of view, is Maslow saying that most of our lives are so filled with meeting the deficits at the bottom of the hierarchy (the needs that take up a huge amount of physical space on the pyramid) that we have little time or space left for the upper reaches?  Maslow even posited that very few people will ever reach the top.  It looks to me like a cognitive pyramid scheme.

Unfortunately, Maslow has placed esteem right below where I make my career and find a substantial part of my identity.  As such, I’ve run into an endless stream of zealots through the daily ins and outs of my job who see esteem as the goal instead of as the next step to get where we really need to be, which is to shape minds that want to know, want to inquire, want to explore, discover, create, and change things.  Like I said, too many school personnel see esteem as the ends instead of the means.  If I could create a catch-phrase for them, it might well go like this:  “Now that we have the feeling good about themselves, they’ll teach themselves!”

Unfortunately, “esteem-first” has lead to a lot of pumping of teenage egos.  It can take many forms–pick your favorite:  giving an overabundance of A’s so kids feel good about their grades.  Allowing an almost unlimited amount of time to complete work so kids feel good about completing their work.  Accepting any work that is completed with little regard to quality or expectations so kids feel good about some kind of accomplishment.  Allowing a generous amount of “wiggle room” for grades so kids always feel they have a chance at passing.  Having almost zero class rules–they would just serve to bring kids down and not help them feel good about being in your room.  Declaring most everything to be excellent because that term is a panacea that will soothe raw feelings and punctured egos.

The problem here is that very little of the real world (or standardized testing for that matter) operates that way.  Once kids leave the comfort and safety of an institution that feeds and strokes their egos instead of one that challenges them and demands a level of excellence that is just barely out of reach (yet still reachable–  it’s in their Zone of Proximal Development), they are left with a deep, dark chasm between what they thought their abilities were and what they actually are.  Not only that, but more immediately, as the kid moves through the class ranks of public education, it causes a huge amount of friction for other teachers.  Good luck if you have those students the next year down the line.  Students will revolt when you make them do rewrites until they get it right instead of taking whatever they scratch out.  Students will object when you have a standard set of rules that don’t vary much and that don’t let them do whatever whenever.  You will hear unfading echoes of something like this:  “Mr. / Ms. _____ from last year was the best because…” and that because is something that the previous teacher did because it was easier to soothe the kid than to demand more and better–  and why not?–it’s right there on Maslow’s hierarchy!  We’re supposed to be helping them feel better about things before we can get them to learn!  But read the fine print…  our jobs as teachers lies in the upper echelon of Maslow’s hierarchy, so we can’t stop when we feel like we’ve served the kids properly by helping them feel good about themselves.  The problem with esteem is so rampant that the entire state of California tried an esteem-forward approach years ago.  It failed miserably–to the point where a generally accepted definition of “self-esteem” couldn’t even be reached.  Some findings included paradigm-shattering revelations, such as students with pumped-up self-esteem actually make less effort on their work because they have been convinced that they are already little geniuses and have mastered any particular skill or concept.  And don’t discount how generous loads of esteem is a key ingredient in sociopathic behavior.

Something else I read summed it up well, I thought:  Esteem can’t be injected.  It has to be earned.

Fortunately, our guest speaker last week didn’t dwell exclusively on esteem.  She went on to talk about creating classroom environments in which students feel safe and comfortable.  She kept returning to a key point, as well, which was that the relationship students have with their teachers can be a significant factor in how willing they are to work and succeed, and that relationship is of paramount importance to students whose family roots have burrowed through lower socio-economic stratas.  My school serves a great deal of students that fit that demographic.  The speaker said 50% of our students.  I researched the same for my thesis a few years ago and found the number closer to 30% at that time.  However you cut it, we have a lot of poor students.

Given all this, especially the divergence towards relationships and classroom environment, I ended up feeling halfway decent about our back-to-school speaker.  It’s hard, if not impossible, for me to feel any better about it because I’ve seen too many school personnel take whatever they are given and expend great effort to bend it right back to their safe zone of self-esteem, except it’s not solely for the benefit of the students.  It feeds the teacher’s ego, too, and rampant mediocrity is the result.


Written by seeker70

September 4, 2012 at 1:12 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. “Something else I read summed it up well, I thought: Esteem can’t be injected. It has to be earned.”

    I’m not fully familiar with Maslow, with only a little background in the hierarchy, but in my personal, non-teaching experience, there are two serious issues with the theory.
    The first is similar to your point, “…actually make less effort on their work because they have been convinced that they are already little geniuses and have mastered any particular skill…”, but is coming from the opposite motivation. In my experience there is no reason to make an effort not because you are under the mistaken belief that the skill is learned, but because you have been taught that 80% (or 50% or whatever) is not just an acceptable level, but an exemplary level. Why put forth any more effort than is useful. It’s all about cost benefit, and if someone can get an A at 92% (using school still as the example) by putting forth a minimal effort as opposed to spending hours studying or rewritting to get an A at 97%, that is an easy decision.
    The other is less a self esteem issue as a world view. If you are constantly being told affirming messages, that you are doing well, that you are smart, when, in fact, you can see errors, missed opportunities, and room for improvement, you are left with only a few options for rationalizing the system. One is that “they”, teachers, parents, authority figures, truly don’t understand what they are grading / judging, so they are not able to accurately critique your work. Another option is that they are simply lying to you at worse, being condescending at best. In either of these cases there is little room for respect to be given from the child to the adult.

    Adam Vollmers

    September 4, 2012 at 2:35 pm

  2. I have seen the result of this push in the work place with the hiring of recent college grads expecting the world to be handed to them, walking in as though they own the place, know it all,etc. It seems they have confused exhibiting self-confidence, which can be useful in business, with thinking they rule the industry simply because they have a piece of paper saying they passed and have been told for 22 years, from the “everyone gets a ribbon” soccer fields to Mommy and Daddy to teachers to professors that they can have whatever they desire if they simply believe in themselves. We do need our children to know we believe in them and give them safe places to fall, but we miss the important jobs we have as parents (we’re teachers, too, no?) and educators if we don’t also teach them that hard work is a key part of that equation and with it comes learning from mistakes. Jack’s kindergarten teacher gave all the kids an eraser on the first day of class with a slip of paper that said “Everyone makes mistakes. That’s how we learn.” I love that she is teaching them failure and imperfection are part of the process, even at age 5.

    Lauri Keagle

    September 5, 2012 at 4:46 pm

  3. Being in a field of psychology in the post-graduate level, I, too, have been hit over the head with Maslow’s pyramid and Freud’s penis and Jung’s “everybody is a good person” theories. That being said, I just wanted to address your question about collectivist cultures not conforming to Maslow’s pyramid. Maslow would’ve agreed with you: his hierarchy is limited to his western culture mindset, and he knew it also wasn’t true for every sub-culture within even that culture.

    Yet, your point reflects the problem with psychological theories; these theorists presented their ideas as just that: theories. They knew that what they were saying wouldn’t be useful for every culture in every generation, and that their theories wouldn’t even necessarily be true for everyone living in their own community. Yet, we accept what they have to say as “fact” because our feeble minds seem to dislike the notion that any theories would have exceptions – despite the theorists themselves openly identifying several of the exceptions in their original treatises.

    Just some food for thought. And for your self-actualization.

    Stranger Danger

    September 20, 2012 at 3:38 pm

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