REVIEW: You've right: Rahm's a sicko -- but representing a sickness of his plutocratic class, as recent research shows. In case you didn't already realize it, there is a lot of narcissism in the education reform fantasies of the rich Rahms and others trying to dictate 'education reform' in the USA

Everyone familiar with the range of scholarship dealing with the class and race problems in the USA has studied the seminal work of W.E.B. Dubois, but maybe more people should read beyond "The Souls of Black Folks" to "Black Reconstruction" and many of his studies. For example, in "The Philadelphia Negro, Dubois pointed out that the ruling class is always paying for people to study the supposed pathologies of poor and working class people, while walling itself off from a close look at its own incests and sado-masochistic corners. DuBois suggested we devote more time to studying the rich and less time to studying the supposed problems of the poor. Everyone knows that "research" (i.e., common sense) shows that there are few problems facing poor people that cannot be solved by adding large amounts of one simple ingredient: Money. So that should end that conversation.

But never in Chicago, where the eyes of most scholars are always directed away from the cruel craziness of the richest people, even when Chicago elects one of those crazies to be its mayor. It's too bad that Chicago's educators are stuck with the "cooked to order" surveys of the Consortium (at the University of Chicago) or the repetitious platitudes of Catalyst, which for more than a quarter century has been babbling whatever the latest Party Line has been from "School Reform" (corporate America style). There are actually many serious researchers who have been poking holes large and small in the pretenses and platitudes of the education reformers for decades. David Berliner's "Manufactured Crisis..." has been around since the early 1990s, and he has continued his work. Gerald Bracey's work is still available, even though we lost Jerry a few years ago. And of course Susan Ohanian and dozens of others are writing daily or regularly to deflate the pufferies of the corporate reformers.

Just not here in Chicago, where the majority of professors have been paid subsidized apologists for the twists and turns of the Party Line since even before mayoral control came to Chicago via the Amendatory Act of 1995. So from time to time it's worth the "read" for Chicago teachers and others to share stuff from the real researchers, from Diane Ravitch to those less public figures from Columbia University in New York City to the University of Colorado, the University of Arizona, and many other places.

This week, one of the funniest dry studies of one piece of "education reform" was brought to our attention, and it's worth sharing. Just how self-centered are the rich guys (and gals) who, like Rahm Emanuel, push this nonsense from their perches of power?

The study below first came to us from Teachers College at Columbia University (New York City), and its "characteristics" of the education reformers (from Bill Gates to Rahm Emanuel) couldn't be more fun: "A review of literature that addresses narcissistic parenting yielded eight characteristic behavioral patterns: expectations of perfection in children, particularly with regard to intellect; a grandiose sense of superiority and entitlement; relentless fault-finding; projection of personal fantasies onto children; an absence of empathy for children and their needs; a preoccupation with control; conditional approval; and a well-intentioned view of their own self-centered motives and insensitive actions as being beneficial for children."

How much pathological psychological nonsense has gone into constructing the edifice that passes for corporate "school reform"? Answer: More than you can imagine.


Cultural Narcissism and Education Reform. by Edward F. Pajak — 2011

Background/Context: Scholars have described American culture in recent decades as narcissistic, manifested by displays of self-absorption tantamount to a pathological syndrome that has reached epidemic proportions. An education reform movement that is highly critical of public schools, teachers, and students has simultaneously emerged, espousing a wide array of seemingly disconnected innovations and punitive sanctions. Prior efforts to critically analyze these reform efforts have focused on the historical workings of power and knowledge by supporting reflective, emancipatory knowledge and action while overlooking the insights offered by psychoanalytic theory. Consequently, the impact of education policies on the identities of teachers and the personal relationships between teachers and students has not been thoroughly or sufficiently understood.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This article represents a tentative step toward understanding the social and psychological underpinnings of education reform in the United States during the last quarter century. The reform movement is interpreted as being rooted in specific psychological processes associated with narcissistic parenting. Psychoanalytic concepts are employed to illustrate how educators and the general public have become accomplices in their own subjugation. A review of literature that addresses narcissistic parenting yielded eight characteristic behavioral patterns: expectations of perfection in children, particularly with regard to intellect; a grandiose sense of superiority and entitlement; relentless fault-finding; projection of personal fantasies onto children; an absence of empathy for children and their needs; a preoccupation with control; conditional approval; and a well-intentioned view of their own self-centered motives and insensitive actions as being beneficial for children. These conceptual formulations provided a basis for examining proposals and policies found in the National Commission on Excellence in Education’s 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, and provisions of the more recent No Child Left Behind legislation.

Research Design: This analytic essay uses a review of the literature, including psychoanalytic research on narcissism and narcissistic parenting as well as contemporary critical theory related to education reform, to examine arguments and policies evidenced in A Nation at Risk and No Child Left Behind.

Conclusions/Recommendations: A prevailing “narcissistic education policy style” is posited, which denies the true learning needs of students; disempowers classroom teachers and schools by undermining trust in self and others; and reproduces narcissistic dynamics within the culture. Elements of an alternative education policy more focused on the needs of students are proposed, along with a call to recognize the right of children to be treated with the respect accorded to fully formed human beings.

Over several decades, students, teachers, and schools across the United States have been subjected to an endless stream of seemingly disconnected innovations, many of which are enforced through district, state, and federal policies. These include, among others, measuring academic performance solely by results on standardized tests, developing academic standards for every subject and grade level, instituting all-day kindergarten and year-round school terms, introducing algebra in middle school, requiring Advanced Placement classes for all students, eliminating fine and performing arts from the curriculum, eliminating recess and naps in early grades, discrediting accomplished teachers who fail to meet arbitrary definitions of being “highly qualified,” imposing high-stakes tests with adequate yearly progress (AYP) sanctions, requiring abstinence-only sex education, paying students to improve their test scores, and spending precious funds on an unproven array of expensive technological gadgetry.

Much of the discussion around innovation in education is mired in attempts to determine the value of this intervention or that strategy in an isolated, fragmented fashion. Looking at educational reform efforts holistically over the last several decades, however, enables us to examine more critically the context within which these seemingly independent innovations are born. Although proponents of reforms often claim that their advocacy is based on objective, evidence-based decision-making and that their intent is to benefit all students, this article will show that, to the contrary, their motivation may actually stem from and contribute to a sociocultural paradigm rooted in specific psychological processes that primarily address the interests and concerns of adults. This article introduces the constructs of cultural narcissism and narcissistic parenting to demonstrate that many popular, disparate, and seemingly unrelated recipes for “improving” education compose a coherent and integrated whole representing a “narcissistic education policy style” that effectively denies the true learning needs of students (Britzman, 1998), disempowers classroom teachers (Pinar, 2004), and reproduces narcissistic dynamics within our culture (Lasch, 1978).

In 1978, historian and social critic Christopher Lasch published his most popularly acclaimed book, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, in which he presented evidence that narcissistic preoccupation had become a dominant and defining theme of our culture. People in the United States, he contended, increasingly display a level of self-absorption and self-indulgence that is tantamount to a pathological syndrome. Lasch described an emerging national character structure reflected in peculiar aspects of everyday life, including an obsession with celebrity and youthfulness, a denial of old age and death, shallow emotions, feelings of inner emptiness, transient relationships, barely repressed rage, rampant materialism, and a decline in the spirit of play. He noted, further, that “institutions of cultural transmission (school, church, family), which might have been expected to counter the narcissistic trend in our culture, have instead been shaped in its image” (p. 141).

As we take stock more than 30 years later, the pathology that Lasch identified appears to have intensified. A meta-analysis of 85 samples of American college students in the United States, for example, reported progressively higher rates of narcissism from 1979 through 2006—a trend that may be attributable to cultural influences (Twenge, Konrath, Foster, Campbell, & Bushman, 2008). Indeed, a grandiose inflation of the collective American identity appears to have taken hold in the 21st century (Shapiro & Bernadett-Shapiro, 2006), accompanied by delusions of unlimited power and overconfidence in technological solutions despite painfully obvious evidence that the United States is neither invulnerable nor omnipotent.

Recent appraisals suggest that narcissistic behavior and attitudes have reached “epidemic” proportions among the general population in the United States, as manifested by our individual and collective sense of entitlement and obsessive preoccupation with appearance, personal finance, health, material comfort, and psychological contentment (Twenge & Campbell, 2009). Our daily experience is saturated with popular media that emphasize physical attractiveness, wealth, fame, power, and even notoriety as the primary measures of personal worth, characteristics that many seek to emulate in their own lifestyles and that are mirrored in electronic images viewed and uploaded onto the Internet by both adolescents and adults (Pinsky & Young, 2009). The “point and click” reflex that computers engender gives expression to our fixation on satisfying every passing whim while fueling fantasies of control, omniscience, and immediate gratification. At the same time, our lack of concern and responsibility for others and for the future is evident in the decisions we make, individually and collectively, about the use of natural resources and the effect our daily behavior has on the environment, on the world’s poor, and on generations to come.

Only five years after Lasch’s (1978) critique of American society, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983) was released, the first in an unabated series of state and national reports that criticize public education and the teaching profession—disproportionately and at times viciously—for supposedly failing to prepare America’s youth to compete in the global marketplace. Following the template laid out in that document, subsequent reports often echoed virtually identical warnings and recommendations (see Ginsberg & Plank, 1995; Ravitch, 2003; Wimpelberg & Ginsberg, 1988), typically calling for more accountability in education; tougher academic standards; higher levels of performance as measured by standardized tests; tighter alignment of local, state, and national policies; more stringent and frequent assessments; a longer school day and school year; linking teacher pay to student performance; differentiating the teacher role by assigning administrative duties; and heavier reliance on computers for instruction. Many of the ideas from these reports were codified in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and in state legislation and local policies (Vinovskis, 2009). These ideas continue to reverberate with relentless momentum in more recent calls for systemic change at all levels of P–16 education (Business and Higher Education Forum, 2005) and radically centralized control at the national level (Gerstner, 2008).

The proximity of Lasch’s (1978) critique to the publication of A Nation at Risk five years later and the fact that both explicitly responded to what appeared to be America’s diminishing prospects toward the end of the 20th century raise the question, Could the education reform movement of the last several decades be related somehow to America’s narcissistic culture?

“Lasch is right,” according to curriculum theorist, William Pinar (2004), who linked the “presentism” that is characteristic of cultural narcissism with reform-minded politicians who project blame for society’s ills onto teachers and schools, allowing them to forget their own culpability for student failure and the historic culpability of the institutions they represent. By relying on authoritarian means, such as test-driven curriculum and instruction, these politicians “force children to excel at tasks in which they have little interest” while “deflecting attention away from . . . intensely political motives and anti-educational effects” (p. 255).

Lamenting that most people continue to stubbornly resist the notion that unconscious fantasies contribute to the structure of “social, emotional, and political life” (Pinar, 2004, p. 59), Pinar observed that teachers’ very identities are shaped by the expectations, preconceptions, and fantasies held by students, parents, administrators, politicians, corporate CEOs, and policy makers, as well as by their own internalized life histories. He proposed that teachers should work to “overcome the ‘self’ conceived by others” (p. 22) and engage “in the on-going self-formation of students in anticipation of their participation in the public sphere not yet formed” (p. 16). Academic knowledge should certainly be taught, he acknowledged, but organized around the interests of students and teachers, while addressing local and global social concerns rather than simply serving as preparation for jobs or further education. Psychoanalytic theory is a key to greater biographical understanding, which, Pinar asserted, “is the pedagogical political practice for the 21st century” (p. 38).

Cultural narcissism may be understood on a broader scale as resulting from a new “symbolic order” and accompanying collective state of mind that shape both society and culture in our age of late modernity (Greenfeld, 1992). As Giddens (1991) explained, a combination of industrialism, capitalism, and reflexivity, or “chronic revision in light of new information and knowledge,” is destabilizing and transforming traditional forms of organization and creating a crisis of self for individuals (p. 20). Giddens described “the internally referential system of modernity” (p. 7) and proposed that individuals seek to actively mobilize, construct, and control their bodies, a “reflexivity of the self” (p. 7).

Habermas’s (1962/1989) landmark work, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry Into a Category of Bourgeois Society, showed that the public sphere no longer rests on the intellect of the informed, thoughtful, private citizen, but has been replaced by a “pseudo-public or sham-private world of culture consumption” (p. 160). Although recent explorations into critical theory in education have addressed the historical workings of power and knowledge by supporting reflective, emancipatory knowledge and action (for example, Apple, 1995; Giroux, 2001, 2009), my focus is on the psychological side of Habermas’s dyad, “social-psychological transmutation of the original relation between the intimate domain and the literary public sphere” (Habermas, p. 161). I agree, for example, as Giroux (2009) wrote, “In order to strengthen the public sphere, we must use its most widespread institutions [such as schools], undo their degeneration into means of commodification and control, and reclaim them as democratic spaces.” However, as Giroux (2001) also noted, critical theorists in education focus “almost exclusively on the work of Jurgen Habermas” (p. 8) while overlooking the work of other scholars associated with the Frankfurt School, like Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse, all of whom drew on psychoanalysis to inform their work. Citing Benjamin (1994), Giroux (2001) continued, “While it was clear to the Frankfurt School that psychoanalysis could not solve the problems of repression and authoritarianism, they believed that it did provide important insights into how ‘people become accomplices in their own subjugation’” (p. 30).

Others have discussed the relevance of psychoanalytic theory to cultural and political processes. Butler (1997) stated, “One cannot account for subjectivation and, in particular, becoming the principle of one’s own subjection without recourse to a psychoanalytic account of the formative or generative effects of restriction or prohibition” (p. 87). Foucault pointed to the importance of psychological processes in his work as well: “My problem is essentially the definition of the implicit systems in which we find ourselves prisoners; what I would like to grasp is the system of limits and exclusion which we practice without knowing it; I would like to make the cultural unconscious apparent” (O’Farrell, 2005, p. 69).

This article seeks to address the precise workings of education policy in its interaction with and constitution of the psyches and relationships of teachers and students in classrooms. Thus, along with Pinar (2004), I propose that classrooms and schools are not merely democratic spaces, they are personal spaces involving the direct, interpersonal relationships among teachers and students. Furthermore, attention to the psychological processes of policy makers, teachers, and students alike is crucial, not only to understand how recent educational reform efforts are created and impact classrooms, but also to identify specific actions that educators can take to ameliorate the harmful effects of what I call a narcissistic education policy style.


Sigmund Freud discussed narcissism as manifested in infancy and adulthood in some of his early writings (1914/1975, 1917/1975), but interest in the subject increased greatly toward the end of the 20th century after publications by Heinz Kohut (1966) and Otto Kernberg (1975) offered competing theories of its origins and treatment (Ronningstam, 2005). A narcissistic personality disorder is defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (American Psychiatric Association, 1994) as “a pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy” (p. 658). Nine specific diagnostic behavioral criteria include a grandiose sense of self-importance; fantasies of limitless success, power, or beauty; a belief in one’s superiority; an excessive need for admiration; a sense of entitlement and privilege; exploitation; emotional coldness; jealousy; and arrogance. The presence of five or more of these behaviors is considered indicative of a narcissistic personality disorder.

Consensus among scholars and researchers currently holds that narcissism includes a range of behaviors and a spectrum of severity, including normal adult narcissism that is important for regulating self-esteem (Kernberg, 2004; Ronningstam, 2005). Indeed, “healthy narcissism plays a crucial role in the human capacity to manage challenges, successes, and changes, to overcome defeats, illnesses, trauma, losses; to love and be productive and creative; and to experience happiness, satisfaction, and acceptance of the course of one’s life” (Ronningstam, p. 31). Rather than being clear-cut, the difference between healthy narcissism and a narcissistic psychological disorder is more “a matter of degree,” both in terms of the number of behaviors exhibited and their severity (Pinsky & Young, 2009). Although the percentage of people diagnosed as pathologically narcissistic represents a small fraction of the general population, experts generally agree that narcissistic behavior patterns are increasingly prevalent in both individuals and American society at large (Pinsky & Young; Shapiro & Bernadett-Shapiro, 2006; Twenge & Campbell, 2009).

A number of scholars have warned against psychological distortions of the teacher role that can arise when unconscious narcissistic processes are played out in the classroom (Hess, 2003; Miller, 2001; Pinar, 2004; Wolf, 1972). Canadian scholar Deborah Britzman (1998), who is at the forefront of a renaissance among scholars who are interested in linking education and psychoanalysis (Pinar), speculated that the narcissism of adult egos often has difficulty tolerating the inevitable errors, fantasies, and accidents of immature learners because such imperfections remind adults of who they once were and of their present failings. Our increasingly technical-rational education policies not only fail to recognize the learner’s needs, she noted, but are actually designed instead to authenticate “the adult’s capacity to control, predict, and measure” (Britzman, p. 26). Educators rely on intellectualization and rationalization, in other words, to exclude the unconscious from educational discourse and institutional structures, with the effect that even “reflective practice has been reduced to the utility of correcting practices and devotes itself to propping up the practitioners’ control and mastery” (p. 32). In other words, much of what is done in schools today in the name of education reform has more to do with meeting the needs and interests of adults than with meeting the needs of children.


Psychoanalyst Alice Miller (2001) has coined the term poisonous pedagogy to describe the kind of narcissistic parenting and education that aims to break a child’s will and make “that child into an obedient subject by means of overt or covert coercion, manipulation, and emotional blackmail” (p. ix). A number of authors, generally outside education, have begun to describe the serious consequences for children of being raised in families in which one or both parents exhibit overt narcissistic behaviors. The following sources were reviewed to identify characteristic behavior patterns common among narcissistic parents: Nina W. Brown’s Children of the Self-Absorbed: A Grownup’s Guide to Getting Over Narcissistic Parents (2001); Elan Golomb’s Trapped in the Mirror (1993); Alexander Lowen’s Narcissism: Denial of the True Self (1985); Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self (1997) and The Truth Will Set You Free (2001); and Elsa F. Ronningstam’s Identifying and Understanding the Narcissistic Personality (2005).

Essentially, these sources agree that something tragically lacking in today’s world is adult acceptance of children for the people they are, not for what adults want them to be or to become. An analysis of this literature yielded eight characteristic parental behavior patterns, somewhat related to the DSM’s diagnostic criteria described earlier: expectations of perfection in children, particularly with regard to intellect; a grandiose sense of superiority and entitlement; relentless fault-finding; projection of personal fantasies onto children; an absence of empathy for children and their needs; a preoccupation with control; conditional approval; and a well-intentioned view of their own self-centered motives and insensitive actions as being beneficial for children.

An artifact of the broader narcissistic culture, this narcissistic parenting style is also evident in the fabric of education policy proposals associated with the school reform movement. Specifically, it will be shown, the same eight patterns of behavior that are characteristic of narcissistic parenting appear to be manifested in both A Nation at Risk and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, two documents that are especially relevant because of the scope of their influence and the fact that they represent major milestones of the education reform movement in the United States over the last several decades (Olsen & Sexton, 2009; Vinovskis, 2009). The recommendations and regulations that these documents espouse, I propose, present a coherent and integrated pattern of behavior that essentially constitutes a “narcissistic style of education policy.” The eight behavioral patterns that characterize narcissistic parenting and their broader expression in education policy are described.

Expectations for perfection. Preoccupation with the “improvement” of children is a “hallmark of the narcissistic parent” (Golomb, 1993, p. 58), particularly with regard to intellect (Miller, 1997, 2001). Rather than allowing children to develop according to their innate talents and interests, narcissistic parents are obsessed with shaping their children according to an ideal image that exists in their own minds (Lowen, 1985). The child’s most important role at all times is to prop up the fragile inflated self-concept of the narcissistic parent, so anything less than perfection is simply unacceptable (Brown, 2001).

Preoccupation with the intellectual improvement of children and teachers is clearly a hallmark of A Nation at Risk and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which promote the notion that high standardized test scores for all children are the only legitimate indicator of success in school. Ideal images of perfection are embodied in neatly defined academic standards for every grade level and subject area, typically developed by elite experts far removed from the classroom reality of teachers and students. The specious assertion that learning can be achieved simply and efficiently by “raising the bar” and forcing students and teachers to demonstrate higher achievement without consideration of the challenges that students and teachers face serves mainly to prop up fantasies of omnipotence and omniscience among reform-minded scholars, policy makers, and politicians. The delusional quality of narcissistic expectations for perfection is most concretely evident in No Child Left Behind’s unreasonable requirement that every student, teacher, and school meet the same levels of performance. This delusion is also reflected in the insidiously impossible 2014 deadline for all students to be proficient in reading and mathematics despite any differences among them in socioeconomic level, disability, or English proficiency (see Meier & Wood, 2004).

Grandiose sense of superiority and entitlement. Narcissistic parents consider themselves to be special and superior to other people, though in fact they are secretly insecure. To compensate for these self-doubts, they exhibit an aura of arrogance, superiority, and entitlement toward others through grandiose and insensitive behavior. They give orders, for example, and expect immediate compliance. They make demeaning comments toward others and expect them to be accepted without protest. They assume that their needs and desires have priority and always insist that things be done their way (Brown, 2001; Ronningstam, 2005).

Our culture encourages the emergence of narcissists to positions of prominence by placing an exaggerated importance on winning (Lowen, 1985). Many of the fiercest critics of education have come from the ranks of successful CEOs (e.g., Gerstner, 2008) and ambitious politicians, raising the possibility that the last several decades of education reform have been unconsciously shaped by the urge of powerful narcissistic individuals to protect themselves from painful and unacknowledged feelings of helplessness that they themselves experienced as children by blaming and shaming others.

A Nation at Risk established the imperious tone emulated by scores of subsequent reform reports (e.g., Committee for Economic Development, 1985, 2009; National Education Goals Panel, 1991; National Governors Association, 1986; United States Chamber of Commerce & the Center for American Progress, 2007). It creates an image of America that is grandiose and exaggeratedly superior while simultaneously raising the alarm that this superiority is under attack. It equates “risk” with what is perceived as a “threat” to our “Nation’s” (the word is capitalized each time it appears in the document) purported “preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation” (p. 5). Using imagery of “America’s destiny” (p. 6) and “America’s place in the world” (p. 36), the report called upon the “patriotism” of “citizens” (p. 17) to undertake educational reform. This tone is routinely echoed by later reports in the formulaic criticism of student shortcomings, a general attack on public education, an expression of disrespect for teachers and teaching, and a positioning of recommendations as responses to an urgent crisis requiring immediate action to avert impending national catastrophe.

Perhaps the most memorable phrase in A Nation at Risk (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983) appears in the very first paragraph, when the reader is warned that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity [italics added]” (p. 5). Two sentences later, the assertion is repeated in a context of weirdly bellicose imagery: “If an unfriendly power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre [italics added] educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war” (p. 5). Several pages later, a section entitled “Excellence in Education” warns that pursuing a goal of equity without excellence “would lead to a generalized accommodation to mediocrity [italics added] in our society” (p. 13). The report’s list of recommendations includes the observation, “Excellence costs. But in the long run mediocrity [italics added] costs far more” (p. 33). Thus, the ominous specter of “mediocrity” is repeatedly raised by the authors of the report no fewer than four times in slightly more than 30 pages.

Commenting on the tendency of narcissists to compensate for internal insecurities and feelings of worthlessness with displays of grandiosity, the preeminent international expert on narcissistic personality disorders recently offered this relevant observation: “What they [narcissists] fear most is being ‘average’ or ‘mediocre’ [italics added]” (Kernberg, 2004, p. 50). Their grandiose self-image cannot be maintained, in other words, if the essential mediocrity of everyday life is accepted as real. The delusional sense of superiority and its underlying fear of mediocrity point to the narcissistic processes embedded within the education reform movement.

Built on the groundwork laid by A Nation at Risk, the underfunded mandate of No Child Left Behind similarly demonstrates the grandiosity and fear of mediocrity inherent in the narcissistic personality. As with most federal policy, it greatly expands federal “oversight” and “accountability” processes for schools, requiring compliance from others without any consideration of the varying innate talents, interests, and developmental needs of children or the necessity of providing adequate support and resources for teachers and schools.

Relentless fault finding. Although narcissistic parents unconsciously feel unlovable and defective, they are exceptionally adept at making others feel that they are the ones being judged and found to be lacking (Brown, 2001). Children are especially susceptible to the narcissist’s fierce criticism and contempt because they are weak, powerless, and lack the qualities of adults. Children are viewed as needing correction, therefore, and are subjected to forms of teaching aimed at bringing them into line with the narcissist’s ideal of excellence and perfection (Golomb, 1993).

It has been observed on an individual level that a “collapse of self-esteem” can result in the adoption of a “logic of shame, a form of magical thinking,” which suggests that one can protect oneself “from being exposed and vulnerable to and potentially overwhelmed by the feeling of shame” if the person or persons who are imagined to have caused humiliation or shame are attacked and eliminated (Gilligan, 1996, p. 64). A recent comprehensive review of research and theory on narcissistic personality disorders explained, “Feelings of shame have been specifically associated with narcissism,” and such feelings involve “a significant shift in self-perception, accompanied by a sense of exposure, a sense of shrinking, and feelings of worthlessness and powerlessness” (Ronningstam, 2005, p. 88). Giddens (1991) noted that “an experience of shame may threaten or destroy trust” for individuals when expectations “of a world that has coherence, continuity, and dependability” are violated (p. 66).

The rhetorical arguments found in A Nation at Risk (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983) seek to undermine collective self-esteem and create a national crisis of shame, and introduce a logic of shame that irrationally projects responsibility for America’s economic problems solely and squarely on educators and the system of public education, which then allows them to be ruthlessly criticized and attacked without any evidence to support the assertion that public education contributed to the country’s supposed loss of global competitiveness. Collective shame is elicited with repeated assertions that America’s “unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world” (p. 5). Feelings of exposure, shrinking, and powerlessness are further fueled in the document; dismal evidence of America’s loss of economic competitiveness is interwoven and confounded with gloomy descriptions of intellectual deficiencies allegedly evidenced among K–12 students and public school teachers.

Many of the countless education reform reports and white papers that have appeared since the publication of A Nation at Risk begin by lamenting the decline of American economic competitiveness in the global marketplace and then proceed to project blame for this problem onto K–12 education. The authors of these documents seem compelled to compile lists showing intellectual “deficiencies” among children who are enrolled in American public schools, as well as shortcomings of their teachers. Incredibly, this relentless criticism, fault-finding, and shaming are offered as legitimate and effective ways for bringing about educational excellence. A “logic of shame” is institutionalized at the state and federal levels through legislation that requires the publishing of standardized test score results for individual schools and districts. No Child Left Behind is particularly pernicious in its labeling of schools as “failing” when students show insufficient improvement on standardized tests despite progress that students may have made from year to year (Meier & Wood, 2004).

The assumption that failure or the threat of failure on standardized tests will somehow motivate students, teachers, and schools to perform better academically is also dubious. This view “takes little account of the devastating effects of repeated experiences of failure” on children and young people. Punishment alone rarely results in any sort of positive outcome, and the experience of failure “rarely results in determination to succeed” (Youell, 2006, p. 143). More often than not, failure and punishment simply result “in determination to avoid further humiliation by avoiding further assessment” (p. 144), which may translate into dropping out of school for students who perform most poorly on such assessments.

Projection of personal fantasies. Narcissists view the world in terms of dichotomies and people as either “winners” or “losers.” Children are viewed as existing solely to fulfill the parents’ fantasies of omnipotence and omniscience and are expected to enact whatever roles are assigned to them, typically that of a “special” child who serves to mirror the parent’s grandiosity. The narcissist feels personally betrayed and even outraged when a child who has been deemed perfect disappoints by not living up to exalted expectations of being a genius or virtuoso. A child who fails to uphold these unrealistic parental fantasies is judged to be defective and is rejected. The child’s own needs and interests simply do not register and do not count (Golomb, 1993).

Commenting on the forces affecting school reform in the mid-20th century, Eisner (2002) observed that “America is a nation that likes to come in first. . . . We don’t like to come in second” (p. 21). Indeed, authors of education reform reports like A Nation at Risk seem disproportionately threatened by any hint of evidence that the United States may become a “loser” in the grandiose sense of no longer being able to totally dominate the rest of the world. Instead of assigning responsibility for any loss of economic competitiveness and influence to the adult business leaders and politicians who are nominally in charge of such matters, blame is irrationally projected onto children and teachers, particularly those in public schools, on the grounds that they are not attaining the highest standardized test scores in the world. The solution proposed by school reformers is to “raise the bar” with higher standards that narrow the definition of what is worth teaching to those subjects that are most easily and frequently tested. Students, teachers, and schools are then classified as “winners” or “losers,” which coincidentally fulfills the shaming fantasies of narcissistic adults. Under No Child Left Behind, for example, schools that already face the greatest challenges are pointlessly labeled “low performing” or “persistently failing” when students do not meet AYP goals, but no action is taken to address the fact that the high school noncompletion rate is near 30% nationally, and close to 50% in urban areas (Swanson, 2009).

Examining the structures and practices commonly found in schools that contribute to social inequities, Brantlinger (2003) noted that “as long as the lay public, policy makers, school managers, and educational scholars locate the problem in school losers and direct their efforts at changing them,” it is impossible to alter “the ubiquitous class-biased practices in school” (p. 192). She condemned the labeling of children as “disabled” or otherwise flawed when they fail to conform to “a monolithically and ethnocentrically defined ideal student” (Brantlinger, 2006, p. 241). Such labeling, according to Brantlinger, imposes a false self on students (and quite possibly teachers and schools) that isolates, fragments, and alienates, while preventing feelings of being alive and real.

Absence of empathy. People who display a narcissistic personality disorder are incapable of nurturing, responding empathically, or resonating with the emotional life and needs of children (Brown, 2001). Instead, narcissistic parents respond to a child as if they were dealing with a “human machine” (Golomb, 1993, p. 143). These parents are not necessarily overtly unkind; they simply lack empathy for children as living, feeling human beings and treat them as if they were merely objects. Lack of empathy serves as a defense against having to acknowledge the narcissist’s own feelings of helplessness (Miller, 1997; Ronningstam, 2005).

A Nation at Risk and No Child Left Behind uniformly prescribe “tough love” toward public school students, which translates psychologically into no love at all. The relevance of students’ emotional lives and psychological needs for empathic validation, nurturance, and positive mirroring from adults are meanwhile dismissed as unimportant and irrelevant (Meier, 2004). All students are expected to succeed in mathematics at earlier ages, for example, without regard for their aptitudes or personal interests. Indeed, a recent psychoanalytic interpretation of the “extra layers of assessment and evaluation” that “have been added in an attempt to ‘drive up standards’” in schools suggests that they are “actually about keeping emotional experience out of the picture” (Youell, 2006, p. 5). Similarly, teachers are treated with suspicion and outright contempt, while the working conditions that result in high teacher turnover are ignored in favor of bureaucratic regulations that classify teachers as “highly qualified” or not. The requirement that teachers’ decisions should be based solely on scientific research and quantitative data obscures the importance of empathy and consideration of the emotional foundation of teacher and student interaction. Such arguments reflect an intellectual failure to distinguish between teaching, which contributes to the growth of students as whole human beings, and instruction, which involves nothing more than conveying information from one person to another.

Preoccupation with control. Narcissists lack a realistic sense of boundaries for their own identities and view others, especially children, as extensions of themselves. They believe in their right to control others and use them for their own purposes (Brown, 2001; Golomb, 1993). Rather than relying on their authority as parents, narcissists use power, coercion, bribery, and unrelenting criticism to get their way (Lowen, 1985; Miller, 2001). Outbursts of rage can result when their attempts to exercise total control are frustrated (Ronningstam, 2005).

Much of education reform ideology seems to be premised on the notion that the quality of teaching and learning can be remotely controlled by experts from a central location and that students and teachers, as unfeeling objects, can be manipulated at will. The uncompromising confidence that computers are able to teach more effectively than humans and will eventually replace teachers entirely somehow survives despite the billions of dollars that have already been spent on technology since the 1960s without much convincing evidence of a positive return from this investment (Cuban, 2003; Oppenheimer, 2004). Unrealistic expectations for control are also obvious in increasingly detailed data reporting requirements, as well as beliefs that students will learn more in response to coercive threats and bribes, such as exit examinations and financial incentives. Such policies not only undermine teachers’ professional authority but also distract educators from focusing on the real learning needs of students. In truth, the problems that schools face today are not likely to be solved through more technology or more top-down control, both of which only make schools more impersonal and inhospitable.

Conditional approval. Narcissistic parents fail to provide the unconditional positive regard that children need. Rather, they focus attention, criticism, and conditional approval on the child’s external behavior, which must meet the expectations that reinforce the parents’ own grandiosity. Although conditional approval is a weak substitute for unconditional love, if that is the only sign of affection forthcoming, the helpless child will eagerly embrace whatever the parent offers in order to survive (Golomb, 1993; Miller, 2001).

Teachers are paradoxically portrayed simultaneously by education reformers as the key to improved student academic achievement and the source of everything wrong with schools. Instead of directly addressing the inadequate funding of classrooms and schools or rectifying the long-acknowledged low pay that is grudgingly meted out to teachers, A Nation at Risk called for elaborate and unproven distractions, like differentiated staffing, career ladders, and merit pay. No Child Left Behind further applies punitive sanctions to schools that are already struggling. Tactics like signing bonuses, competitive grants, teacher-of-the-year awards, and ever-popular pay-for-performance schemes are intended to manipulate the behavior of teachers rather than solve the underlying perennial problem of underfunding teacher salaries and classroom instruction. Contingent rewards allow reformers to enhance their own sense of self-importance through occasional displays of largess, while keeping them firmly in control of resources that they are free to dispense or withhold in meager increments according to narrow and simplistic understandings of what teaching and learning involve.

Well-intentioned view of own motives. Narcissists do not deliberately seek to hurt children and, in fact, see their own actions as well-meaning and as being in children’s best interest. They are simply not aware that a child exists except as a reflection, as in a mirror, of their own grandiose self-image. But they will take any steps necessary to ensure that the image they see conforms to their ideal of perfection, even if it distorts the child’s natural maturity and developmental needs (Golomb, 1993; Miller, 1997).

Even some of the most skeptical critics of No Child Left Behind acknowledge that many of its advocates are well intentioned and convinced that their slogans, beliefs, and actions serve the best interests of children (Darling-Hammond, 2004; Noddings, 2005; Wood, 2004). After all, No Child Left Behind was the product of a bipartisan effort, following the events of September 11, 2001, “to do something together for our children” (Wood, p. ix). But the culture of narcissism includes and corrupts liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats alike. Despite good intentions of some supporters, the single-minded and relentless focus on standardized testing that resulted from No Child Left Behind severely narrows the purpose of education by confining student, teacher, and school success to a few subjects. Students’ natural talents and interests are sacrificed in the name of AYP, while their developmental need for validation as worthwhile human beings is cruelly ignored (Noddings, 2005).

The title and general tone of A Nation at Risk (1983) are expertly crafted to disrupt the comfortable self-image of American citizens and replace it with a sense of vulnerability and fear. Such fear may be further reinforcing the increased prevalence of narcissistic patterns of behavior in our culture, it has been suggested, because adults are distracted from providing children with the positive and empathic mirroring necessary for the development of a firm, cohesive, and realistic sense of self (Kohut, 1966, 1971). Jerrold Lee Shapiro and Susan Bernadett-Shapiro (2006) identified several reasons why “narcissistic personality disorders are increasing in the modern world” (p. 34). Along with improved assessment and diagnosis, changes in culture and family structure, and increased rates of divorce, they suggested that generalized “fear” for the well-being of children may inadvertently result in failure to meet their psychological needs. Parallels between this dynamic of fear for children and the fears raised in A Nation at Risk are obvious:

Fear may be another factor that contributes to parental empathic failure. We have more fear these days about preparing our children for the future. We know they will compete in a global society for limited resources. We have increased fear for their safety as we are exposed to media coverage of every disaster imaginable. Because of these fears, parents may be more demanding of their children academically, expect more independence at an earlier age, and yet try to shelter them from perceived dangers. In this regard, they may miss their child’s developmental needs in favor of their own needs for him to do well in life and be prepared for what appears to be an increasingly uncertain future. We may miss our children’s need for listening, understanding, and empathic responding in our own hurry to get things done and provide a better life for them. (Shapiro & Bernadett-Shapiro, 2006, p. 35)

It is not inconceivable that this phenomenon of overly anxious parents who unwittingly reinforce narcissistic processes in their children through empathic failure may reverberate outside the confines of the immediate family. Such parents might be more susceptible to, for example, the conscious and unconscious fears that reports like A Nation at Risk evoke and also more willing to unquestioningly accept its recommendations.

Indeed, Deborah Meier (2004) observed that widespread use of standardized tests, which are highly sensitive to subtle differences in social class, as the sole measure of academic performance “increases the distrust we have for teachers, students, and our own judgments” (p. 95). Students, teachers, and administrators distrust one another, while “a widespread public perception of systemic failure” is emerging that threatens to “erode the common ground a universal system of public education needs to survive” (Karp, 2004, p. 58). Meier (2002) elaborated on how this distrust is directly connected to American society’s ambivalence toward children, their education, and ultimately our own identities:

The more objective the standards, the more distant and scientific the results; the more universal the population tested, then the more nonnegotiable the consequences, and the less room for argument, excuses, flexibility, bias, and compromise. In a society in which adults often feel helpless to control their students or their children, even to know them, this approach has additional blessings. It appears to avoid the issue of trusting anyone: one’s kids, their teachers, their schools—or oneself. (p. 120)

This “issue of trusting” is key to understanding the harm inflicted by narcissistic patterns of behavior in the guise of educational policy. The next section briefly describes the centrality of trust to the developmental process by which children grow into self-confident and secure individuals, and the interpersonal harmony that gives coherence and meaning to schools as traditionally organized.


Drawing on the writings of psychoanalysts D. W. Winnicott and Heinz Kohut, both of whom theorize about the early stages of self development, Giddens (1991) explained how a sense of basic trust emerges from the relationship developed between an infant and its loving caretakers and described the process by which the origins of a narcissistic personality disorder lie “in a failure to achieve basic trust” (p. 178). This early fundamental sense of trust involves both emotional and cognitive processes and forms the basis of one’s orientation toward one’s self, he proposed, as well as toward others and the external world. Forged over time from predictable “habits and routines” enacted between the infant and its caregivers, basic trust provides a lifelong “ontological security,” essentially an “emotional inoculation,” which “allows the individual to sustain hope and courage in the face of whatever debilitating circumstances she or he might later confront” (p. 39). In addition to providing the self with stability, coherence, and continuity, Giddens observed that basic trust is also closely linked to creativity, innovative thinking, and “a preparedness to embrace novel experiences” (p. 41), as well as the ability to communicate and form emotionally charged “social bonds” with other people (p. 64).

Just as trust is central to the individual child’s ability to be self-secure and to relate to others, trust is also required for the coherent functioning of school communities. Institutional theorists explain that a “logic of confidence” among stakeholders is essential for coordination (i.e., coherence, continuity, and dependability) in schools, as they have been traditionally organized, because their structural components and processes compose “loosely coupled” systems (Meyer & Rowan, 1977, 1978; Weick, 1976). This logic of confidence within traditionally organized schools originates in professional socialization of educators, shared values and beliefs, broad purposes that accommodate plurality, and meaning conferred through rituals, symbols, and ceremonies (Deal & Peterson, 2003). Advantages of loosely coupled processes and structures in organizations like schools include preservation of novelty, flexibility of response, adaptability to local conditions, sensitivity to the environment, improvisation, and low cost of coordination (Weick, 1982).

Rather than applaud the foundational “logic of confidence” (i.e., trust) that characterizes and gives coherence to traditional school communities, some school reform advocates blame it for inefficiencies that allegedly result in low academic achievement among students in public schools and propose replacing it with more frequent inspection of operations and close monitoring of measurable outcomes (e.g., Elmore, 2000; Schmoker, 2006). The resulting crisis of trust does more than unsettle educators’ professional identities; it also destabilizes schools as organizations by striking at their existential core. In light of Giddens’s (1991) observations about the origins of basic trust during infancy and its relation to creativity, innovation, and social bonding, intentionally sabotaging the logic of confidence inherent in schools may be akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Sacrificing the essential trust that holds schools together and gives them meaning in order to achieve an immediate gain in test scores is incredibly shortsighted, if not a deliberate strategy to undermine public schooling by diminishing “the very idea that education is a public good” (Kohn, 2004, p. 80).

Brantlinger (2006) observed that educational policies, which largely serve middle-class interests, have replaced “theory as a source of guidance for practitioners” in schools and that these policies ensure inequitable outcomes by prescribing standardized “practices so that professionals are not allowed to make difficult moral decisions on a child-by-child basis” (p. 243). Thus, returning to Giddens’s (1991) analysis of modernity, the calculated undermining of basic trust in schools and the prohibition of appropriate human responses to the learning needs of students are likely to interfere with students’ attainment of the ontological security, coherence, continuity, and stability needed to confront life’s challenges with confidence, adapt creatively to novel experiences, and develop emotionally charged social bonds with others. Though the brunt is borne by the poor and disabled, policy-driven organizational rigidity and professional unresponsiveness inevitably harm all students.

A very similar point is made by Sidorkin (1999), who argued that “the educational community has fallen into a false belief that policy-making is the way to change education” (p. 2). In place of an ideological monologue that has appropriated the language of research, he called for a “theoretical language” for understanding educational institutions:

What I am arguing against is not policies, but the belief that policies are of primary importance. Policies do not respond to the dialogical, which is a fundamental aspect of being human, and they are not suitable for the task of changing human conditions. It is direct, mutual dialogical relations, which takes courage, creativity, and spontaneity that constitute the center of education. Without such dialogical relations, nothing works. (pp. 36–37)

Sidorkin (1999) acknowledged that a narcissist exists inside of us who is “threatened and defensive” and “likes to be self-sufficient . . . alone and in control” (p. 143). Unlike the alienated narcissist who looks on others, as if “in a mirror,” for confirmation of grandiosity, Sidorkin argued that we can only locate our true self externally in relations with many other people. The “self does not merely manifest itself through relations with others,” he suggested, “it exists only in relation with others” (p. 143). Our culture’s “inability to deal with difference,” he continued, “betrays the narcissistic longing for sameness, which is the other side of putting too much emphasis on things and too little on relations. . . . Relation is primary, and difference is secondary” (p. 144). This insight suggests some ways to resolve the perplexing conundrum in which education and modern society find themselves today.


When thinking about children and what happens in classrooms and schools, most adults too easily find comfort in analogies that are more appropriate to a task like engineering. Such thoughts help us to defend against a flood of emotion that would recall feelings of helplessness and pain that we ourselves experienced as children and make us recognize our limited ability to address the enormity of the challenge before us. If we consciously admitted the real reasons that some students and schools do not succeed (Rothstein, 2004), it would simply break our hearts every day. We prefer to retain our adult objectivity and converse about abstractions like standards and test scores because such talk allows us to continue our shared narcissistic delusion of being powerful and in control of our individual and collective destinies.

Obviously, improving the intellectual capacity of every student should be a primary focus for teachers and schools. Without question, that task is the stock-in-trade of every educator worthy of being called a teacher. When that primary focus becomes the sole purpose of education, however, it is clear that something has gone seriously wrong. To right this wrong, educators must consciously reassert control over teaching and research by resolving to simultaneously address the academic and human developmental needs of students. What might an alternative system of education look like that truly placed the needs and interests of children at the forefront, instead of the grandiose fantasies of adults?

Musing on society’s essential need to build and sustain institutions that “can help us become more human” as a remedy to the brutal Soviet domination of Eastern European countries like Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel (1992) noted,

The most basic sphere of concern is schooling. Everything else depends on that. . . . The most important thing is a new concept of education. At all levels, schools must cultivate a spirit of free and independent thinking in the students. Schools will have to be humanized, both in the sense that their basic component must be the human personalities of the teachers, creating around themselves a “force field” of inspiration and example, and in the sense that technical and other specialized education will be balanced by a general education in the humanities. (p. 117)

In contrast to this idyllic vision, Miller (1997) explained that oppression and forced submission “do not begin in the office, factory, or political party; they begin in the very first weeks of an infant’s life” (p. 105) and are now being institutionalized in schools in the name of reform. Isolating ourselves emotionally from children and young people who are perceived as lacking or flawed is an external manifestation of what is happening to us internally, where we distance ourselves from people who are weak or powerless, and from uncertain elements of our true identities. This unconscious process is the foundation for racism, fascism, and nationalism, which share a “dangerous, destructive disrespect for human life” (p. 110). Democracy and its future, not only ourselves, are at stake. We must recognize the futility of struggling “against hatred outside ourselves, while ignoring its messages within” (p. 115).

Significantly, the children of narcissistic parents are often drawn to the helping professions, including psychotherapy and teaching, because they are accustomed to meeting the emotional demands of others at the expense of their own needs (Brown, 2001; Miller, 1997). As children, they develop a finely tuned ability to respond to parental demands, but they lose the ability to consciously experience certain feelings themselves. Intellectual capacities often compensate for the inability to feel and serve as the center of a false self. As adults, they tend to be compliant and easily manipulated by authority figures.

For educators who choose not to continue legitimizing a system of education that is institutionalizing and furthering destructive narcissistic processes in society, this means that change must begin from within oneself. Fortunately, experts in mental health and education agree that it is both possible and desirable for individuals to be freed from their illusions and self-deceptions by discovering their own personal truth and, in doing so, regain the original sensitivity and vitality that has been stolen from them, as well as the capacity to form empathic and nurturing bonds with young people (Britzman, 1998; Brown, 2001; Miller, 1997, 2001; Pinar, 2004). The following paragraphs propose a number of alternative strategies for teachers and other educational leaders that can counter the harmful effects of the narcissistic behavior patterns evidenced in education reform.

In his classic book, 36 Children, Herbert Kohl (1988) described a highly tentative, self-critical, and interpersonal classroom style that strives at all times to discover and create meaning in the supremely human act of teaching. In a more recent volume that addresses broader philosophical issues, he identified the question, “What is the nature of the child?” as the crux “of debates on how education should be controlled or conducted” (Kohl, 2003, p. 45). He was especially critical of the self-interest that drives Piagetian theory, because it “denies both affect and love a central place in early cognitive growth” (p. 45) and “elevates self-centeredness to a principle of moral development” (p. 46). Kohl suggested that “the centrality of altruism, empathy, and other forms of disinterested love” to teaching and learning ought to be seriously considered. Regarding “empathic love for all people,” he asked, “How does that love get conveyed to children so that it becomes a driving force in their lives?” (p. 45).

Children are exploited by their parents or teachers, according to Miller, when love is contingent on their being obedient and compliant, or when they are compelled to behave or perform in ways that fulfill the expectations of others. The child’s own instinctual abilities to react to situations are sacrificed and stunted, in other words, to gratify the needs of parents or teachers. What children truly require is “unconditional love,” Miller (1997) told us, which means being loved for who they are regardless of what they may do or what qualities they may or may not possess. Likewise, Noddings (2005) noted that what all students need is “confirmation” that they are capable and worthwhile human beings. Confirmation by a teacher is “an act of affirming and encouraging the best in others” and is something that “lifts us toward our vision of a better self” (p. 25).

Many strategies commonly used in schools to boost student self-esteem, however, may actually contribute to narcissism by fostering a preoccupation with self and appearance and by encouraging students to feel good about themselves as an end in itself. Teachers should instead strive to help students attain an “optimum self esteem” (Katz, 1995, p. 5) that is based on actual accomplishments. Rather than relying on slogans or constant messages about how wonderful they are for simply existing, optimum self-esteem can be achieved by treating students respectfully, along with their views, opinions, and preferences, which can be brought to bear on choices and decisions that matter to them. Praise should be linked to concrete achievements that take significant effort, not to trivial tasks (Katz).

Distinguishing between praise and flattery, Katz (1995) introduced the idea of personal “appreciation” (p. 36) for students’ ideas, concerns, and suggestions. Appreciation can be expressed by a teacher through language and subtle gestures, like bringing in a book related to a topic mentioned by a student the day before. The advantage of appreciation is that it provides positive feedback to students for their contributions “without taking their minds off the subjects at hand or directing their attention inward” (p. 36). Teachers should strive to make lessons interesting and intellectually engaging, rather than contrived and superficially fun. Students can be helped to establish their own criteria for evaluation and success, as well as learning how to cope with failure (Katz).

Accepting failure, like mediocrity, is a big part of life. We might therefore want to begin openly acknowledging the universality of imperfection and the fact that learning and teaching are truly as much about failure as they are about success. This would require everyone to admit that we are all flawed and fallible human beings in need of constant remediation and that our knowledge, beliefs, dispositions, and skills are similarly flawed. Postman (1995) called this the theme of “the fallen angel” and suggested that education could benefit from being organized around it. He noted that the best teachers are not necessarily the brightest, for whom learning is always easy. Rather, the best teachers are those who themselves have had to struggle to learn something. Only then can they appreciate and understand the difficulty and frustrations that their students may be experiencing. He suggested, further, that teachers ought to openly admit that they sometimes make mistakes and that the authors of textbooks may not always be correct, or even at times may be biased.

Postman (1995) reminded us that we all learn far more from making mistakes and correcting them than we do by memorizing what are supposed to be the facts. Being wrong should not be considered a disgrace; it is an inevitable step in arriving at the truth, because learning requires trial, error, and correction (Roediger & Finn, 2009). Furthermore, students should understand that what appears to be “truth” changes over time, may be revised with new evidence, and depends on perspective, as well as whose interests are at stake.

Students might be urged to earn extra points toward their grades, Postman (1995) suggested, by challenging the curriculum content, uncovering factual errors and omissions, and disputing faulty logic and questionable opinions. This should be done in the spirit of critically revealing truth, and teachers should remain alert to errors in student thinking and help them reduce their mistakes. Taking this subversive line of reasoning even further, Noddings (2006) recommended that “students should be allowed, even encouraged, to criticize the current emphasis schools put on competition, standardization, and the accumulation of trivial knowledge.” She urged teachers to adequately teach the required curriculum, but “then move on to critical lessons on things that matter” (p. 145).

Deborah Meier (2004) laid out a sensible plan for increasing trust in schools, an intangible quality that is based on relationships among human beings, not between a person and an accountability system. Teaching requires a leap of faith, after all, a trust in one’s own ability to make a difference, that one’s students can and will learn, that one’s colleagues are making their contribution to the collective effort, and that administrators are supportive and watching out for the interests of learning. Trust is also absolutely essential for schools to maintain the support of parents and taxpayers.

Instead of complex databases that track student performance, Meier (2002) argued, transparency should be achieved by creating schools that are small, personal, and democratic communities. In contrast to radical reformist calls for abolishing local school boards and centralizing nationally into “50 to 70 school districts” (see Gerstner, 2008), she suggested that the number of local boards should be greatly increased, with no board having “authority over more than perhaps 2,500 students and at most ten small schools” (p. A23). Trust will only be achieved when “principals, teachers, and kids know each other well, and their work is accessible to the larger community” (p. A23). Likewise, school board members “must know the schools intimately—through firsthand engagement, not printouts and manipulatable bureaucratic data” (Meier, 2004, p. 73). Meier (2002) called for “small, intimate, and personalized schools” for all children, not just the wealthy, privileged, and powerful (p. 155).

Because every student deserves to be treated as an independent human being on his or her own terms, and because each student brings along different temperaments, information, background experiences, and levels of self-confidence, teachers “will always need discretionary space and the educational imagination to invent practices that are appropriate for not only the individual child, but also suitable for the particular time and situation in which something is to occur” (Eisner, 2002, p. 7). All of reality is in fact complicated and not simple, multifaceted and not unilinear. The implications, therefore, are clear:

A good teacher is not one whose integrity is ironlike. A good teacher is what is sometimes called “very human,” a person whose internal complexity is not suppressed, but expressed. Dialogical integrity should be nourished in educational institutions by cherishing plurality and not hurrying students to make up their minds. (Sidorkin, 1999, p. 67)

We must approach teaching and learning with a renewed sense of humility and respect. The classroom is a place where students and teachers engage in a highly personal and intimate encounter, which produces important results that are not always quantifiably measurable or even immediately apparent (Carini, 2001). Teaching is an activity that predates institutions, capitalism, and globalization and serves to perpetuate human culture within the natural environment. Teaching is aligned, in other words, with preindustrial technologies like hunting, fishing, food gathering, and agriculture, and therefore with the rhythms of Earth, the solar system, and the universe. We should strive to understand how teaching might help to restore balance to our world by paying more attention to natural cycles instead of the narrow instrumentality of technocratic rationality.

The interactions between teachers and students provide mutual benefits if the inner worlds of human beings are valued, and much is gained by both beyond the acquisition of facts and skills (Barone, 2001; Jackson, Boostrom, & Hansen, 1993). For teachers, the challenge is to regain an appreciation for what makes us all human and how our humanity can be fulfilled through dialogical interactions with students and other human beings. Only then can trust be rebuilt within ourselves and within our schools.

In the words of Freire (1970/2007),

Founding itself upon love, humility, and faith, dialogue becomes a horizontal relationship of which mutual trust between the dialoguers is the logical consequence. It would be a contradiction in terms if dialogue—loving, humble, and full of faith—did not produce this climate of mutual trust, which leads the dialoguers into ever closer partnership in the naming of the world. (Chapter 3, ¶ 11)


The disruption of the traditional order by modernity’s reflexive and internal referential systems will ultimately generate beneficial outcomes, according to Giddens (1991), most prominently the ability to freely adopt a lifestyle of one’s own choosing. He predicted that today’s “emancipatory politics” will ultimately give way to a “life politics,” which will seek to resolve a range of moral dilemmas, including the responsibilities of human beings toward nature, rights of the unborn, ethical principles governing genetic engineering, limits on scientific/technological innovation, violence in human affairs, the nature of rights over one’s own body, preservation of gender differences, and rights of animals. To this important list should be added the right of children to be treated with the respect accorded to fully formed human beings. Acknowledging this right, to borrow a slogan from the education reform movement, could be the civil rights issue of the 21st century.


My sincere thanks to Bess Rose and Steph Selice for their expert editorial assistance and to several anonymous reviewers, who contributed suggestions that significantly improved my original manuscript. Appreciation is also extended to Johns Hopkins University’s School of Education and Jönköping University’s School of Education and Communication for providing time and resources that allowed me to complete this project.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 113 Number 9, 2011, p. 2018-2046 ID Number: 16181, Date Accessed: 5/8/2013 2:03:26 AM


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