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This article appeared on pages 33-36 in the May 2006 issue of Indian Education Today published by the Native American Journalists Foundation, which became the Native American Review in August 2006 and ceased publication in December 2006.

Humility vs. Self Esteem: What Do Indian Students Need?

Jon Reyhner, Northern Arizona University

Hap Gilliland devotes a whole chapter to self-esteem in his excellent book Teaching the Native American and concludes, "self-esteem is the most important factor in achievement." This idea is fairly pervasive in educational circles, however, as I have come across lists of Indian values, it is the value of humility I see again and again, not self-esteem.

For example, the Hopi Tribe's official web page notes that their " based on humility, cooperation, respect and earth stewardship." The new National Museum of the American Indian's Anishanabe exhibit on the Mall in Washington, D.C. notes the teachings of their Seven Grandfathers include, along with wisdom, love, respect, bravery, honesty and truth, the teaching of "dbaadendizin—humility: You are equal to others, but you are not better." These are just two of many possible examples. Interestingly enough, the Judeo-Christian tradition also sees humility as a virtue that helps with spiritual growth.

Jerry Lipka and his colleagues in a study reported in their 1998 book Transforming the Culture of Schools that Alaskan Yup'ik teachers rejected the profuse "bubbly" praise of non-Yup'ik teachers. Traditional Yup'iks believe "overly praising will ruin a person." All of this made me think about all I hear in educational circles about the importance of boosting students' self-esteem. This interest led me to a 2003 review of the research on self-esteem by Roy F. Baumeister and his colleagues titled "Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, or Healthier Lifestyles?" They found that "the modest correlations between self-esteem and school performance do not indicate that high self-esteem leads to good performance" and that "efforts to boost the self-esteem of pupils have not been shown to improve academic performance and may sometimes be counterproductive."

They found that "those with high self-esteem show stronger in-group favoritism, which may increase prejudice and discrimination" and that "if anything, high self-esteem fosters experimentation which may increase early sexual activity or drinking, but in general effects of self-esteem are negligible." In an earlier review of the research, Baumeister and his colleagues found that bullies do not suffer from low self-esteem and that people with high-self esteem are more likely to react violently if that esteem is threatened. Baumeister wrote in the Summer 1996 issue of the American Educator, The self-esteem approach "is to skip over the hard work of changing our actions and instead just let us think we're nicer.... High self-esteem can mean confident and secure —but it can also mean conceited, arrogant, narcissistic, and egotistical."

Self-esteem should be a result of positive things we have done with our life, such as learning in school or helping others, rather than a birthright. Students can feel good about themselves based on the result of their effort and hard work they exert in and out of school. If we teach kids to read and do other things in school then they will feel a positive sense of accomplishment.

While we do not want to make students feel they are failures in school, they also need to learn early-on that getting an F in class is not the same as getting an F in life. One can fail a first grade spelling test or high school algebra and lead a very successful life, and one can get As in spelling or algebra, get a job accounting for an Enron-type firm and end up in jail. As Baumeister writes "In practice, high self-esteem usually amounts to a person thinking that he or she is better than other people. If you think you're better than others, why should you listen to them, be considerate, or keep still when you want to do or say something?" It was once thought that people in prison had low self-esteem but studies are finding just the opposite.

Americans generally don't suffer from low self-esteem. In fact it is just the opposite. Surveys have shown that 25 percent of Americans claimed to be in the top one percent and no students would admit to being below average.

So, if self-esteem is not that important for academic (and life) success, what is? Baumeister notes, "there is one psychological trait that schools could help instill and that is likely to pay off much better than self-esteem. That trait is self-control (including self-discipline)." Duckworth and Seligman in a 2005 Psychological Science article also emphasized the importance of self-discipline for academic success. Also, important is self-efficacy, the earned confidence through the development of competencies like reading.

As I wrote in my recent book Education and Language Restoration, "I am coming to the conclusion more and more that success in school and in life is related to people's identity, how as a group and individually people are viewed by others and how they see themselves. Identity is not just a positive self-concept. It is learning your place in the world with both humility and strength. It is, in the words of the late Vine Deloria (Standing Rock Sioux), 'accepting the responsibility to be a contributing member of a society.' It is children as they grow up finding a 'home in the landscapes and ecologies they inhabit.'"

Amy Bergstrom, Linda Cleary and Thomas Peacock in their 2003 study of Indian youth titled The Seventh Generation found that "Identity development from an Indigenous perspective has less to do with striving for individualism and more to do with establishing connections and understanding ourselves in relation to all the things around us." I see students who are not embedded in their traditional values as only too likely in modern America to pick up a hedonistic culture of consumerism, consumption, competition, comparison, and conformity.

Elders can see today's permissive society allowing children to fail to find the good red road. Kyril Calsoyas for his 1992 doctoral dissertation The Soul of Education: A Navajo Perspective interviewed Navajo Elder and Medicine Man Thomas Walker who stated, "For over one hundred years the white man has defined what education will be for the Navajo people.... I was brought up with the old philosophy and what I see now with the White Men's way in today's world there is a wide difference and the intent of education does not relate any more.... The children are given too much power.... Whenever you try to correct a child from wrongdoings it becomes difficult to discipline them because of the laws that have been developed to protect children from abuse. When one is trying to discipline a child they say that they are being called names and are being abused. When you try to tell them something and you touch them, the report they were hit. Because of this law that protects them many are wandering and doing whatever they feel like. Because of this others act as if they are the authorities on everything. Because of this, the school administrators are getting in trouble to the point that they lose their jobs. I do not agree with this."

Diné Medicine woman Eva Price declared, "there were a lot of teachings back then [in the old days]. There were no bitter words. There were whips and plenty of discipline. Elders didn't have to demand things twice and they were for your own good... Grandparents have a responsibility to their grandchildren. The relationship is nothing but compassion... Discipline is always there, is never absent. That is the way I was taught."

Dr. Evangeline Parsons Yazzie interviewed Navajo elders for her doctoral research. She found that, "Elder Navajos want to pass on their knowledge and wisdom to the younger generation. Originally, this was the older people's responsibility. Today the younger generation does not know the language and is unable to accept the words of wisdom. The use of the native tongue is like therapy; specific native words express love and caring. Knowing the language presents one with a strong self-identity, a culture with which to identify, and a sense of wellness." An elder told Dr. Yazzie, "Television is robbing our children of language. It is not only at school that there are teachings, teachings are around us and from us there are also teachings. Our children should not sit around the television."

Dr. Lori Arviso Alvord, the first Navajo woman surgeon, wrote in her 1999 autobiography The Scalpel and the Silver Bear "In their childhoods both my father and my grandmother had been punished for speaking Navajo in school. Navajos were told by white educators that, in order to be successful, they would have to forget their language and culture and adopt American ways.... They were warned that if they taught their children to speak Navajo, the children would have a harder time learning in school, and would therefore be at a disadvantage. A racist attitude existed. Navajo children were told that their culture and lifeways were inferior, and they were made to feel they could never be as good as white people.... My father suffered terribly from these events and conditions."

Dr. Alvord concludes that "two or three generations of our tribe had been taught to feel shame about our culture, and parents had often not taught their children traditional Navajo beliefs–the very thing that would have shown them how to live, the very thing that could keep them strong."

Anger and resentment over colonialism's dark past and even present is understandable, but does not lead to positive results. There is a need for reconciliation and healing without forgetting. As David McNab (Metis) heard at the Toronto International Pow-Wow in 2000, "The Elders tell us that it is alright to feel angry about stuff like this [e.g., the Sand Creek massacre] and it is good. However, in the end you must go down to the river, offer a gift of tobacco to the Creator and simply let the anger go .... Otherwise the anger will poison your spirit." A lesson to be learned from the ancestors is their toughness. How they survived despite all the hardships they faced.

Lessons can be learned from other groups as well. Asian immigrants to the United States have faced extreme racism. However, despite a history of discrimination many have persevered and prospered here, doing better academically on average in American schools than white Americans. One of the reasons for their success is that they tend to see academic success as a product of effort and hard work while white Americans tend to see academic success as a matter of the intelligence (IQ) that you are born with. In the extreme, this means Asian parents keeping their daughter from going to the High School Prom to get her homework done.

While I don't recommend going to the extreme of the Asian parents above, it is important for parents to develop the self-discipline that traditional Navajo elders and others speak about. This discipline includes giving up some immediate pleasures for activities that will lead to long-term gains. While teachers should not overly praise students, at the same time they need to recognize the effort they put in and not penalize students who enter their classroom with less preparation than a high performing Asian or White American student.

Researching the grading practices of better teachers, Richard L. Allington found that they graded students "work based on student effort as well as achievement. He found that achievement based grading created classrooms where no students work very hard. The higher-achieving students who entered school with large vocabularies could coast along without much effort and still get As while the lower-achieving students who did not read well could work their buts off and still get only a C, even when they were making real academic progress. It is like a race with two runners, where one runner starts well ahead of the other. If they both run at the same speed, they both are making progress, but the one behind will never catch up to the one with the head start.

Better teachers evaluated student work based more on effort and improvement than simply on achievement status. This focus meant that all students had a chance at earning good grades, regardless of their achievement levels. However, we need to be careful about grade inflation—giving everyone As—which is one of the byproducts of the self-esteem movement. This can result in students going from reservation high schools with straight As and becoming very discouraged and even dropping out when they get Fs in college. We all need to improve, and we are less likely to improve if we are given As. I got an F on my first Freshman English class essay, and it drove me work to become a better writer. I ended up with a B in the class—which I was proud of because I really worked to get it. I would not have appreciated near so much an A that I had not worked for.

Another aspect of academic success is persistence and resilience. U.S. congressman Mike Honda, a Japanese-American member the U.S. House of Representatives, describes how he started life in an internment camp during World War II, but his father told him if you fall down six times, you get up seven times. Based on over 20 years of research on Navajo and Ute students, Donna Deyhle found that students with a strong sense of cultural identity have a better chance of bouncing back from the racism and prejudice they face in America.

Blackfeet educator Iris Heavy Runner does presentations on the topic of resilience. We all suffer setbacks in life, and so how do we overcome them? She finds that resilience is related to having a sense of purpose, spiritual connectedness, optimism, autonomy, a sense of identity, self-awareness, adaptive distancing, task mastery, social competence, cultural flexibility, sense of humor, caring, problem-solving, planning, critical thinking, and help seeking. Just about everything but self-esteem!

Her list has some of the same things that Inupiaq Elders came up with when they developed a list of their traditional values. These included knowledge of language, sharing, respect for others, cooperation, respect for elders, love for children, hard work, knowledge of family tree, avoidance of conflict, respect for nature, spirituality, humor, family roles, domestic skills, humility, and responsibility to tribe.

On March 8-10, 2004, the Bureau of Indian Affair's Office of Indian Education Programs (OIEP) held its third Language and Culture Preservation Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico. OIEP director Ed Parisian welcomed the large gathering of Bureau educators to this meeting, emphasizing the BIA's goal that "students will demonstrate knowledge of language and culture to improve academic achievement," noting that "we know from research and experience that individuals who are strongly rooted in their past—who know where they come from—are often best equipped to face the future."

Note: Some ideas found in this article are further developed in Dr. Reyhner's 2006 Chelsea House book Education and Language Restoration.

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