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Public Schools and Narcissism

Natalia J. Garland

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There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.--Maya Angelou.

Does the American public school system cause narcissism, or variations of narcissistic traits, in America's youth? If narcissism (as a psychiatric disorder) has its roots in the early parent/child relationship, is it possible also to acquire narcissistic-like traits at a later age and outside the family dynamics? Today's essay is an exercise in speculation. I will start with a clinical definition of narcissism from the work of James F. Masterson, M.D., and I will also borrow from Masterson's concepts and terminology. And, I will throw in some quotations which I feel are both informative and inspirational. Below is a brief definition of narcissism from Masterson's book, The Narcissistic and Borderline Disorders.


The main clinical characteristics of the narcissistic personality disorder are grandiosity, extreme self-involvement and lack of interest in and empathy for others, in spite of the pursuit of others to obtain admiration and approval. The patient manifesting a narcissistic personality disorder seems to be endlessly motivated to seek perfection in all he or she does, to pursue wealth, power and beauty and to find others who will mirror and admire his/her grandiosity. Underneath this defensive facade is a feeling state of emptiness and rage with a predominance of intense envy.
[End of quote.]


Masterson goes on to talk about the parent/child relationship, particularly the role of the mother, and he critiques the works of Heinz Kohut and Otto Kernberg.

Now, when children enter the public school system, they begin a 13-year span in which they spend a significant portion of their daily living in school. This means that all students, and perhaps especially those who are already emotionally vulnerable, are subjected to the influences of teachers, other students, and the culture of the public school system itself. However, before discussing how teachers and the school system play a parental role in the academic and personality development of students, I will turn again to Masterson to refine our definition of narcissism.


The early mother-child interaction is so complex, yet so fateful for a child's development, that it is both difficult and hazardous to try to tease out principal, generalizable themes. Nevertheless, the stereotyped repetition of these maladaptive themes in our patients' lives and in the transference impels us to undertake this task in spite of its hazards, in hopes of unraveling some of its mysteries. This is acceptable as long as we keep in mind the limitations. It is essential, if we are to understand our patients' problems and their therapeutic needs.

My own point of view is that the narcissistic personality disorder is a developmental arrest, since in treatment the patient's abandonment depression or fragmentation of the self can be precipitated either by narcissistic disappointment at the hands of the object or by his own efforts towards self-expression or self-individuation. It is this latter that suggest a true developmental arrest of individuation has occurred.
[End of quotes.]


Every teacher has been taught the term in loco parentis, meaning in place of the parent. In the public schools, this is both a legal and ethical responsibility. Teachers share responsibility for directing and monitoring student behavior during classroom instruction and interaction. Such authority and influence is open to incompetence and bias as well as parental-like supervision and guidance.

Let us put the teacher (who is, in turn, possibly influenced or indoctrinated by a university system that seems increasingly biased toward hardcore liberalism) in place of Masterson's "mother-child interaction," especially regarding the teacher's praise for self-expression or critical thinking, encouragement of academic competition, and regarding some students' failure to reach grade-level standards or to excel at anything.

Plan your work for today and every day, then work your plan.--Margaret Thatcher.

Nothing will work unless you do.--Maya Angelou

There seems to be a tendency to praise students not only for achievement but for steps toward achievement or for any finished or partially finished work as though it were acceptable or excellent in itself. The intent seems to be to promote self-esteem along with or rather than academic achievement. The irony is that real competence and a sense of mastery can contribute to self-esteem while excessive or misguided praise can only contribute to a false sense of self-importance. Moreover, some students with low self-esteem perform at levels of academic excellence. High self-esteem is certainly a more comfortable state than low self-esteem, but it does not guarantee academic achievement or social adjustment.

If any and all student work is acceptable, then healthy competition or deserved flunking are almost automatically ruled out. To encourage competitive scholastic work (in addition to cooperative learning) would mean to give recognition to those who independently excel according to external standards and internal motivation rather than according to any completion of a task, any attempted completion, or any participation in a project.

Without the possibility and fact of failure, everybody is a winner--and this is particularly the case with emphasis on group projects, open book tests (hence the aversion to state standardized testing), and credit given for personal responsibilities such as returning one's report card signed by a parent. In some schools or among some teachers--certainly not all--there seems to be a distorted application of the values of fairness and equality, and this has diluted the measured grade-level standards or the teacher's experienced judgment of both quality and quantity of work.

Everyone would agree that the student's intellectual and educational level should be included in the instructional process with regard to grade-level placement. However, the student's level (with the exception of special education students) should not be used to modify or reduce standards or to respect inferior work as though it were the same as acceptable or superior work. What happens as a result is that the student's report card reflects the classroom collectivity rather than the individual's real contribution to that effort as well as his or her ability to study and think independently. The only students who flunk are the ones in severe situations of excessive abstenteeism or outright refusal to turn in any work at all (meaning also: not even bothering to copy another student's work).

Trust yourself. Create the kind of self that you will be happy to live with all your life. Make the most of yourself by fanning the tiny, inner sparks of possibility into flames of achievement.--Golda Meir.

Instead of being taught, the student is manipulated by the school system for its own purposes--its own assumptions about academic work and human behavior, and its own financial existence (employment of teachers and other personnel; academic ranking compared to other schools). The student is an object, exploited and molded to justify the needs of the institution (i.e., the cold mother). The institution's tolerance and even promotion (i.e., idealization) of any turned-in assignment, any participation in a group project, any practical task, leads to student narcissism or a narcissistic-like condition. There is an arrest of both academic capability and opportunity, as well as developmental maturation (i.e., individuation from the biased system of assumptions and indoctrination).

Instead of acquiring self-esteem, the student acquires a sense of self-importance and entitlement (i.e., someone else should do this for me and I should get credit for it). This is in stark contrast to the real meaning of cooperative learning. As American students continue to lag behind those of other countries, we must ask if part of the reason could be the school system's failure at in loco parentis. We must ask if it is developmentally beneficial to give credit for everything without expectation of improvement, self-motivation to learn, and preparation for adulthood. In other words, should teachers bring back their red pencils? A box of red pencils would not cost the taxpayers very much, and it might help students to understand that part of learning and growing up is to correct their own mistakes and to master knowledge and social systems.

Only one who devotes himself to a cause with his whole strength and soul can be a true master. For this reason mastery demands all of a person.--Albert Einstein. (Written 03/15/10: bibliography available.)

[NOTE: For a follow-up essay, see Public Schools and Rage (written 03/22/10).]

Until we meet again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2010 Natalia J. Garland