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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.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 113 Number 9, 2011, p. 2018-2046
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16181, Date Accessed: 9/18/2014 7:44:57 PM

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About the Author
  • Edward Pajak
    Johns Hopkins University
    E-mail Author
    EDWARD PAJAK serves as professor and chair of the Department of Teacher Development and Leadership in the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University. His research interests include teacher identity, instructional supervision, education policy, and psychoanalysis. He is author of Supervising Instruction: Differentiating for Teacher Success (2008) and coeditor of Contemporary Issues in Curriculum (forthcoming).
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