History of Self-Concept / Self-Identity for Educational Psychology

A milestone in human reflection about the non-physical inner self came in 1644, when René Descartes wrote Principles of Philosophy. Descartes proposed that doubt was a principal tool of disciplined inquiry, yet he could not doubt that he doubted. He reasoned that if he doubted, he was thinking, and therefore he must exist. Thus existence depended upon perception.

A second milestone in the development of self-concept theory was the writing of Sigmund Freud (1900) who gave us new understanding of the importance of internal mental processes. While Freud and many of his followers hesitated to make self-concept a primary psychological unit in their theories, Freud's daughter Anna (1946) gave central importance to ego development and self-interpretation.

Self-concept theory has always had a strong influence on the emerging profession of counseling. Prescott Lecky (1945) contributed the notion that self-consistency is a primary motivating force in human behavior. Raimy (1948) introduced measures of self-concept in counseling interviews and argued that psychotherapy is basically a process of altering the ways that individuals see themselves.

By far the most influential and eloquent voice in self-concept theory was that of Carl Rogers (1947) who introduced an entire system of helping built around the importance of the self. In Rogers' view, the self is the central ingredient in human personality and personal adjustment. Rogers described the self as a social product, developing out of interpersonal relationships and striving for consistency. He maintained that there is a basic human need for positive regard both from others and from oneself. He also believed that in every person there is a tendency towards self-actualization and development so long as this is permitted and encouraged by an inviting environment.

While most self-concept theorists continued to write and conduct research during the 1970s and 1980s, general interest in self-concept declined. In a recent article explaining the likely causes for the decline of "humanistic" education, Patterson (1987) presents reasons for the decline of interest in self-concept as well.

He offers four likely causes:

1. A cornucopia of contrived games, gimmicks, and techniques that were introduced and controlled by unprepared professionals.

2. A national mood of "back to basics" in education prevailed where concern for the emotional needs of students was viewed as inimical to academic excellence.

3. Poor judgment by counselors and teachers in selecting suitable materials for values clarification programs resulted in public opposition to any attempt to introduce values in school.

4. Strong opposition by those who objected to any consideration of personal development of students because they believed it to be secular humanism and, therefore, an effort to undermine religion.

Fortunately, there is a new awareness on the part of both the public and professionals that self-concept cannot be ignored if we are to successfully address such nagging problems as drug and alcohol abuse, drop-out rates, dysfunctional families, and other concerns. In addition to this growing awareness, new ways are being developed to strengthen self-concepts. For example, research by cognitive theorists are demonstrating that negative self-talk leads to irrational thinking regarding oneself and the world.