Education for self-assertiveness - A prerequisite for quality of life

Paper presented by Ilse E. Plattner

University of Namibia, Department of Psychology, Private Bag 13301, Windhoek, Namibia

1. Indicators of quality of life

In Western countries "quality of life" has been improving steadily for centuries. The growth in production of material goods and in services that individuals are able to consume are regarded as indicators of quality of life. Improvement in material well-being, environmental protection, urban growth patterns, the provision of health care, and the standard of public education are seen as quality-of-life issues (cf. Holcombe 1995). Holcombe (1995) even proposes to consider art galleries, museums, symphony orchestras and libraries as aspects of quality of life.

In contrast to this, for the so-called third world countries mainly per capita income, life expectancy at birth, infant mortality rate, adult literacy rate, index of political rights and index of civil rights are considered as indicators of quality of life (cf. Dasgupta 1993). Obviously there are two different sets of standards in terms of which quality of life is assessed in so-called developed and developing countries, and these standards are usually stipulated by western researchers.

From a psychological perspective quality of life includes the alleviation of distress, the promotion of mental health, the development of competencies, and life satisfaction (cf. Goodwart & Zatura 1990). I would like to add that quality of life also depends on self-determination, i.e. to have the possibility and the ability to shape one's own life, as an individual, and also as a society.

Psychological aspects of quality of life are relevant for people in "first", "second" and "third world" countries, even when poverty with all its limiting consequences is a major problem. For instance, there is no necessary connection between life satisfaction and the life expectancy at birth or the per capita income. Rather it will be influenced by the individual's perception and assessment of her/his own life course and certain life events (like marriage, birth of a child, unemployment, disease or death of the partner). As we know from life event research, initiated by Holmes & Rahe (1967, cf. also Dohrenwend & Dohrenwend 1974), the same events can have different psychological meanings to a person. Besides personal interests and goals the psychological meaning depends on the environmental context in which an event occurs (cf. Neugarten & Datan 1973). Therefore Goodhart & Zautra (1990) regard quality of life as a function of person-environment relations (drawing on Lewin's (1951) statement that behaviour is a function of person and environment). From a life event perspective also Lazarus' transactional model of stress experience can be considered for viewing quality of life (cf. Lazarus & Launier 1978, Lazarus 1990, Folkman 1984). According to Lazarus humans have to be seen as pro-active individuals who act on the basis of certain cognitive appraisals about the self (e.g. on the basis of self-perceptions, causal attributions, locus of control, coping abilities, values and goals) and about certain situational demands. Person-related psychological abilities as well as norms and standards provided by the social context of a person, play a role in person-environment transactions. From such a perspective people are not just seen as passive victims of external forces, they also regarded as people who, at least to a certain degree, shape their own environment, as well as they are being shaped by the environment.

This fact may be of special relevance for African countries whose people are often seen just as helpless victims of colonialism and of the dictates of western economies. It can be assumed that this view has consequences for the self-image of individuals and of nations in Africa. Already the label "third world country" may contribute very negatively to the picture people have of themselves, and their own demands for quality of life.

According to Social Psychology, the self-image is influenced by the image others have of the self of a person or of groups (cf. Abramsk & Hogg 1990). G. H. Mead (1934) stated that certain role expectations impact on identity and its resulting behaviour. The judgments of a person about her own personality result from her interaction with others. This was also thematized in Rogers' (1951) work about the "self-concept" which refers to individual perceptions about one's own abilities and characteristics.

People in Africa still today carry the burden of colonialism and the view which has developed in its wake, namely of Africans as underprivileged. The "black inferiority complex" can be seen as a result of a self-image, which may hinder people in making pro-active demands and in striving for better living conditions. In this self-assertiveness will be an essential prerequisite.


2. Characteristics of self-assertiveness

Until now, a theoretically and empirically founded concept of self-assertiveness has not been developed. Neither in psychology nor in education did self-assertiveness get specific attention. In subject indexes of relevant books there usually is no term "self-assertiveness".

Self-assertiveness can be defined as the ability to stand up for oneself, for own needs, interests and wishes. Self-assertiveness can be related to the own person, but can also include needs, interests and wishes of a group, the community or the society as a whole (cf. Plattner 1996). Self-assertiveness is the ability to say "no", even when the world wants to hear "yes" (cf. Fromm 1968), and not to resign oneself to circumstances which counteract one's own interests.

Interests can be seen as a basis for self-assertiveness. Only when a person is interested in a certain issue or when a person has an interest in changes occurring in a present situation, will she commit herself to it and try to reach the goal. Interest has to do with curiosity (Berlyne 1960) and determines behaviour during the whole life (cf. Gerdes 1989).

Already in early childhood curiosity and interest form the foundations for self-assertiveness. Children want to try out everything and they want to do it by themselves. Although much of it is hard and troublesome, a child usually does not give up in the face of failures; s/he will try again and again. Behind such behaviour there is a great need for exploration (cf. Bruner, Jolly & Sylva 1978) and an enormous will for self-assertiveness. At the same time the child comes to know her/his own abilities. The experience of bringing something about, as long as one tries hard enough, motivates the child to act and to continue, also in other situations (cf. Seifert & Hoffnung 1994).

The extent to which a person learns to develop own interests and to stand up for them is, apart from experiences during childhood, influenced by the continued life course and its possibilities for self-assertiveness. For instance, a person who works for many years in a company in which she is only supposed to execute what is determined by others, will probably become hindered in developing an ability of self-assertiveness, quite similar to a person who submits her/himself in a marriage relationship exclusively to the wishes and interests of the partner. A vicious circle starts: When possibilities of self-assertiveness are limited, own interests become stunted. Imagination about better conditions are not developed anymore, one resigns oneself to the situation or becomes indifferent. On the other hand, a person who is encouraged to bring own ideas, for example at the workplace, will also develop interests and commit herself to these.

Self-assertiveness is connected with self-confidence. Erikson (1959) saw early childhood as determining the development of trust vs. mistrust in the own person and in others. However, in addition "critical" life events which happen later in life course, like for instance unemployment, can also create a lack of self-confidence (cf. Jahoda 1995). Deficits in self-confidence have a negative impact on people's commitment to the realization of their own interests (cf. Plattner 1996). The willingness to be self-assertive also depends on a person's belief whether a change of certain circumstances is possible, and on which possibilities for action the person sees. The psychological concept "locus of control", developed by Rotter (1966, 1975), refers to expectations which people have about the controllability of situations. Persons with "internal locus of control" are convinced that they are able to influence their lives, and that they can affect what happens to themselves. Those with "external locus of control" by contrast, believe that most of what happens to them is dependent on others or impersonal outside forces. According to Rotter, internal locus of control can be seen as an expression of self-confidence. However, generalized expectations have to be differentiated from situation-specific expectations of control (Ulich, Haußer, Mayring et al. 1985, Folkman 1984), a fact which unfortunately has often been neglected in relevant studies about locus of control.

Self-assertiveness is also related to self-preservation. To stand up for one's own interests contributes finally to subsist/maintaining oneself. Self-confidence and the ability of self-assertiveness are important elements for joy of life and life-satisfaction, for psychological and physiological well-being as well as for maintenance of own abilities of performance. Life can be perceived as meaningful, and self-esteem can be maintained. When self-assertiveness is missing, then strictly speaking only passivity remains which can result in depression, not just psychologically, but also economically.


3. Self-assertiveness and Education, and their relevance for quality of life

Education in general can be seen as quite important for the development of self-assertiveness, and schools in particular could play a crucial role in promoting self-assertiveness. School is the societal institution which transmits knowledge and skills. However, school also educates for life; it contributes to shaping life and transmits skills required to cope with life. School produces people who will impact on and guide the continued political, economical, cultural and social life, and who will, last but not least, themselves educate their own children.

School education could be enriched by seeking answers to questions like "how can we promote children in their self-confidence, their self-esteem and self-assertiveness?" It can be assumed that the best personal development will only succeed when this potential is promoted as well.

Self-assertiveness entails asking oneself again and again questions like "what do I think about a certain issue?" or "what is important (for me)?", "how important is it (for me) to strive for change/acceptance/approval of a certain issue?". Such questions enable the person to stand up for something with a clear inner conviction. It should be a task of education to encourage children and youths to become aware of their own thoughts, actions and emotions (cf. Plattner 1997), their own abilities, strengths and weaknesses, to cope in a self-determining manner with the requirements of their daily life. Therefore it can be assumed that they will also be able to stand up for acceptable conditions of life and by this contribute on their own to their quality of life.

But, what are schools doing to promote self-assertiveness? In school curricula an emphasis on self-assertiveness is usually absent. Authoritarian styles of teaching and discriminating marking systems are rather preventing self-confidence and self-assertiveness of young people, instead of promoting them. It could and should be one of the major goals of pedagogical efforts to enable people to be self-assertive. Educational research for quality of life has to include the question, how to strengthen self-assertiveness of children and adults. Consequences have to be drawn for curriculum contents as well as for teacher training.

Educational programs have to implement the promotion of self-assertiveness to enable people to say "no" to unsatisfactory living conditions and to contribute proactively to what they perceive and assess as quality of life. This applies also to regions other than Africa.

The promotion of self-assertiveness as part of education programmes in African regions, however, will probably be confronted with customs which do not focus on self-assertiveness. Customs in which age and hierarchy come before personal interests will be a challenge for education to self-assertiveness. Customs are seen as important for the identity of cultures and nations. However, customs can also be repressive and hinder change and progress. When people, Africans as well as western people, talk about African customs, one often gets the impression that customs cannot be questioned at all, they are protected like a taboo, and they are also used as an excuse for stagnation. However, customs are not inborn, they can be changed and they change all the time. In western world there are also customs, fixed values and norms which determine behaviour in more or less restrictive way, and as in Africa, this applies in rural areas more than in urban areas. But as society is changing continuously, customs and norms are also changeable, and they do change. This applies also in African countries, not least because Africa is part of the "global village". With the confrontation with new technologies, with satellite television, internet etc. people become acquainted with rules and norms from other parts of the world. A reciprocal influence can be expected, as well as conflicts in dealing with own customs and those of others.

To find ways of dealing with and changing customs, however, people require self-assertiveness, self-confidence and self-esteem, to carry out their continuous societal change by themselves, in a self-determined manner, according to their needs, interests and wishes - and not to be determined in their quality of life, finally also in their customs, by (economical) rules and customs of donors of so-called first world countries.


4. References

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