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Purple Reign

The color of self-esteem

Ever eager to protect the fragile self-esteem of the nation’s children, many schoolteachers are turning to an important new pedagogical technique. They are tossing away their red pens and marking up student papers in purple ink.

The Boston Globe devoted a front-page article to the trend, “Harshness of Red Marks Has Students Seeing Purple.” According to reporter Naomi Aoki, many teachers believe purple is “friendlier” than red. She interviewed teachers, school-supply dealers, and even a color expert: “[P]urple embodies red’s sense of authority but also blue’s association with serenity, making it a less negative and more constructive color for correcting student papers, color psychologists said. Purple calls attention to itself without being too aggressive. And because the color is linked to creativity and royalty, it is also more encouraging to students.”

This may be the breakthrough we have been waiting for: a way to balance the demands of academic rigor with the need to cultivate a sense of well-being in America’s rug rats. In the new era of testing that is the mainstay of No Child Left Behind, teachers are forced to tell students that some answers, though creative, are technically wrong. But putting a red X through 11+12 = 31 can carve defeat into a young mind, and writing in hemoglobin-like script across a paper, “The Civil War was actually fought in the 19th century,” risks a hemorrhage of interest in all the important branches of study that lie ahead, such as Post-Colonial Queer Theory.

Aoki’s report fired me with admiration for teachers such as Sharon Carlson—“Purple stands out, but it doesn’t look as scary as red.” But I wanted to know more. Is this important shift in our nation’s correctional policies the outcome of research? Or are the nation’s teachers (and pen makers) simply following an intuition?

I checked the nation’s great archive of education research, ERIC, to find the pansied crossroads of color studies and marking-up student papers. Alas, I found little. A 1991 study by Bernice Lever Farrar argued that students over age 12 need to be taught the “colours of words”— nouns are red, pronouns are purple—“to live fully in the rainbow of life, thus eliminating student fears associated with written language and of being pawns of those who have the power of words, especially written words.” Don’t worry, Ms. Farrar is Canadian.

I then turned to the hard-science studies, which had much to say about spectra, dyes, and color compounds, but not a word about self-esteem. Then it was on to psychology journals. The Journal of Perceptual and Motor Skills reported in 1972 that in a study of 160 undergraduates, “neurotics preferred significantly more red and purple than extroverts.” Back in 1944, the U.S. Army determined that “deviants” preferred “red or orange ink rather than purple or green ink.” But green-inkers were dependent on their mothers. A Japanese study in 2000 found that university students “felt calmed by purple, which is known as a healing color.”

Sadly, I began to reckon with the possibility that the purple-pen solution to reconciling tough academic standards with tender self-esteem might not be based on state-of-the-art research. Still, it seemed doubtful that conscientious teachers would attempt dangerous experiments with an untried correctional color code without some assurance that purple was safe. What would happen if, in replacing happy red declarations with mauve remonstrations, students perceived a trace of insincerity? Would their self-esteem stand unshaken?

But it seems clear that the switch to purple pens is not just the whimsy of a few teachers. The Globe article, after all, points to a widespread movement that has already sent Paper Mate into a frenzy of purple pen production and moved Staples and OfficeMax to expand shelf space for pens that write plum. So what has prompted the turn against red and the move to purple?

On the web, one can find thousands of pages that show a fascination with purple as enhancing esteem for self or others—or doing just the opposite. A page titled “Stylish Self-Esteem” recommends purple as an appropriate autumn or winter color. In New Zealand, July 7 of this year was declared National Self-Esteem Day, sponsored by the “Purple Tick for Healthy Thinking Campaign.” And Pilot Pen Corporation of America issued a study in 2002 that showed that 85 percent of employees who use purple pens say “their boss is 100 percent satisfied with their job performance.” The same study showed that 85 percent of women who use red pens think the boss is nice. The boss’s favorability rating dips to 71 percent of women with other chromatic persuasions.

But purple is also the “Goth” color, and hundreds of websites attest to purple lipstick and purple tattoos as especially good ways to express self-loathing.

Most importantly, I found hundreds of New Age websites that explain that purple is the color for mystically enhancing self-esteem. Purple rocks in particular do the trick, but other purple objects can help. The “Self Esteem Goddess Spell” requires the wannabe deity to take a lavender oil bath and thread some oak leaves with a purple thread.

Perhaps Alice Walker’s grim novel about incest, The Color Purple, which has a self-esteem theme, is part of the mix too, along with the fanciful children’s books about Harold and his purple crayon. A pharmaceutical company advertises its anti-depression drug as “the little purple pill.”

It may be mildly disconcerting to think that the woman teaching third graders in the local public school is getting her teaching tips from the Self Esteem Goddess. But, of course, what is really happening is that well-meaning teachers obsessed with students’ self-esteem have latched on to the flotsam of popular culture. And self-esteem is one of those half-worthy goals that American culture in recent decades has promoted as a cure-all for the human condition.

We need to have enough self-esteem to get up when we fail and try again and not so much self-esteem that we expect to ripen to perfection, like purple grapes, simply by hanging around. A capacity to feel ashamed of ourselves is surely every bit as valuable as self-esteem, but somehow the self-ashamed movement doesn’t have much traction in schools of education.

At a deeper level, the rise of the self-esteem movement corresponds with the rise of poorly modulated anger in American life. People who easily think well of themselves are also easily angered—and aren’t too concerned about the consequences.

But enough of this. I need to prepare for my classes, and I don’t yet have my Cross Ion Cosmic Purple Pen, with the “cushiony translucent grip.” 


Peter Wood is an associate professor of anthropology at Boston University and the author of Diversity: The Invention of a Concept.