June 07, 2005

Yes. Exactly. Thank You.

I've seen various Blogsphere reactions to this article by Christina Hoff Summers bashing the public education system's obsession with "self-esteem" and the bizarro ways in which it is turning our little darlins into hot-house flowers through its efforts to promote round-the-clock happy thoughts.

Now Stefan Beck weighs in over at The New Criterion. I flag his post in particular because he underlines what I think is a critical point:

Self-esteem isn't an inherently bad thing. We do something good, and we feel good about ourselves: where's the harm in that? Of course, self-esteem today means something very different. It means feeling good about oneself for no reason at all--just for breathing, as it were. It has become an article of faith that it is reasonable and perhaps necessary, from a mental health standpoint, to feel this way.

Emphasis mine. The old-fashioned kind of "self-esteem" that Beck talks about is really another concept: self-respect. And, as he points out, there is an enormous difference between self-respect and self-esteem. The former requires a great deal of mental and emotional hard work: self-discipline, the ability to accept consequences for one's own actions and the maturity to face cold, hard reality for what it is. The latter, so far as I understand it, also requires some work, but work of a different sort - specifically, the ability to wilfully blind oneself to the world, to blot out the concepts of personal responsibility, to ignore the lesson that Life Isn't Fair and to withdraw into a little happy-face coccoon murmuring "So long as I love me, that's all that matters."

As you might gather, I loathe the concept of "self-esteem" as it is understood in the Theraputic Age. And as the father of three little girls, I am especially sensitive to any attempts to brainwash them into adopting this notion as the summum bonum of their lives. (I am also keenly aware of the relationship between this concept and the more virulant forms of identity politics and I refuse to allow my daughters to ruin their lives by joining the legions of what P.J. O'Rourke terms the "perennially indignant".)

Furthermore, If the Llama-ettes don't learn how to compete, how to get up off their knees when Life knocks them down, how to face Reality in the comparative shelter of school, how on earth are they going to deal with these things when they grow up? The answer for many people, these days, seems to be "sue somebody" but again, I refuse to let them take that path.

UPDATE: I should clarify, perhaps, that I am not advocating sliding all the way over to the other end of the spectrum and turning kids into self-loathing little results-freaks, either. I've seen too much of that sort of behavior in my time. No, as Rachel Ann notes, there does indeed need to be a sense of self-worth as well. I still believe that is a concept different from the kind of hyper self-esteem that I'm talking about, although I haven't formulated that distinction in words yet. It's something deeper and more complex and incorporates elements of honest self-assessment and acceptance coupled with a wholesome desire to improve. Indeed, as I think out loud (as it were) I begin to see some religious parallels. But as I say, I haven't meditated that one all the way out yet.

UPDATE DEUX: Joanne Jacobs brings us more tales of Self-Esteem Syndrome.

Posted by Robert at June 7, 2005 09:23 AM

I represented juvenile defendants many moons ago when I first went into private practice. Rare was the court-directed social history prepared for sentencing that did not include the phrase "so-and-so has poor self-esteem."

Posted by: LMC at June 7, 2005 09:40 AM

I have always said that the measure of a person is not their response to their victories, but their response to their defeats. Keep plugging on is the lesson that young people need to learn. Maybe the most important one.

I often feel that I have been blessed in my life by not having a lot of success when I was young. The successes I did have (in school growing up, for instance) all led me to the wrong conclusions (as they say in the Matrix, that I was somehow special and that the rules did not apply to me). The defeats are where I learned. But if one doesn't learn that defeat and victory are both possible alternatives, and what is really important is that one does one's best, then defeat can lead to despair. "Oh, poor me, the universe does not recognize me and reward me." These esteem gurus are programming their students for failure.

Hothouse flowers is an apt term. You are dead right on this, Robbo.

Posted by: The Colossus at June 7, 2005 09:47 AM

I both agree and disagree with you. To me a healthy self-esteem is what allows a person who falls down in the mud to get up and go clean themselves off or ask for help in that regard, rather than sit and cry and sue the earth or rain. In other words, a child who fails a test despite earnest effort, should not feel ill of themselves. They should feel "Okay, I'm still not getting something. How important is this to me and what are the ways I can learn the material?" Sometimes that means seeking out an alternate form of learning, sometimes it means putting that particular study away for awhile; as a home-schooling mom I learned that what was hard to master one week wasn't necessarily hard to master three weeks later, or the nexxt year. Sometimes the subject simply isn't necessary to the life of the child or adult and can be pushed off indefinitely. (Not everyone must speak French.) Sometimes the subject is beyond the abilities of the child. That too can be accepted.(I guess I'm never going to make the Opera).

Lack of real self esteem leads to blaming others for the failing, despondency and self denigration--I'm stupid/klutzy/inept.

To react by judging their overall value in terms of any particular aspect of themselves, be it success at learning, weight or athletic ability, is not a healthy self-esteem, they either have a poor regard for themselves or an over-rated sense of self.

To judge oneself as having value and worth, but needing improvement in some areas, and deserving of help to obtain that improvement, that is a healthy sense of self-esteem.

Posted by: Rachel Ann at June 7, 2005 09:57 AM

As the mother of four daughters, I, too, daily face the stupidity of the "I love me" movement. The Self Esteem at the Expense of Males propaganda that is constantly thrown at my daughters makes me nauseated. I can't stand those t-shirts that are so derogatory about boys.

Or how about a misogynist attitude from a female neighbor? Just yesterday said neighbor loudly proclaimed in front of my daughters, and in my absence no less, that she was glad "the Lord didn't give her girls because she didn't have the patience for them." Yeah.

Btw, Robert, love this syntax: the comparative shelter of school.

My soapbox. Stepping down now....

Posted by: Rae at June 7, 2005 10:12 AM

The problem I've noticed with the self esteem verses a passing grade is that you run into cases like Iíve seen recently is kids are receiving passing grades so their delicate feelings arenít hurt. Teachers have been instructed to be more lenient on children with ďfragileĒ egos. My mother, wife, sister-in-law, mother-in-law are all teachers, my father was an advisor for incoming college freshmen for many years at the local universities.

The one trend Iíve noticed in conversations with them is a decline in the quality of education. When principals and superintendents are over-riding grades and passing students you end up with people unable to function at the collegiate level and in the work place. You end up with Honors students taking remedial math and English courses. You end up with kids not being competitive. Sorry folks like it or not second place is the first looser and corporate America isnít going to pay your children to feel good about themselves

But hey who needs a quality education as long as out kids feel good about themselves. Instead of giving the grades kids earn and deserve, letís give them an A for at least trying to learn the material. Sorry but with a mentality like that weíre going to end up in the same boat as France with a 36 hour work week and high unemployment, but at least our kids will feel good about themselves as they are living in our basements forever.

Posted by: phin at June 7, 2005 01:09 PM

Amen, Brother. Self esteem comes from accomplishments. Simple, really. Put your child in the path of doing for themselves. What, by the way, is better than the expression on your kid's face when he/she gets something or does something all by themselves for the first time? That is self esteem. That is something they've created for themselves. Help them, by all means, but don't do it for them. You're cheating them and yourself, it seems to me.

Posted by: RP at June 7, 2005 01:43 PM

I was lucky. I never had to put up with this "feeling over thinking" crap - for that is what all this self-esteem focus really is. I had teachers and administrators who, for the most part, have been around long enough to know what was really right.

I think part of the problem is that a lot of teachers either don't really have the skills to work in "the real world" (ie, outside schools - I mean, what will an English major do, besides teaching? Write?); and those that do have the skills chose to teach for one reason or another. The latter group are often the better teachers - at least from the feelings-aren't-tops standpoint. Then again, that is just my personal experience.

Posted by: TheRoyalFamily at June 7, 2005 06:13 PM

"how to get up off their knees when Life knocks them down" -- shouldn't you teach them that nice girls don't end up on their knees?

Posted by: Marjorie at June 12, 2005 08:33 PM
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