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Self-esteem, snake oil and you

By Bernard Chapin
web posted March 10, 2003

In the Albert Camus novel, The Plague, a mysterious outbreak of disease lays waste to the North African town of Oran. There are many omens that foreshadow the fate of the town but none of the townspeople are able to decipher them before the dying begins. Similarly, America may be today threatened by a plague of it's own creation and it is known as "self-esteem for everyone." Like the characters in Camus' novel we are currently ignoring the portents of the plague that is all around us. This fuzzy, anti-intellectual idea of automatic self-esteem is denigrating the capacity of Americans to prosper, achieve and grow. A central question to the issue is: should self-esteem come from achievement in the world or should it be mechanically produced on the cheap by quasi-governmental agencies like the schools?

Self-esteem is often defined as having respect for oneself and this is an acceptable enough concept but a logical leap occurs when the schools are asked to superficially inject it into youth as an educational byproduct. Sorrowfully, some have misinterpreted the purpose of our schools as being to instill self-esteem rather than to exponentially increase knowledge. This position does not allow for much in the way of middle ground. We must unconditionally stand opposed to any more dumbing-down of the curriculum in the form of therapeutic assertions about human nature. Self-esteem should be enhanced by quality education but cannot, and should never be, an automatic dividend derived from simply showing up to class.

In her excellent book from 2002, The Road to Malpsychia, Joyce Milton debunks many of the myths about self-esteem. Citing studies with self-esteem leading to positive outcomes she wrote "…there simply was no evidence to show that enhancing children's self-esteem would help them later in life." [p.261] More importantly, she notes that some researchers have shown that high self-esteem has a correlation with violent personalities as feelings of personal superiority may fuel violent behaviors.

Milton does note that she thinks self-esteem as a planned outcome for education is now out-of-vogue but, while I agree that use of the word in curriculum may be on the decline, I think that it is has instead been superceded by the phrase "student empowerment." By empowering students to educate themselves and find their own way to a diploma we have as educators, yes you guessed it, supposedly increased their self-esteem. They can educate themselves and, after completing that Herculean feat, what can they not do? Now, we'll all rejoice as the world morphs into their Nintendo.

J. Martin Rochester in his magnificent 2002 Class Warfare notes a study that illustrates how the self-esteem movement has influenced our college students.

…many college students haven unrealistically high opinions of themselves and are often unable to tolerate criticism, sometimes becoming violent when their exaggerated self-image, cultivated by years of ego-stroking in grade school comes up against someone who dares to say 'you are wrong.'

I have witnessed this phenomena first hand when trying to question college students about the diversity/tolerance/multiculturalism anti-belief system they possess.

A real life incident inspired my writing today as a friend of mine, who we'll call "Dave the special education teacher", came into my office this morning in a state of agitation over an administrative order that he must redo his last semester's grades in order to pass a student he flunked a month ago. You see the student had completed only one week of work from August to December. Dave was incredulous, "Chapin, what am I doing for this kid if I pass her? Making her feel good about a subject she knows nothing about? She already feels better about herself than I feel about myself." I had no answers for Dave other than not to pass her. Dave, although impotent in the matter, raised an excellent point. That student, and most of the students at my alternative school, have far higher self-esteem than myself and most of the adults I know. This is evident in their attitudes towards criminality. I have heard countless times from "gangsta" students that they are not concerned

about going to prison because they're not the types who will get caught. Indeed, I have even heard this from students who are mentally retarded and will be severely challenged by the state driving exam let alone how to hide income from the IRS. This opinion, that prison is for other people not them, is due to their pathologically high self-regard. Between Dave and I, we have five degrees, consumed hundreds of books, and seen many sides of life yet neither of us would ever think that we were too smart to be caught by the police if we were to commit a criminal act. In our minds we'd be apprehended the next day. This belief would not score high in the psychometrics of self-esteem but what would you rather have, low self-esteem or a rapist bunkmate below you at Joliet State Penitentiary ?

Speaking of psychometrics, as a psychologist I never even use the Self-Esteem Inventory (SEI) anymore as a means to gauge maladaptive behaviors. The device simply begs the question. All of our students have a high regard for themselves so what would a questionnaire like that say to me? I think this inflated opinion of themselves is the biggest barrier that they face. If you're already great why improve? What's there to improve on? Why read or study? For that matter, why go to school? You already know all you need to know.

The whole notion of coaching someone's self-esteem is a crime against nature. Confidence rises from self-accomplishment and that alone. If you tell a slacker constantly that "they're great" they may eventually believe you but in the long run all you will be doing is paralyzing them for life. Recall the old saying that "what doesn't kill us makes us stronger." Self-esteem worshippers would replace it with the lines "what doesn't strengthen me does not exist and why would anybody or anything want to kill us anyway? We're wonderful and special. There's something wrong with you if can't appreciate that." Okay, tell that to the next mugger you run into. Just make sure I'm not walking with you at the time.

The real lesson from this is that having supreme confidence in one's abilities is fine until you get caught. You can think you're the best boxer in the world but when you get into the ring Mike Tyson may have a different opinion. As a recommendation to the "self-esteem yes" crowd, make sure as he batters you into the standing room only section to commend yourself on how aerodynamic your flight across the stadium was so you can have something to build on tomorrow as you lie in the intensive care unit.

In summation, only through a realistic appraisal of life does one have a chance to be truly successful. The self-esteem that we hawk to students has an invisible expiration date printed underneath it. It'll expire the minute they try to get any job involving competition. Then they'll be defenseless against those whose skills have been sharpened by struggle. Our graduates leave our districts with self-esteem that gorges their muscles with blood, makes their faces rosy, gives them a pompous strut, but doesn't mean a damn thing.

Bernard Chapin is a school psychologist and adjunct faculty member in Chicago. He can be reached at emeritus@flash.net.

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