Down With Self-Esteem

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: Feb 05, 2007 12:01 AM
Down With Self-Esteem

Remember self-esteem? It was one of the sillier - and more dangerous - fads in educational circles, which keep going round and round. The theory was that promoting kids' self-esteem was going to convince them they were great. And it just might. But that's no guarantee they are great.

On the contrary, this kind of psychological scam could have the opposite effect. Having been told how well they're doing throughout their well-insulated school years, these kids could be in for the shock of their nice, cushioned lives when they're thrown into the real world. And discover that their education wasn't so great after all. Or that a better word for it might be shoddy. The realization might be so crushing they'd just give up.

Some of us had hoped this fad had come and gone. It had. But now it's come back. Bad ideas apparently never die; they just go underground for a while. There they lurk, like an infection, waiting to crop up again in the strangest places. As in a statement from Arkansas' new governor, Mike Beebe.

Governor Beebe came out against schools' sending reports home about overweight kids lest we hurt their "self-esteem." What kind of a report? It's called a body-mass index, which measures how fat or skinny a kid is-based on factors like height, weight, age and sex.

Why be concerned about kids' weight? Because obesity is a real problem in this country. It saps kids' mental and physical development, and can lead to serious problems down the road-like diabetes, stroke and heart attacks.

Overweight kids are also prime candidates for psychological disorders like anorexia and bulimia. Adolescents are notoriously sensitive about their appearance and their peers' opinion of it. The teasing that fatties get in school can be cruel - and lead them to do dangerous things.

A simple report from school about a child's weight might get parents' attention, or even move them to do something about their kid's dietary habits or lack of exercise. It's worth a try. We check kids' eyesight and hearing, don't we? Why not their physical fitness?

Because we're told it would hurt their self-esteem. Well, some kids have entirely too much self-esteem already. A geometry teacher I once knew had a phrase for it: climbing Fool's Hill. The tumble down can be painful. Are teachers even allowed to say such things any more? Or has it been decided that folk wisdom is psychologically impairing, too?

Some of these kids may be all et up with self-esteem, but they're woefully short on self-respect, which is quite another thing. Self-respect flows from self-discipline and the real achievement it leads to. It doesn't depend on psychological gamesmanship.

And it's not just kids. Have you taken a good look lately at American politics, academia, fashion, journalism and public life in general? It over-runneth with the kind of self-esteem that cometh before a fall.

There is such a thing as unearned grace - don't I know it! - but self-esteem is unearned folly. Its fruit is pride, not humility. You can tell a lot about an educational system by its vocabulary. When Calvinistic terms like grace and works are replaced by educantisms like self-esteem, you know the system's in trouble. Or is even to think on grace and works now considered a violation of the separation of church and state?

The mere mention of a religious idea in public has been known to make some of our more advanced thinkers break out in hives and litigation. As for those of us inclined to sneak a biblical allusion into our prose now and then, we need not fear; our "educated" classes may no longer recognize it.

The theory behind the Cult of Self-Esteem is simple: First get the cart, then put it before the horse. Just feel good about yourself and achievement will follow automatically. It would be too much to call this approach instant gratification; it's really more like pre-gratification.

What we have here is one more high-cost detour into the weedy lots of educanto. What a pity the self-esteem fad wasn't lost forever in all that verbal high grass.

Want to build real self-esteem, the kind that is the fruit of self-respect and not just an inadequate substitute for it?

Expect, even insist on, competence. Don't pretend it's there when it isn't. If that sounds too hard, that's the catch with self-respect - it has to be earned. Self-esteem, on the other hand, costs little or nothing. And it's worth just what you pay for it.