Education's Self-Esteem Hoax

Article excerpt

Throughout America's schools, educators are busy trying to foster a sense of self-esteem among young people, especially minority students. The basic premise is that racism and discrimination cause minorities to feel bad about themselves, and that this low self- image translates into women avoiding "hard" fields like engineering and blacks and Hispanics doing poorly in school.

If only we raise the self- esteem of these groups, the reasoning goes, surely the women will enroll in engineering courses in greater numbers and the blacks and Hispanics will produce higher test scores. This reasoning is fallacious.

Feeling good about myself does not make me smarter or better. Indeed, excessive self-confidence has occasionally made me do things that I later recognized were incredibly stupid.

Many liberal educators support restrictive speech codes and antiracism education because they wish to protect the self-esteem of women and minorities. So, too, many liberal activists don't like standardized tests because some people do better on those tests than others, and liberals worry that poor-performing students may suffer blows to their self-esteem. One national school program, Outcomes Based Education, downplays grades and other measures of merit and instead focuses on such things as maintaining "emotional and social well-being" or developing "a positive personal self-concept."

Self-esteem is a very American concept, and Americans, perhaps more than anyone else in the world, tend to believe that feeling good about yourself is an essential prerequisite to performing to the best of your ability. Self-esteem is also a democratic idea. In a hierarchical society one's self-image is determined by one's designated role: as brahmin, elder, patriarch, peasant, and so on. Aristocratic societies do not speak of self-esteem but of honor. In a democratic society, self-esteem is claimed as an entitlement. Unlike honor, it does not have to be earned. Self-esteem in the West is largely a product of the romantic movement, which exalts feelings over reason, the subjective over the objective. Self-esteem is based on the wisdom that Polonius imparts to Laertes: "To thine own self be true."

But does a stronger self-esteem make students learn better? This seems dubious. I am the product of a Jesuit education, and institutions like the Jesuits and the Marines have for generations produced impressive intellectual and motivational results by undermining the self- esteem of recruits. …