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
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. …