The self-esteem and education literature tends to be dominated by these premises: that low self-esteem is a problem, that it is a problem for and of certain individuals, and that it prevents them making the best of their schooling and their lives. Further, the literature attributes low self-esteem to individuals who belong to those social groups which are least valued by and powerful in society. Hence a lack of self-esteem is often associated with groups other than the socially dominant. To overcome their lack is to overcome their problem and thus to open to them a pathway to success and happiness.
In my view the lack is in the self-esteem literature itself and the problem is the way the problem is conceived. The literature is far more concerned to define 'self-esteem' and to explain why it is a problem than to explore how it became a problem. Writers in the field seldom stop to reassess whose problem it really is, or whether high self-esteem may always be regarded as unproblematic. In this chapter I will do precisely what the literature does not and look at some of the processes through which individuals and social groups build a positive identity, suggesting that high self- and social esteem is not necessarily an unquestionable good.
My focus is upon privileged girls in one of Western Australia's most esteemed private schools for girls: the Ladies School of Perth (LSP). * As high social esteem is a deeply sedimented part of the history of expensive private schools in Australia, high self-esteem is deemed a natural consequence of a prestigious private school education. In the literature on girls' education such schools are not regarded as a problem; after all they have a reputation for producing confident, 'successful' young women (see Kenway and Willis, 1986). To raise self-esteem issues in connection with their girls is thus seen as akin to 'taking coal to Newcastle'. Given
* This chapter is drawn from a wider study of private schooling; see Kenway (1987a).