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Culture And Society in Voice for Reason
Culture & SocietyEducation & Multiculturalism

Say No to the “Self-Esteem” Pushers

by Onkar Ghate | September 10, 1998

The beginning of a school year is an appropriate time to question how our schools propose to teach our children.

Today’s educators, observing widespread self-doubt and despair among the young, believe that the way to get a student to learn is to inflate his self-image. They believe that the curriculum should be designed, in the words of a resolution from the National Education Association, to “foster positive self-esteem.”

There is indeed a lack of self-esteem among our students. The real tragedy, though, is that the educators’ irrational view of “positive self-esteem” not only prevents a solution to this problem — but is itself the very cause.

Educators believe that self-esteem can be achieved by simply encouraging a child to “feel good” about himself. They continually exhort students to praise themselves — to praise themselves causelessly — by such means as chanting in class: “I am me and I am enough.”

The objective reality of the child’s life — the choices he makes, the thinking he engages in, the effort he exerts, the actions he takes — is disregarded. As one guidebook on self-esteem explains: “Children have the right to feel good about themselves exactly as they are. . . . A child’s value is unconditional. Nothing the child does, says or chooses can change it.”

Genuine self-esteem, however, consists not of causeless feelings, but of certain knowledge about yourself. It rests on the conviction that you — by your choices, effort and actions — have made yourself into the kind of person able to deal with reality. It is the conviction — based on the evidence of your own volitional functioning — that you are fundamentally able to succeed in life and, therefore, are deserving of that success.

Since it is only through rational thought and action that one develops the ability to cope with reality, self-esteem results from an individual’s commitment to reason. A rational, productive person will possess self-esteem; a drug-addicted bum will not.

But in the view of our Dewey-inspired educators, logic is a “straitjacket.” Students are taught by “progressive” educators that there are no rigid principles in life, and that emotion, not reason, is one’s link to reality. Thus, if a child is somehow made to feel good about himself, he is good — irrespective of whether there exists any objective basis for that conclusion.

Of course this approach cannot work. A child who makes bad choices — who does not think but drifts in class, who shuts down his mind at the first sign of difficulty, who heads for the mall instead of exerting the effort that learning requires — will not acquire self-esteem. Constantly getting the answers wrong in class and feeling bewildered by the world outside, such a child experiences only uncertainty, helplessness and self-doubt.

How then will educators make him “feel good” about himself? By attempting to obliterate any facts that lead him to a negative estimate of himself. Accordingly, they teach him that there are never any wrong answers.

This is what gives rise to such nightmarish phenomena as inventive spelling, whereby a fourth-grader who spells “favorite” as “fffifit” is lauded by the teacher for expressing a “creative feeling.” This viewpoint infects even the most objective of disciplines, mathematics. One educator explains the root of a girl’s errors in mathematics: “She was trying to get these problems right. The alternative was to get them wrong. . . . So this is a situation within the win-lose world in which there’s no way the child can feel good about the assignment.”

Erase the concept of truth — these educators maintain — and a child will never discover that he is thinking or acting wrongly. If he is taught that anything he does is right because he feels it, he will always “feel good” about himself. For this reason a Minnesota Education Association’s guide to self-esteem tells students: “Express your beliefs . . . as your point of view — not as the ‘truth.’”

Today’s child lacks self-esteem precisely because modern educators encourage him to dispense with his mind, and to indulge his feelings. Self-doubt is the inevitable result, as the child realizes that he lacks the tool by which to comprehend reality.

Yet, to solve the problem they themselves have created, educators propose to continue the same anti-reason, emotionalist approach to teaching.

There is certainly a crisis of self-esteem among America’s students. But don’t look to the modern pushers of pseudo self-esteem for the remedy. Their ideas are the disease.

About The Author

Onkar Ghate

Chief Philosophy Officer and Senior Fellow, Ayn Rand Institute