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Original Search: SELF-ESTEEM    |   Save This Article    |   Email to a Friend
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Let's lower our self-esteem
Date: 06-17-1996; Publication: U.S. News & World Report; Author: John Leo

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U.S. News & World Report At the Kelly Elementary School in Portland, Ore., fifth-grade girls are asked to make a list of eight qualities they like about themselves. Each good quality is written on a paper petal to form a flower, then a photo of each girl isplaced in the center of her own flower.

Followers of educational fads will recognize this as a fairly conventional exercise in self-esteem training. Thinking up nice things to say about yourself is said to enhance confidence and therefore to improve scholastic achievement and good citizenship in general.

Despite the back-to-basics trend and a strong backlash against self- esteem training in the early 1990s, the movement is still astonishingly strong and seems to hover over the schools like an established civic religion. The Los Angeles Times reports: `Indeed, few educators dispute the link between academic success and a student's self-confidence and self-regard.'

Maybe so, but after more than 25 years of research there is virtually no evidence that such a link exists. Nobody doubts that adults can damage the confidence of young children or that schools should respect and encourage their students. But there is almost zero evidence that failure to learn is tied to low self-esteem or that massaging the psyche can improve learning.

Even the most ballyhooed effort to promote self-esteem, the $735,000 California Task Force on Self-Esteem, was accompanied by a book surveying all the research, which said frankly: `One of the disappointing aspects of every chapter in this volume ... is how low the associations between self-esteem and its consequences are in research to date.' In fact, one common finding in the literature is that high self-esteem is often linked to low performance.

Race myth. The data on race and self-esteem also upset most expectations. The belief that the long history of racial oppression has left American blacks with a collective problem of low self-esteem turns out to be false. Study after study has shown that black self-esteem is about as high as that of whites, if not higher, and was only slightly lower before the civil-rights movement, at the height of racism and segregation.

These studies tend to undercut public policies, including educational ones, based on the well-meaning desire to raise the self-esteem of blacks. That self-esteem is already high, apparently because blacks have historically been able to resist internalizing racist views of their abilities. `It may be that the low self-esteem argument has been poorly construed and overstated all along,' said a 1989 academic study, directed by Stanley Rothman, head of Smith College's Center for the Study of Social and Political Change. That study was later published as `The Myth of Black Low Self-Esteem.'

Then why are we still so obsessed with self-esteem? `We live in a time of irrationality,' says Rothman. `Totally crazy things keep coming up again and again.'

Low self-esteem pops up regularly in other academic reports as an explanation for all sorts of violence, from hate crimes and street crimes to terrorism. But despite the popularity of the explanation, not much evidence backs it up. In a recent issue of Psychological Review, three researchers examine this literature at length and conclude that a much stronger link connects high self-esteem to violence. `It is difficult to maintain belief in the low self-esteem view after seeing that the more violent groups are generally the ones with higher self-esteem,' write Roy Baumeister of Case Western Reserve University and Laura Smart and Joseph Boden of the University of Virginia.

The conventional view is that people withoutself-esteem try to gain it by hurting others. The researchers find that violence is much more often the work of people with unrealistically high self-esteem attacking others who challenge their self-image. Under this umbrella come bullies, rapists,racists, psychopaths and members of street gangs and organized crime.

The study concludes: `Certain forms of high self-esteem seem to increase one's proneness to violence. An uncritical endorsement of the cultural value of self-esteem may therefore be counterproductive and even dangerous. ... The societal pursuit of high self-esteem for everyone may literally end up doing considerable harm.'

As for prison programs intended to make violent convicts feel better about themselves, `perhaps it would be better to try instilling modesty and humility,' the researchers write.

In an interview with the Boston Globe, Baumeister said he believes the `self'-promoting establishment is starting to crumble. `What would work better for the country is to forget about self-esteem and concentrate on self-control,' he said.

In the schools, this would mean turning away from psychic boosterism and emphasizing self-esteem as a byproduct of real achievement, not as an end in itself. The self-esteem movement, still entrenched in schools of education, is deeply implicated in the dumbing down of our schools, and in the spurious equality behind the idea that it is a terrible psychic blow if one student does any better or any worse than another. Let's hope it is indeed crumbling.

John Leo, Let's lower our self-esteem. , U.S. News & World Report, 06-17-1996, pp p. 25.

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