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