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Wednesday, February 16, 2005


I found myself checking out a thought-provoking (if somewhat shallow and a little cliched) article in USA Today about what happens to children who've been raised by parents, teachers, and a society that placed a premium on building self-esteem hit the workplace.

I grew up just as the "self-esteem" movement was starting to pick up steam, so I missed out on some the more laughable aspects of the movement's impact on education and child-rearing. We still played dodgeball in my grade school. We kept score. Not everyone got gold stars, and teachers wrote in red ink. I learned the hard way on many occassions that there was a whole range of things I just wasn't good at doing, tasks that some of my peers could do much better than I could ever hope to - as well as some things that I was in fact among the best at achieving. And in between there were things I could work on, areas in which I could improve myself. I think I'm better off for having learned those things when the stakes were much lower than they would be now.

Now I'm far too young to be an old fart, like Dana Carvey's Grumpy Old Man from old "Weekend Update" sketches on "Saturday Night Live." ("We didn't have "self-esteem building!" We thought we were lower than dirt! And we LIKED IT!" [pounds table].) Anyone who knows my political orientation knows that I want nothing to do with the creation of a "winner-take-all" society. But to the extent that the "real world" is (and most likely always will be) all about cutthroat competition for everything, I'd rather have children equipped to prepare themselves for this reality than have them in a mental bubble, blissfully unaware of what awaits them when it comes time to join the work force. I think it would facilitiate better decision making and might prepare them for stress at a younger age.

Found nowhere in this article is the political overtones of the movement. It most definitely originated with people in the educational and psychology fields, nearly all of whom would describe themselves as "liberal" or "progressive." But I don't think it's ultimately served liberal or progressive goals. I think a group of people who've developed a sense of entitlement of the sort that many people raised on self-esteem building see themselves as on a path to making the big score, hitting the jackpot, as being "winners." If one sees oneself as a "winner" or even a "future winner" they find the idea of a "winner-take-all" society more attractive. If one sees the tradeoff of a faster path to the top in exchange for less of a social safety net for those who stumble, then they'd gladly take that deal. (How dare anyone should suggest to one of these young achievers that they could ever fail to acheive greatness!)

Taken in the aggregate, however, these kinds of aspirations for cross over the fine line between mere optimism and, well, delusion. Not everyone is going to be a "winner," (how one chooses to define that term) and by no means everyone who ends up a "loser" got that way because of any personal shortcomings. There isn't, and can't be, a perfect meritocracy, particularly if a society sees any value in permitting people to pass on wealth (with which comes an undeniable head start) to their descendants.

It's not that I would prefer anyone to think of themselves as a "loser" by any means. I just wish more people, in a society where so many purport to subscribe to the Christian tradition (and the tradition of modern Western civilzation as we know it), would look at one less fortunate and think to themslves "There, but for the Grace of God, go I." If your self-esteem's been artifically inflated to unreasonable levels, I'd be willing to bet that that's generally not going to happen.

I don't think this sort of thing fosters the development of a progressive mentality, or even a particularly healthy attitude towards one's society.


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