"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Self-Esteem Blather–We Are All Not That Great

The self-esteem juggernaut keeps on rolling.  All children are special, say PC advocates, and all are equal. The fat, uncoordinated kid is special because he can color inside the lines.  The dumb kid who picks his nose during spelling is generous and loving. The dysfunctional out-of-bounds kid who trips people on the stairs and starts fights on the playground has ‘energy and ebullience’.  They all walk out of school every day thinking that they are special until they get whupped, put down, and turned out.  The cult of self-esteem has done them no good.  Better be honest with them and prepare them for failure or at least modest achievement. 

It seems particularly hard for today’s ‘progressive’ educators to give intelligence its due. Smart kids will more than likely turn out to be smart, successful adults; and most other classmates with fewer brains but ‘excelling’ and drawing, music, or sports, are likely to be left behind.  Yet, throwing these intellectually superior children into the same educational mosh pit with slower ones dumbs down the entire academic process.  It is strangely all right to compliment and encourage kids who can do the do-se-do and paint rainbows, but not correct to provide advanced learning challenges to those with above-average abilities.

Harping on self-esteem makes matters even worse.  Not only do smart kids get short shrift, but the dumb ones are pushed along on false notions of happy equality.  Public elementary education could not be any worse.

Apparently this self-esteem craze has taken hold in Hollywood; and more and more children’s movies are about life’s little losers who end up wild successes. Luke Epplin, writing in The Atlantic (8.24.13) writes about this ‘magic feather’ syndrome:

It's probably no coincidence that the supremacy of the magic-feather syndrome in children's movies overlaps with the so-called "cult of self-esteem." The restless protagonists of these films never have to wake up to the reality that crop-dusters simply can't fly faster than sleek racing aircraft. Instead, it's the naysaying authority figures who need to be enlightened about the importance of never giving up on your dreams, no matter how irrational, improbable, or disruptive to the larger community. As Jean Twenge… argues in her bestselling book Generation Me, younger generations "simply take it for granted that we should all feel good about ourselves, we are all special, and we all deserve to follow our dreams."

Turbo, Planes, and Kung Fu Panda are all about how little, ordinary ones with big dreams realize their fantasies.  The message is the same as that given in classrooms – everyone is special, and only if you try, you can realize your dreams. Self-esteem has become a big industry and a Hollywood phenomenon.


None of this is surprising, of course. We Americans – at least in public – hate to admit that privilege, wealth, and success are limited to a very few; and that such achievement is conditioned by brains, family, innate drive and ambition, risk-taking, and confidence – traits of the very few.  Rather than acknowledge and admit vast differences in ability, we tend to trick out the stumblers in pretty dresses, and display them to appreciative audiences.

Epplin, in The Atlantic article notes that this was not always so. Charlie Brown was a downright loser.  Trying was never enough. Self-esteem never entered the picture. Lucy, Violet, or Patty always pull the football out before Charlie can kick it. 

                Charles Schultz, Peanuts

Charlie is no good at anything, and none of his friends try to gloss over the fact that he is a loser.  Better tell it like it is says Peanuts creator, Charles Schultz. In the movie A Boy Named Charlie Brown, Charlie is determined to prove himself and enters the school spelling bee; and by winning he becomes the area representative for the National Elimination Spelling Bee in Washington, DC.

Before his departure he confides to Linus, "There's a good chance that instead of being a hero I'll make a bigger fool of myself than ever." Somewhat unhelpfully, Linus responds, "Don't be discouraged, Charlie Brown. You have nothing to lose. You'll either be a hero or a goat."

The lesson is clear:

Charlie Brown learns through Linus's tough-love speech that failure, no matter how painful, is not permanent, and that the best means of withstanding it is simply to show up the next day to school with the fortitude to try again. Losing also forces Charlie Brown to come to terms with his own limitations. He can't rely on a miraculous victory to rescue him from his tormented childhood. He followed his dream, it didn't pan out, and he ends up more or less where he started, only a little more experienced and presumably with a little more respect from his peers.

The advice to come to terms with your own limitations, however reasonable, is rarely given these days.  The self-esteem mantra is repeated from elementary school on up.  Students who have no place in four-year colleges are encouraged to go there not only because of the encouragement of idealistic, feel-good, self-esteem soaked advisors, but also because matriculation is made easy by lax admissions policies (not to mention affirmative action), liberal loans and grants, and non-existent performance standards. Unqualified students who leave after two years are discouraged, saddled with debt, and tarred with failure.

Few academic advisors are willing to say, “Billy, you are not college material, but you would make a great car mechanic”.  Community colleges have for far too long been the repositories of mixed-up young people drifting and finding their way; and only a few (such as the East Mississippi Community College) have found, accepted, and flourished in their vocational niche.

Life is all about failure, not success, despite the American Dream. The best and most innovative companies in Silicon Valley teach that failure is the price of risk-taking; and without risk, there can be no success.  On a more mundane level, many Americans slog away at low-paying jobs, struggle to pay the mortgage, and a night out is a Family Meal at McDonalds. Speaking honestly and realistically to the children of these families about their prospects is not to consign them to penury and toil, but to allow them to prosper and excel within their limitations – just like Charlie Brown.

Europeans always sneer at Americans for our boundless enthusiasm, idealism, and optimism.  Life has never been that way, they say, and look meaningfully at the wars, pestilence, famine, and brutality of their thousand year history.  We refuse to accept the past, limitations, or obstacles; and we are the most positive country on earth – despite the fantasy of that illusion. 

Nevertheless, a little dose of realism can’t hurt; and the fat kid will get over the fact that he can’t jump once he stops trying and turns to other more productive pursuits. Those of us born well before the self-esteem era took our licks on the playground and the taunts of the cafeteria, and played with the cards we were dealt.  Not a bad lesson as Charles Schultz taught us.

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