How self-esteem took over the world

How self-esteem took over the world

The reason I wrote about “self esteem” yesterday is this fascinating article in The Guardian.

I suggest you read the whole thing, but I want to call out a couple of paragraphs and tell you a little about what I think.

The gist of the article is that the national (even worldwide) obsession with self-esteem isn’t based on sound science, and that it can be traced back to the strange obsession of a California state assemblyman named John “Vasco” Vasconcellos.

He got caught up in the hippy-dippie “human potential” movement of the 1960s, and became a rabid promoter of its ideas. As the article writes: “Through intense group therapy workshops at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, Vasco became a devotee of the human potential movement, based partly on the Rogerian idea that all you need to do to live well is discover your authentic inner self.”

He glommed onto the idea of “self-esteem” and worked hard to get legislation passed in the state senate. After a couple of attempts, he got some money to study it.

Then, it seems like he used his position of political power to pressure UC Berkeley (would be a shame if your funding got cut…) into assembling an academic task force on “self esteem”, which did a review of all the existing literature on the topic.

Then, he misrepresented the task force’s findings and used his media skills to make self esteem seem like a ‘scientifically validated™’ panacea—those smarties at UC Berkeley couldn’t be wrong, after all!

The result? Within a short period of time 86% of the state’s elementary school districts and 83% of its high school districts had self-esteem programs.

Mind blowing.

It’s an unbelievable story… and the results are terrible. As the article writes about a self-esteem focused school:

“At Barrowford, people learned, teachers were discouraged from issuing punishments, defining a child as “naughty” and raising their voices. The school’s guiding philosophy, said headteacher Rachel Tomlinson, was that kids were to be treated with “unconditional positive regard”.

A little more than a year later, Barrowford found itself in the news again. Ofsted had given the school one of its lowest possible ratings, finding the quality of teaching and exam results inadequate. The school, their report said, “emphasised developing pupils’ emotional and social wellbeing more than the attainment of high standards”. Somehow, it seemed, the nurturing of self-esteem had not translated into higher achievement.”

Realistic feedback (both good AND bad) is absolutely necessary for skill development, so it should be no surprise that a warped feedback environment should impede learning.

I could write on and on about this stuff, but I won’t. Just read the article and let me know what you think:

I think it’s an incredible example of what happens when science is twisted to suit the ideological aims of those in power–no matter how noble those aims may be.

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