October 22, 2019

The Sad Legacy of the Self-Esteem Movement

It has been almost sixty years since the Gospel of Self-Esteem was first preached in America and quickly planted in the nation’s schools. Since then it has impacted three generations of Americans. Here is a summary of the message they have been taught to live by:

Self-esteem is necessary for psychological health and personal achievement. The way to achieve and maintain self-esteem is always to think well of yourself, trust your instincts, remember that you are wonderful just as you are, and that any problems that occur in your life or around you are caused by other people or circumstances outside your control, not by you. It also means avoiding any activities that undermine your confidence, especially second-guessing yourself, questioning your behavior, evaluating your motivations and intentions, or criticizing yourself. Those activities are appropriate for assessing other people but never yourself. Finally, never feel guilt for anything you have done, for guilt will destroy your psychological equilibrium.

Even as this gospel was being promulgated and converts were increasing, the dangers it poses were being underscored by innumerable researchers and commentators.

For example, in 1985, Barbara Lerner (“Self-Esteem and Excellence: the Choice and the Paradox,” American Educator, Winter, 1985, 10-16) noted that Alfred Binet, the originator of the IQ test, believed that “the essence of intelligence, the master key that unlock[s] the doors to competence and excellence alike” is not self-esteem but its near-opposite, self-criticism. He also believed that self-criticism isn’t inborn but must be learned.

Lerner also noted that Sigmund Freud believed that children are absorbed with self and pleasure and can only be successful if they get beyond self  to challenges and beyond pleasure to reality. Lerner also contrasted “feel-good-now” (narcissistic) self-esteem with “earned self-esteem.”

Finally, she warned, “Excessive self-esteem . . . can cause as much trouble as inadequate self-esteem, for individuals and for whole societies, too.”

In 1994, Alfie Kohn (“The Truth About Self-Esteem,” Phi Delta Kappan, December 1994, 272-283) examined the research that had been done on self-esteem, by that time over 10,000 studies and did some research of his ownIn a visit to a school that was a leader in self-esteem instruction, Kohn found one teacher telling students, “You can do anything, can’t you?” Another teacher wore a button that had a red line through the words “I can’t.” He also saw “bulletin boards featur[ing] such slogans as ‘You are beautiful!’” and was told the school had students recite every day “I am somebody.”

Kohn noted, too, that in 1990 a group of California scholars had reviewed the research on self-esteem and found that “the associations between self-esteem and its expected consequences are mixed, insignificant, or absent.” As a result of his and other scholars’ research, Kohn questioned the “desirability” of emphasizing self-esteem in the classroom. He concluded, “The whole enterprise could be said to encourage a self-absorption bordering on narcissism.”

Despite the mountain of evidence warning that the emphasis on self-esteem was at best highly questionable and at worst dangerous, that emphasis continued and is still present in many classrooms.

Let’s pause and make a rough calculation of how many people have passed through programs with a self-esteem emphasis. Abraham Maslow gave self-esteem a central place in his self-actualization pyramid in the late 1950s, but it took some time for it to achieve dominance in both the culture and school curriculums. Nathaniel Branden, often said to be the father of the Self-Esteem Movement, published The Psychology of Self-Esteem in 1969. So let’s be conservative and start with that date (from Generation X through Generation Z). Roughly 229 million Americans grew to adulthood at that time and were influenced by the Self-Esteem Movement in the schools and in the general culture.

Even by this conservative calculation, it is clear that the vast majority of today’s elected officials, journalists, professors, and teachers are directly or indirectly exposed to the Self-Esteem Gospel, in some cases more intensely and effectively than they were taught the religious values of previous generations! And many of them seem to have learned their lessons well.

Though the sad legacy of the Self-Esteem Movement is too multifaceted to be detailed in several volumes let alone one brief essay, it is nevertheless possible to glimpse that legacy in the absurdities presently troubling and even outraging the American people.

Democrat leaders Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, John Kerry, Chuck Schumer, and others proclaiming in 2006 that we need a wall on our southern border and a stronger stand on “illegal aliens” entering the country, and then a decade later completely reversing themselves, denouncing President Trump’s plan for a wall (Pelosi has called it “immoral”) and abandoning the term “illegal aliens” altogether—all this without explaining their inconsistency! My guess: they are faithfully following the Self-Esteem Credo and never entertaining the possibility that their thinking might be flawed or their behavior questionable.

The legion of journalists who evidently believe that they need never examine their professional behavior lest they find something wrong with it, feel guilty, and lose their precious self-esteem. Thus, they never ask themselves, “Am I following journalism’s code of ethics and keeping my opinions out of my reporting?” Nor do they ask whether it might be wrong to repeat Democrat talking points as if they were their own judgments—for example, saying the President “manufactured a crisis” at the border, or calling the wall his “vanity project” as dozens of them did immediately after Democrat officials did.

The innumerable professors who spend class time proselytizing for their personal political, philosophical, and religious views rather than covering the course material they are paid to teach; and even, all too often, lowering the grades of students who dare challenge them. From all appearances, these professors evidently never wonder whether their behavior contradicts the very purpose of education and violates their obligation to students. What could possibly explain how such highly educated individuals could be so ethically deficient? The habit of focusing their critical thinking on other people, never on themselves, so as to maintain the self-esteem they learned is paramount.

The impact of the Self-Esteem Movement on American education and culture also explains the self-centered intransigence that prevents elected officials from addressing the nation’s problems and seeking solutions across the partisan divide. It explains, as well, the lack of tolerance, civility, and respect for others that has become prevalent in American society.

Barbara Lerner’s warning, almost thirty years ago, that “excessive self-esteem” can wreak havoc, not just in individual lives, but in “whole societies” has proved prophetic. And the antidote, as she suggested, lies in the insight of Alfred Binet that we should be teaching our young people and practicing ourselves, not self-esteem, but self-criticism because that is “the essence of intelligence, the master key that unlock[s] the doors to competence and excellence alike.”

Copyright © 2019 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Written by
Vincent Ryan Ruggiero

VINCENT RYAN RUGGIERO, M.A., is Professor of Humanities Emeritus, State University of New York, Delhi College. Prior to his twenty-nine year career in education, he was a social caseworker and an industrial engineer. The author of twenty-one books, his trade books include Warning: Nonsense Is Destroying America and The Practice of Loving Kindness. His textbooks include The Art of Thinking and Beyond Feelings, both in 10th editions and available in Chinese as well as English, Thinking Critically About Ethical Issues, and A Guide to Sociological Thinking. His latest book, Corrupted Culture: Rediscovering America's Enduring Principles, Values, and Common Sense, is available at Amazon and in bookstores. Professor Ruggiero is internationally recognized as one of the pioneers of the Critical Thinking movement in education. Earlier in his career, he published essays in a variety of magazines and journals, including America, Catholic Mind, The Sign, The Lamp, and Catholic World.

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3 comments
  • Perfect! Self esteem is the worst thing foistered on our children and grandchildren – EVER. I can’t even remember the term self criticism, which we should all start practicing – NOW! Thank you!

  • A response to “da”:

    What current events (Trump) is blatantly exposing is the fact there really isn’t a republican/democrat battle occurring. It’s “us” vs “them”. The Uniparty (Deep State) and everyone else. Globalism vs Nationalism. Main Street vs Wall Street.

    In the news and in my own experiences, liberalism/progressivism is truly a mental disorder. This article bolsters that hypothesis.

  • I thought this was a Catholic Journal. Sounds very much like a Republican journal in this article. I’m pretty sure that if the author’s premise is correct, the self-esteem heresy probably has been rather non-partisan.

Written by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero
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