Sunday, September 13, 2009

The self-esteem trap

I was home with the senior Archers this weekend and came upon Polly Young Eisendrafth's The Self-Esteem Trap sitting upon a chair. I'm a sucker for searching essays about the manners and mores of my generation, and the description -- "Today's children and young adults are suffering from a number of symptoms, including obsessive self-focus, restless dissatisfaction, pressures to be exceptional, unreadiness to accept responsibilities and feelings of either superiority or inferiority. According to the author, instead of contentment and positive self-regard, kids raised to believe they are extraordinary or special are more likely to be unhappy and disappointed" -- seemed to fit.

To Eisendrath-Young's credit, some of what she describes sounds familiar. At the same time, I came across psychological studies in college suggesting that sufficiently broadly based personality descriptions resonate with almost everyone. I recall one in which a college professor gave his students a personality test; gave all 100 exactly the same description; and something like 70% of them called the results very accurate. So I fear that nearly everyone feels "pressures to be exceptional" or "unreadiness to accept responsibilities" at some point or other -- self-esteem movement or none.

Eisendrath-Young does a good job excoriating the excesses of the self-esteem movement. That's all well and good, but I'm not sure how many parents and teachers ever embraced the most extreme claims of the self-esteem trend even at its zenith. I fear also her proposed solution -- recognizing that being ordinary and connected to human communities leads to happiness -- may be a cure as bad as the disease. The self-esteem movement was silly because it bred arrogance, yes, but also because most kids intuitively mistrusted the fake egalitarianism at its core. The excellent writers, violinists, and athletes in any middle school are often successful not merely because of superior work ethics; talent also matters. It was farcical to pretend that everyone was the same merely for the sake of ensuring that everyone's self-esteem stayed high. Contra Eisendrath-Young, it's equally farcical to pretend that everyone is equally ordinary so that nobody suffers from feeling exceptional. The point particularly comes out when Eisendrath-Young sighs about the problems of one young woman who has an Ivy League undergrad degree and another Ivy graduate degree and secondly about a 14-year-old boy who's taking college courses. These young people have gifts that aren't strictly ordinary; why pretend that they are, and why expect them to fall for it?

Eisendrath-Young contrasts her angsty ex-Ivy Leaguers with her own blue collar childhood. Her family had its problems, she acknowledges. But kids had greater autonomy then, were less coddled and sheltered from the world's problems, and therefore became more resilient. Also, families obsessed over education less, which meant that even bright children like her grew up without feeling arrogant about their academic achievements. Maybe, although there were plenty of working-class families in the 1950s that were obsessed with education; I'd cite my own mother's family as an example, along with virtually every novel or memoir ever written by a New York Jew. Second, Eisendrath-Young doesn't the possibility that families changed not in response to the self-esteem movement, but in response to the increasing returns on investment in higher education. The lucrative blue collar jobs that Eisendrath-Young's male high-school classmates easily secured simply no longer exist. Given these economic changes, isn't it rational for parents to value education more -- even if there are problems that come along with that mentality?

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