California Esteemin'

IN 1986, cartoonist Garry Trudeau caught wind of yet another California oddity - a state task-force on self-esteem - which he lampooned mercilessly in his ``Doonesbury'' strip. Here was another soft, fuzzy ``high-tech high-touch'' idea from the land of hot tubs and hugging. Now the task force, headed by Assemblyman John Vasconcellos (D), has finished its work.

Titled ``Toward a State of Esteem: The Final Report of the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility,'' the 144 page report has been signed off on by politicians of every stripe, and by participants ranging from fundamentalist Christians to gays.

There is a temptation, particularly by those of us in the cold and rigorous Northeast, to laugh off such proceedings as mere new-age silliness - a result, perhaps, of a bit too much sun. That there's to be a California ``self-esteem summit'' in May, a self-esteem ombudsman, and a self-esteem month, doesn't make it any easier.

Yet there are reasons to take seriously the earnestness of the report, and its hopes for the future. There is a need for people to think better of themselves. Society does benefit from people who see and express more fully their deeper capacities, and who work to bring this out in others.

The task force found self-esteem lacking in critical areas: academic failure, drug and alcohol abuse, crime, welfare dependency, and problems with child rearing. It suggests self-esteem as a ``social vaccine'' and recommends state agencies explore how to cultivate it in those they serve.

Taking something seriously, though, doesn't mean agreement. We don't buy Mr. Vasconcellos's idea that Californians should vote only for politicians who endorse the report. Moreover, there's a two-dimensional quality about it. No one will argue against dignity and ``appreciating our worth.'' But the report operates almost as a secular religion - a generic prayer of the human potential movement. Without intending to, it could pull toward self-centered thinking. And it seems naive about the way human nature can distort the do-gooding instinct.

``Self-esteem'' doesn't replace the tones of the 23rd Psalm.

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