Education's self-esteem hoax

Throughout America's schools, educators are busy trying to foster a sense of self-esteem among young people, especially minority students. The basic premise is that racism and discrimination cause minorities to feel bad about themselves, and that this low self-image translates into women avoiding "hard" fields like engineering and blacks and Hispanics doing poorly in school.

If only we raise the self- esteem of these groups, the reasoning goes, surely the women will enroll in engineering courses in greater numbers and the blacks and Hispanics will produce higher test scores. This reasoning is fallacious.

Feeling good about myself does not make me smarter or better. Indeed, excessive self-confidence has occasionally made me do things that I later recognized were incredibly stupid.

Many liberal educators support restrictive speech codes and antiracism education because they wish to protect the self-esteem of women and minorities. So, too, many liberal activists don't like standardized tests because some people do better on those tests than others, and liberals worry that poor-performing students may suffer blows to their self-esteem. One national school program, Outcomes Based Education, downplays grades and other measures of merit and instead focuses on such things as maintaining "emotional and social well-being" or developing "a positive personal self-concept."

Self-esteem is a very American concept, and Americans, perhaps more than anyone else in the world, tend to believe that feeling good about yourself is an essential prerequisite to performing to the best of your ability. Self-esteem is also a democratic idea. In a hierarchical society one's self-image is determined by one's designated role: as brahmin, elder, patriarch, peasant, and so on. Aristocratic societies do not speak of self-esteem but of honor. In a democratic society, self-esteem is claimed as an entitlement. Unlike honor, it does not have to be earned. Self-esteem in the West is largely a product of the romantic movement, which exalts feelings over reason, the subjective over the objective. Self-esteem is based on the wisdom that Polonius imparts to Laertes: "To thine own self be true."

But does a stronger self-esteem make students learn better? This seems dubious. I am the product of a Jesuit education, and institutions like the Jesuits and the Marines have for generations produced impressive intellectual and motivational results by undermining the self- esteem of recruits. One of my Jesuit teachers liked to say that "be yourself" is absolutely the worst advice you can give some people. He's right: This is not the kind of advice that we want to give to a Charles Manson or a Hitler. Both the Jesuits and the Marines are famous for first degrading the pride and self-image of youngsters, and then seeking to reconstruct it on a new and firmer foundation.

Several years ago, a state-funded group called the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem conducted a study to explore the relationship between self-esteem and academic performance. The study found, to task force members' own evident chagrin, that higher self-esteem does not produce better intellectual performance. Nor does it produce more desirable social outcomes, such as lower teen pregnancy or reduced delinquency.

These findings have been corroborated by academic studies comparing the self-image and academic performance of American students with that of students from other industrialized countries. Consistently, American students score higher on self-esteem – yet on actual reading and math tests they perform near the bottom. These results show that it is possible to have a healthy ego and be ignorant at the same time. Similarly, several studies have shown that, within the US, black males have the highest self-esteem of any group, yet on academic measures they score the lowest. The reason is that self-esteem in some cases is generated by factors unrelated to studies, such as the ability to beat up other students or a high estimation of one's sexual prowess.

None of this is to suggest that the research on self-esteem shows no relationship between self-confidence and academic performance. There is a relationship, but it runs in the opposite direction. Self-esteem doesn't produce enhanced achievement, but achievement produces enhanced self-esteem. In other words, feeling good about myself doesn't make me smarter. But when I study hard, discover the meaning of a poem, find the amoeba under the microscope, see my way through a difficult math problem, then I feel exhilarated, and my self-esteem is justly strengthened.

That's a lesson that I wish more educators would take to heart.

• Dinesh D'Souza's is the Rishwain Research Scholar at the Hoover Institution. This article is adapted from his new book, 'Letters to a Young Conservative' (Basic Books, 2002).

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