Wednesday, July 18, 2007
The notion of "self esteem" is the notion that somehow feeling good about yourself means a damned thing other than that you feel good about yourself.
Back when I was teaching in an inner city school in Houston, the central office sent down one of those damned "self esteem" curriculums. I looked around at my classroom, and threw it in the trash. Because if you wanted those kids to feel good about themselves, what was needed wasn't "self esteem". What was needed was clean, safe housing with enough beds for all the kids so kids didn't have to sleep three to a bed. What was needed was a living wage so that these kids' parents didn't have to work 16 hours a day just to keep a vermin-ridden roof over their head and could, like, actually raise their kids rather than being a distant presence only seen during rare weekend periods when one parent wasn't working. What was needed was competent teachers and adequate schooling rather than newbie teachers right out of teacher colleges who didn't have the foggiest notion how to talk to black kids in the ghetto much less teach them. What they needed was hope for the future, hope that they certainly weren't gonna get from a Texas legislature busily cutting children's health care and raising college tuitions, hope they certainly weren't gonna get from a Republican administration in Washington D.C. that was busily gutting the Pell Grant program for sending poor kids to college. What they saw was a dismal dreary present today and the same dismal, dreary future that their parents had, regardless of what they tried to do with their lives, and justifiably they weren't too happy about that.
But noooo, these kids problems weren't all that. These kids' problems were... low self esteem. So the message we teachers were supposed to impart was: Don't worry, be happy.
Now, the whole notion of "self esteem" is a strange one. I'd say a queer one, but then the gay rights activists would get outraged and stuff, so anyhow. Science is about things that are measurable. But who has ever seen a "self esteem"? So the floggers of the whole "don't worry, be happy" thingy created test instruments full of questions like, "I feel good about myself", and "I feel capable", and then defined "self esteem" as scoring high on that test. The problem then becomes the same damned thing that my professor in Social Sciences Research 501 taught me in grad school: Correlation is not causation.
For example, there is a correlation between umbrellas and rain. If you see a lot of umbrellas, it is likely to either be currently raining, or to start raining shortly. But this doesn't mean that umbrellas cause rain, any more than summer causes drownings. The actual cause of rain is something else entirely.
Similarly, the self esteem gurus with their tests discovered that well-off suburban kids who answered "1" (Agree Strongly)_ on "I feel good about myself" scored higher on academic benchmarks than my inner city kids who answered "5" (Disagree strongly) on that question. Duh. Why the fuck should my inner city kids have felt good about themselves? They were stuck in a horrible mess not of their own making, and every avenue for getting out of that shithole was being systematically taken away from them by Republican assholes whose attitude was "I got mine, and fuck everybody else", why should they have felt good about themselves? But the self esteem gurus then used this test to say, "high self esteem causes better school performance!"
Anyhow, that was the status quo for many years after I left teaching. Teachers were supposed to "foster self esteem" in their students. So finally -- finally --Baumeister et. al. did the research. They actually performed an experiment, as vs. a correlational study. The difference is that an experiment changes something. In this experiment, they taught kids to feel good about themselves (i.e. have high self-esteem). If you teach kids to feel good about themselves ("have high esteem"), do they actually perform better in school? Well, the answer, of course, is NO. In fact, for some kids it actually hurt their performance. After all, if you're already a perfect and wonderful person, what do you need all this schoolwork junk for?
So in the end, science backs up my gut feel from over a decade ago and shows that "self esteem" turns out to be meaningless. Folks feel good about themselves and their lives if they are in a good situation accomplishing things of worth, and feel bad about themselves and their lives if they're in a bad situation accomplishing nothing of worth. Kids who make good grades feel good about themselves because they make good grades, not the other way around. In other words, "self esteem" is effect, not cause. Other than in the special case of "learned helplessness", the whole concept of "self esteem" turns out to have no practical application.
On the other hand, for our rulers, the message "don't worry, be happy!" does make some sense, I suppose. Contented sheep, after all, are easier to fleece. But whether we're talking about low-achieving kids in school or fat people or whatever, "pumping up their self esteem" isn't the path to take in order to get better performance out of them. Rather, taking direct action to provide them better education, better nutritional and exercise choices, etc. while providing incentives to actually engage in those better choices is what needs to be done.
But that's practical advice. And everybody knows that what counts is how happy you are, not whether you are in fact smart or healthy or whatever. Alrighty, then!
-- Badtux the Self Esteem Penguin
Labels: culture, education, psychology
Posted by: BadTux / 7/18/2007 08:24:00 AM
- Name: BadTux
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I am a black and white and yellow multicolored penguin making his way as best he can in a world of monochromic monkeys.
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