Commentary Magazine

Self Esteem & the Schools

To the Editor:

. . . Chester E. Finn, Jr. begins his article, “Narcissus Goes to School” [June], by citing the conclusion of a California “Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility” that “the lack of self-esteem is central to most personal and social ills plaguing our state and nation as we approach the end of the 20th century.” Mr. Finn disagrees with this premise whereas I am in concurrence. My problem with both the California task force and Mr. Finn lies in defining self-esteem. The task force confuses true self-esteem with a cockeyed notion of self-esteem based on group membership. The fact is that self-esteem based on such group (or sheep) mentality is antithetical to true self-esteem.

As Mr. Finn correctly points out, the “positive-thinking” brand of self-esteem practiced by the Norman Vincent Peales of this country is congruent with the basic values of individualism and self-determination that formed the basis of this nation. . . . Where Mr. Finn goes slightly awry is when he separates self-esteem from personal efficacy or sense of control over one’s life.

Self-esteem without a sense of personal efficacy is not self-esteem. . . . The concept of personal efficacy is what separates free-will philosophy from determinism. It is also what separates modern conservatives from modern liberals. Conservatives believe that the individual is responsible for his successes and failures. Liberals, on the other hand, blame everything and everyone (usually Ronald Reagan) except the individual for that individual’s lack of success. . . .

I agree with Mr. Finn that positive thinking is not pollyanna thinking. He is correct that reality is important. However, we must tread carefully with so-called reality, for today’s reality is often exploded tomorrow. It is not realistic for a 5′4″ man to play in the National Basketball Association: just ask Spud Webb. It is not realistic for a one-armed man to make it in baseball’s major leagues: just ask Jim Abbott. Science tells us that a bumblebee cannot possibly fly. I guess somebody forgot to tell the bumblebee that. . . .

Robert M. Unger
Great Neck, New York



To the Editor:

Chester E. Finn, Jr. raises an important point that should not be very surprising: “. . . a school system wanting to heighten the sense of personal efficacy among minority children will have to teach them well enough to raise their actual achievement.” What Mr. Finn does not say is that the federal government and other education policymakers have known this to be true since 1970 and have systematically ignored the evidence.

In 1967, Congress authorized “Follow Through,” designed to carry Head Start programs into the early elementary grades. The Follow Through program evolved into an experiment aimed at finding effective models for educating disadvantaged children. . . . The twelve models were divided into three broad categories according to their areas of primary emphasis: (1) Basic Skills—fundamental skills in reading, arithmetic, and language; (2) Cognitive-Conceptual—“learning to learn” and problem-solving skills; and (3) Affective Cognitive—development of self-concept and positive attitudes toward learning.

The results were collected by the Stanford Research Institute and analyzed by Abt Associates. Among their conclusions: while four of the twelve models produced positive results in terms of self-concept, only two of those four models produced positive results in terms of academic achievement. The two models were the basic-skills models. In other words, instruction that results in academic successes will lead to improved self-concept, but programs emphasizing self-concept do not lead to academic success, which is Mr. Finn’s point. In fact, some of the “self-esteem” models produced declines in academic achievement.

The Follow Through data have not influenced federal funding and research dollars significantly. In fact, the Office of Education has funded ineffective programs at higher levels than the effective and proven programs, almost suggesting that these policy-makers think academic achievement is not a valid criterion for funding decisions.

Nicholas T. Miller
Concord, Massachusetts



Chester E. Finn, Jr. writes:

I do not believe there is any real disagreement between Robert M. Unger and me, though his letter illustrates the difficulty of clear communication in the foggy domain of “self-esteem.” I had thought my article made precisely the distinctions Mr. Unger makes. Positive thinking is a fine thing, finer still when it is anchored to real achievement and fosters more of the same. A friend who wrote me privately about the article shared an apt passage from Jerome Bruner’s The Process of Education that I had not previously encountered: “Let us not confuse ourselves,” the eminent psychologist urged, “by failing to recognize that there are two kinds of self-confidence . . . one a trait of personality, and another that comes from knowledge of a subject. It is of no particular credit to the educator to help build the first without building the second. The objective of education is not the production of self-confident fools.”

Nicholas T. Miller offers a useful recapitulation of important findings from the “planned-variation” model of the Follow Through program, findings that lend further strength to the points I was making in my article. He also reminds me how glad I am not to be a federal official any longer. The Department of Education, alas, is not the only agency in Washington that from time to time has “funded ineffective programs at higher levels than the effective and proven programs.” The results of evaluation studies, for better and for worse, often end up mattering a great deal less than other factors when it comes to such policy and spending priorities.

Meanwhile, the great self-esteem engine chugs on. The First International Conference on Self-Esteem is reported to have taken place in Oslo this past summer and the Washington Times informs us that the California legislature has before it one bill to create a state self-esteem ombudsman and another to fund the National Council for Self-Esteem to serve as a clearinghouse for information after the state’s own self-esteem task force winds down. The question now, the Times wryly editorializes, is “whether Californians have enough self-esteem to announce they don’t need a government-funded self-esteem industry to lecture them about you-know-what.”

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