I’m in favor of self-esteem. It’s a good thing to have, if we judge from the depressed, defensive, or hostile behavior of people who don’t have enough of it. I’m also in favor of educational and parental efforts to increase children’s appreciation for their gender, race, or heritage. When I was a child, my parents were forever feeding me biographies of Great Women-Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth Blackwell, Susan B. Anthony, Marie Curie, Pocahontas-and I’m sure these books influenced my ambition, at 6, to be the world’s first woman bus driver.
Today, however, self-esteem is a mere shadow of its former self. Once, it referred to a fundamental sense of self-worth; today that meaning has narrowed into merely feeling good about oneself. Self-esteem used to rest on the daily acts of effort, care, and accomplishment that are the bedrock of character; now it rests on air, on being instead of doing. Healthy self-esteem used to fall between the equally unhealthy states of insecurity and narcissism; now it runs from “low” to “high,” with no recognition, in these greedy times, that some feel too good about themselves, for no good reason.
None of this would matter, except that the murky psychological concept of self-esteem has become a blueprint for educational reform. The new goal increasingly is to make children “feel better’ about their gender, race, or ethnicity.
In Detroit recently, a black teacher described the benefits of Afrocentric education for black boys. When they see a traffic light, he said, they should know it was invented by a black man, Garrett Morgan. Well, yes, they should. But what if the traffic light had been invented by a Chinese-Lithuanian immigrant woman? Does that mean that black boys cannot aspire to become inventors or traffic engineers?
The education historian Diane Ravitch refers to an interview she read with a talented black runner who models herself after Mikhail Baryshnikov. Baryshnikov is not black, female, a runner, or American-born, but he inspired this athlete because of his training and skill.
All students in American society, regardless of race, should learn about slavery, the civil rights movement, and the contributions of black men and women. And each student would do well to study the specific, truthful history of his or her own culture-its venal, stupid, and murderous contributions to the world drama as well as its noble, smart, and generous ones. But as Ms. Ravitch points out, “knowing about the travails and triumphs of one’s forebears does not necessarily translate into either self-esteem or personal accomplishment.”
In fact, self-esteem is not necessarily related to academic success.
Delinquent teenage boys have very high self-esteem; they feel they are heroes to their peers.
Black adolescent girls have higher self-esteem and confidence than white girls, but, to preserve this in a system they perceive is always putting them down, they are also more likely to drop out of school and reject white authorities. White girls show a depressingly large drop in self-esteem between childhood and high school, but many nonetheless go to college.
The psychologist Hazel Marcus at the University of Michigan argues that a more revealing sign of adolescents’ self-worth lies not in how good they feel about themselves but in what they can envision for themselves in the future. People are guided by these “possible selves” that help us imagine what we can become (for better and worse) and that motivate us to reach our ideals.
Possible selves are unrelated to self-esteem, but they are better predictors of behavior. Delinquent boys may have high self-esteem, but when asked to imagine their futures, most see themselves as being depressed, alone, addicted, or in jail.
So I propose a moratorium on self-esteem as a psychological concept and as an educational blueprint. Parents and educators would do better to focus on helping children achieve competence, perseverance, and optimism the real contents of self-worth. They would do better to help children discover or invent their own visions of what they can become even if no one of their gender, race, or culture has ever done it before. True self-esteem will follow.
A version of this article appeared in the October 16, 1991 edition of Education Week as Chasing Self-Esteem’s Shadow