Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Has the Self-Esteem Movement Damaged a Generation?

The thought feels just a tad alarmist, but I don't see how you could not be alarmed by the findings reported by Don Peck in his great Atlantic Monthly article, "How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America." Link here.

The article is long, comprehensive, and well worth the most serious attention. But I am going to follow Dr. Helen Smith's lead and focus on the effects self-esteem programs have had on a generation of young people. Link to Dr. Helen's post here.

After all, the only way we are going to get ourselves out of the Great Recession is through hard work. And the young generation, its mind filled full of self-esteem, doesn't seem to know that there is even a job to be done.

As Peck put it, young people: "seem temperamentally unprepared for the circumstances in which they now find themselves."

Peck follows the research of Prof. Jean Twenge and points out that young people have an exalted view of their own merit and ability, that this view has never really been put to any meaningful test, and that therefore it has no real correlation with reality.

They have been told they are great, over and over, by teachers, parents, and the media. So much so that they believe it. They have not really had to do anything to receive these accolades, so they do not see the point in doing anything to maintain them... beyond an occasional exercise in self-congratulation.

They think that they are every bit as good as they think they are, because, didn't you know, thinking makes it so, ?As Peck reports, when these young people receive perfectly good job offers, they turn them down because they know they deserve better.

If the marketplace has not yet recognized how great they are, they need merely wait for the end of the recession and the advent of a New Age where their greatness will be recognized and rewarded.

For the moment they are unemployed and living with their parents.

If you detect the stale odor of idiotic ideas, you would be right. As Dr. Helen points out, this young generation has been exposed to a steady stream of: "PC feel good ideas as opposed to useful practical ones."

But given their enhanced self-esteem, I would also think that, more often than not, they have become immunized against the influence of useful, practical ideas. If they ran into a good idea, they would recognize it and would not know what to do with it.

And the worst part of it is, as Dr. Helen adds, with a full measure of irony: "People suffer from some of these idiotic ideas but at least they feel good about themselves while they do."

This is, effectively, what self-esteemism has wrought in a generation of American youth. It is the direct consequence of a therapy culture whose pernicious influence I have often been at pains to point out.

If you ban as many forms of childhood competition as you can because you do not want any child to feel the sting of failure, you are also ensuring that these children never experience the joy of success.

And if, as Dr. Helen remarks, these unemployed young people, a generation of slackers, still feel good about themselves, then they have also lost touch with their emotions.

Numbed to the judgment of reality this generation can no longer access its own pain and suffering. It remains stubbornly optimistic, soaking up the hopey-changey rhetoric, imagining that the world is going to come around.

Too many of them do not have to get up off the parental couch and they are not going to take an initiative to do so. If shame is the great motivating emotion, and if they have been deprived of their ability to feel it, then they will remain unmotivated.

As Peck points out, and as I have occasionally railed about, the young generation has lost any sense of a work ethic. It does not know that you have to work to succeed. You cannot just lie back on the parental couch and await the Messiah.

Still and all, casting such a harsh judgment on an entire generation feels slightly over the top. And, in fact, it is. But that does not make it inapposite.

Surely, we all know of children who are attending schools that have not succumbed to the idiocy of the self-esteem movement. These children have engaged in competition, have learned how to work hard, and have known both failure and success.

No one wants to belittle their achievement or the achievement of their teachers and parents.

Yet, if an increasingly larger part of our young people feels that their greatness does not need confirmation in the real world, the small number who go out and work, who get the job done, will eventually form an oligarchy of the wealthy and successful.

To me this does not feel like good news.

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