‘It was quasi-religious’: the great self-esteem con

Jun 3, 2017 by

In the 1980s, Californian politician John Vasconcellos set up a task force to promote high self-esteem as the answer to all social ills. But was his science based on a lie?

John Vasconcellos, father of the self-esteem movement
‘A cross between a rock star and a drug smuggler’: John Vasconcellos, father of the self-esteem movement. Photograph: Steve Yeater/AP

In 2014, a heartwarming letter sent to year 6 pupils at Barrowford primary school in Lancashire went viral. Handed out with their Key Stage 2 exam results, it reassured them: “These tests do not always assess all of what it is that make each of you special and unique… They do not know that your friends count on you to be there for them or that your laughter can brighten the dreariest day. They do not know that you write poetry or songs, play sports, wonder about the future, or that sometimes you take care of your little brother or sister.”

At Barrowford, people learned, teachers were discouraged from issuing punishments, defining a child as “naughty” and raising their voices. The school’s guiding philosophy, said headteacher Rachel Tomlinson, was that kids were to be treated with “unconditional positive regard”.

A little more than a year later, Barrowford found itself in the news again. Ofsted had given the school one of its lowest possible ratings, finding the quality of teaching and exam results inadequate. The school, their report said, “emphasised developing pupils’ emotional and social wellbeing more than the attainment of high standards”. Somehow, it seemed, the nurturing of self-esteem had not translated into higher achievement.

The flawed yet infectious notion that, in order to thrive, people need to be treated with unconditional positivity first gained traction in the late 80s. Since then, the self-esteem movement has helped transform the way we raise our children – prioritising their feelings of self-worth, telling them they are special and amazing, and cocooning them from everyday consequences.

One manifestation of this has been grade inflation. In 2012, the chief executive of British exams regulator Ofqual admitted the value of GCSEs and A-levels had been eroded by years of “persistent grade inflation”. In the US, between the late 60s and 2004, the proportion of first year university students claiming an A average in high school rose from 18% to 48%, despite the fact that SAT scores had actually fallen. None of this, says Keith Campbell, professor of psychology at the University of Georgia and expert on narcissism, serves our youngsters well. “Burning yourself on a stove is really useful in telling you where you stand,” he says, “but we live in a world of trophies for everyone. Fourteenth place ribbon. I am not making this stuff up. My daughter got one.”

Campbell, with his colleague Jean Twenge at San Diego State University, has argued that this kind of parenting and teaching has contributed to a measurable rise in narcissism: witness the selfie-snapping millennials. Although their findings are disputed, Twenge points to other research done in the US and beyond – “twenty-two studies or samples [that] show a generational increase in positive self-views, including narcissism, and only two [that] do not”.

How did we get here? To answer that, you have to go back to 1986 and the work of an eccentric and powerful California politician, John “Vasco” Vasconcellos. That year, the Democrat Vasconcellos managed to persuade a deeply sceptical Republican state governor to fund a three-year task force to explore the value of self-esteem. Vasco was convinced that low self-esteem was the source of a huge array of social issues, including unemployment, educational failure, child abuse, domestic violence, homelessness and gang warfare. He became convinced that raising the population’s self-esteem would act as a “social vaccine”, saving the state billions.

But Vasco’s plan backfired spectacularly, with the fallout lasting to this day. I spent a year trying to find out why – and discovered that there was, at the heart of his project, a lie.

Source: ‘It was quasi-religious’: the great self-esteem con | Life and style | The Guardian

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    published on my Facebook


    Can you believe Award Ribbons that say — YOU’RE THE BEST — YOU TRIED! — NEARLY MADE IT — YOU TURNED UP! Part of the “self esteem” movement.

    The Guardian, which Internet reveals as a left-wing UK publication, has produced an excerpt of a yet to be released book, SELFIE: How we became so self-obsessed and what it’s doing to us by Will Storr. Here are a few quotes from that article (but the whole article is well-worth the read): https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/jun/03/quasi-religious-great-self-esteem-con

    – “’It was quasi-religious’: the great self-esteem con”

    – “ . . . in order to thrive, people need to be treated with ‘unconditional positive regard’”

    – “. . . this kind of parenting and teaching has contributed to a measurable rise in narcissism”

    – “the fallout lasting to this day. I [Will Storr] spent a year trying to find out . . . discovered that there was, at the heart of this project, a lie.”

    [John Vasconcelios, a prominent California politician, initiated funding and support and commissioned a report, 1990] – “. . . ‘the association between self-esteem and its expected consequences are mixed, insignificant or absent’ . . . ‘it’s a bunch of scholarly gobbledegook’ . . . This was a radically different conclusion from that fed to the public”.

    – “ . . . the papers were reporting that self-esteem was ‘sweeping through California’s public schools’, with 86% of the state’s elementary school districts and 83% of high school districts implementing self-esteem programmes.”

    [ The book, Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us – 15 Jun 2017 ]

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