Self-esteem and Reality

The most startling result in a recent BBC report on “self-esteem” among U.S. college freshmen is that in the last fifty years the proportion of those who think of themselves as “gifted” at writing has increased by half, from 30% to over 45%. This amazing self-estimation coincides with an average SAT I writing score of 488, down slightly over the last six years and undistinguished at any time, particularly in a test that appears to reward length and ignore errors. And other tests can confirm that this groundswell of self-esteem is groundless.

I have been teaching for half those fifty years, and while I have had a number of students who wrote well, I would say that only two of them had outstanding talents for writing. One of them, a West African girl, had lived in the U.S. for a number of years but returned to Africa. The other, a Syrian boy, was fourteen going on fifty. Actually, so was the West African girl, now that I think about it. They were both extraordinarily aware of themselves and of others, having a powerful imagination harnessed to a strong, verifiable sense of reality. They also had a flawless ear.

Unlike Dede and Susu, the students reported on in the BBC article seemed to have a rather weak sense of reality. Jean Twenge, the US psychologist featured in the report, claims that “[w]hat’s really become prevalent over the last two decades is the idea that being highly self-confident—loving yourself, believing in yourself—is the key to success. Now the interesting thing about that belief is it’s widely held, it’s very deeply held, and it’s also untrue.” Another psychologist, Roy Baumeister of Florida State University, notes that while there is often a correlation between high self-esteem and success, he was unable to say which way the causation ran: was it that self-esteem caused success or the other way around?

It may be Baumeister’s scientific duty to be unsure, but my sense of human nature and of the nature of students tells me that success causes self-esteem. Further, a sense of success in accord with reality means achievement at particular things or kinds of thing. And it means genuine success, not the sort of fakery associated with, say, certain writing tests that “certify” bad compositions as good.

The problem with empty or fruitless self-esteem may be that it has no such connection to testable reality and is based on airy claims. Harry Frankfurt in his book On Bullshit investigates the proliferation of BS and thinks that it may be partly due to a retreat from the belief in standards of truth, rightness, and quality to refuge in a kind of sincerity in which personal claims are privileged against testing and questions. The problem with this refuge is that it is preposterous: “As conscious beings we exist only in response to other things, and we cannot know ourselves at all without knowing them.” What is more, “[f]acts about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution” and “[o]ur natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial.” One can only conclude, he says, that “insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit”—as is self-esteem, when based on privileged and untested claims.

What the young people being surveyed should be receiving is not indoctrination in baloney. They should instead be receiving instruction in how to do real things, success at which can lead them to esteem themselves in accordance with a strong, verifiable sense of reality. If they are not as gifted at writing as Dede and Susu, we may still get them to write as well as they can and to recognize their accomplishment realistically. Then, unlike Ben, who can’t tie his shoes but is aiming for Brown, they will judge themselves and their prospects accurately and justly.

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