Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Self Esteem, sure, but at what cost?

     The data in this mornings blog is pulled from the several articles and dissections of the College Freshman Survey.  This survey has been taken by over 9 million American College Freshman since it started in 1966 and asks a variety of basic skill questions meant as a self appraisal of each student.  The data is then frequently compared to the objective test scores of the same Freshman class and the disparity between the two has been widening now for decades. 

     "Angel", I inquired, "Did you see this BBC article about the College Freshman Survey?"   "No, Mr. B, I just watch CBS", she replied, filing her nails on my divan.  (Oh, I forgot to introduce a new character to the
Freshman class
blog, Angel is my new college intern.  She's a junior at a local university studying communications and will be working with me for this semester via an unpaid internship).  "Angel, you don't abbreviate the person's first name when you do that" I explain again, "It's Bill or Mr. Y, but the article is pretty interesting and it's about your peers at college and how they think they are better than they actually are"  She ponders and says "Oooh, is it about Megan? She's like that and she's not a Valedictorian like me"  I sigh and say "No, it's not about Megan, it's about how the Freshman classes over the last decade have increasingly rated themselves as above average in many areas like self confidence, academic and mathematics ability, and the drive to achieve, but how the objective test scores are proving
that they aren't nearly as good as they think and in fact are working and studying less than the prior classes, Wait, you were the Valedictorian?"   "Sure, Mr. B", she says, snapping her gum, but turning slightly blue while forgetting to breathe, "My whole class was, we were all above average that year, and very smart too... Are we almost done today, my head hurts from all this thinking?".  For once my intern and I are on the same page, my head hurts too, and we've only been working for an hour.  I shouldn't be surprised though, when I was in college in the 80's, half of the students surveyed said they studied for 6 or more hours each week and now that figure is a little more than 1/3.  The more startlingly fact is that the successive classes have each rated themselves as having a higher drive to succeed in spite of spending significantly less time actually studying or working to achieve their goals.  Why the disconnect?

     One theory puts the blame solely on the backs of the "Self Esteem" movement that had been prevalent in
both public education and parenting since the 1990's.  This is one of the first Freshman classes that likely were raised entirely in this environment, and is it coincidence that this class thinks higher of itself than any other freshman class in the last 47 years, but with less reason ever to do so?  Of course not, that was our goal, wasn't it?  The theory correlated that high self esteem would lead to high success because the traits were tied together, the majority of high achievers, did have high self esteem.  Too quickly discounted, however, was the fact that these high achievers had earned their high self esteem by outpacing their peers, by working harder, studying more, and being more intelligent and innovative than their peers.  The "Self Esteem" movement simply sought to give every child a high sense of self worth, and hoped it would lead to high success.  It didn't, it led to a generation of kids who hadn't earned their high self esteem, they simply were given it, making them narcissistic in the process and it fact the survey show a 30% tilt in that direction since 1979.   "Angel ?" I inquire again, somewhat reluctantly as she sits with a deer in the headlights look perusing an upside down magazine, "Were you an athlete in your high school?"   "Sure", she beams, "I was an award winning member of our swim team".  Impressed, I press further, "What was your best swimming event, Angel?"  "All of them", she states, "but I didn't like to get my hair wet so I didn't have to get in the pool at all, I just got the award for participating with the team, plus I looked great in my swimsuit!"  Once again my intern and I agree on something, I've seen her during our office's casual Fridays and she does look great in her swimsuit. 

     To be clear, I'm not blaming the public education system solely for the spot that we are in.  Parenting styles, social media, and celebrity culture are equally to blame and more time is likely spent in these forums than in school.  Do our pop culture heroes exhibit the traits that would be ideal for likely success in the new world order?  Hardly.  Lindsay Lohan, Kate Upton, Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds and even, shudder, Honey Boo-Boo?  We are bombarded with examples of people who neither worked hard, nor played fair to get to their levels of success, but yet have "succeeded", but devoid are the stories of the hard working, industrious and studious types.   Can you name last year's American Idol winner?  How about last year's National Spelling Bee champ?  Do you get my point?  Incidentally the top 3 finishers were Snigdha Nandipati, Stuti Mishra, and Arvind Mahnkali.  Is it any wonder why our kids don't relate hard work and effort to eventual success?  I'd ask Angel's opinion on this but my head still hurts from explaining the difference between Stretch Armstrong and Lance Armstrong to her yesterday.  Society propagates the myth that we don't need to work hard to be successful or at least appear successful.  We gave loans for homes for people that didn't have the income to support them, we give easy credit to college students and to new workers, and encourage them to spend what they make, and more.  When my wife and I were first married, we got our furniture from thrift stores and garage sales, not on credit or from a department store.  We bought what we could afford and no more.  When's the last time you walked into a young person's house and saw examples of this kind of thrift?  Yeah, me neither and it's sad.  So what to do?

     I've got no easy answers except to going back to the way we were raised.  Enforce the values of hard work, effort, humility, charity, and thrift in your homes and with the youth that you influence.  The adults too, for that matter.  It's never too late to change and unfortunately this Freshman class has a rude awakening coming when they enter the real world and they don't succeed in spite of their feelings that they are head and shoulders above their peers. Could this be part of the reason for the increased instances of depression in young adults?  Sure.  Reward real effort and achievement, not participation.  Stop celebrating celebrity in your homes.  These are hard changes but ultimately worth it.  I'd ask Angel her opinion again, but she's napping now and she's so cute when she's sleeping. 

Angel, sleeping.




Anonymous said...

Bravo, Add how to measure GREAT
Gifted=God-given exceptional talent or intelligence
Rights= Responsibility & Respect
Effort=Eventuate(to happen as a final result)
Awesome=So impressive as to inspire a strong feeling of admiration

Brother Mike said...

You deserve a Nobel Peace Prize for the effort you put into this blog. Why not? I hear they are giving them to just about everyone. I especially liked the line,"explaining the difference between Stretch Armstrong and Lance Armstrong".