Monday, October 19, 2009

Life in the American Fourth Grade: Self-Esteem and the Life Lesson

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By Barry Rubin

Daniel brought from his fourth-grade class the Classroom Guidance News which deals with the “Umbrella of Self-Confidence.” It begins:

“So often we see our children get discouraged and down on themselves when they encounter a negative experience in their lives such as trouble learning something new, getting laughed at, or being left out. As our children are growing up we cannot protect them from these negative experiences of the real world that are inevitable. However we can equip our children with the skills to handle these negative experiences.”

And so the teachers spoke about self-confidence, of “appreciating the things we are good at, acknowledging our positive qualities and characteristics, and being proud of the things we do well.”

I guess that all makes sense, as long as it is accompanied by a sense of competition, doing work of quality, and being self-critical, too.

My old friend Duane Carrell, who played professional football for the Dallas Cowboys, told me that after the team lost the first game he played in, Tom Landry, the Cowboys' legendary coach, consoled them by saying that one might not learn anything from winning but could learn a great deal from losing.

So the key is knowing you lost, admitting you lost, but figuring out how to win next time.

Duane's remark was prompted by my story about my son Daniel’s team losing 10 to 0 and then being told by the coach that they had played well. I asked Daniel what he thought about a very interesting question: If children don’t do well and are praised any way will that help their self-esteem or will they see through it and be cynical?

He answered well by giving me, in effect, the Landry response, even though he'd never heard it before: “If you aren’t told what you are doing wrong than how are you going to improve?”

All of this culminated on a Civil War battlefield. Yes, really. We were standing by a campfire on the battlefield of Cedar Creek, Virginia, during a reenactment by thousands of people dressed in period costumes. (If you’ve never seen this kind of event you definitely should do so.) One of the "officers," a teacher in real life I believe, who was explaining the military campaign asked Daniel if he knew the true story of the drummer boy of Shiloh.

He told it well and dramatically; I’m going to do so with the utmost brevity here. The boy was about eight years old when the war began, an orphan who was adopted by his town’s militia unit. When they were called into the Union Army they took him with them as a drummer boy. At the height of the battle, when he was about ten, he picked up the rifle of a dead soldier and began fighting, his example rallying the men around him. He was promoted to sergeant.

By the time of his own death, more than sixty years later, he had retired from the army as a major general, nationally known and honored.

And so, the reenactor finished the story, “If you work hard and know what you want to do there’s nothing you can’t achieve.”

I was moved by hearing the story, though I already knew it, and glad my son was hearing it in this manner. But there was some vague, nagging feeling in the back of my mind that I wasn’t supposed to feel this way. At any rate, kids now watch programs on all sorts of electronic media about teenagers who are wealthy having done nothing to earn it, of instant success, of blaming others for any failure.

On one hand, I’m sure you can hear that theme in a lot of stories, even those told to, and about, young people today. It struck me as something very basically American: the belief that there could be no limits to what any person could do. And one can certainly say that this has been extended nowadays to every gender, race, and religion. That is one more success for America.

And part of that is the extraordinary individualism of America. A UK-born colleague of mine, who often discusses with me those differences between--to use Winston Churchill's remark--two countries divided by a common language told me a story about an American friend who said he thought there should be no speed limits on roads because that was interference with individual rights.

Of course, the idea is silly and yet there's something admirable about a people ready to challenge the world on equal terms, asking no quarter, ready to stand on their own two feet, content with the contest's outcome win or lose.

Yet there was something that felt unfashionably old-fashioned about these sentiments, highlighted by the nineteenth-century clothes, tent, and camp-fire that formed the context of their telling. The idea of advancement through luck and pluck, self-reliance and hard work, has been ridiculed by a cynical age as the philosophy of the Horatio Alger story. There was no appeal to a government program to help orphans or something of the sort. Life was unfair, but isn't that always so even if the unfairness just gets moved around a bit?

One can imagine what the kind of person who'd be granted tenure in a university history department would say about this: false consciousness, game fixed, class society or, to use Bob Dylan's phrase, propaganda; all is phony.

Yet that much ridiculed approach built the freest, most democratic society the world has ever known, with highest living standards to boot.

At a certain point, that society had to be consolidated with government regulation and a tightening of legal rules. Yet still, it has been far more wide open than any country. You could say anything short of yelling fire in a crowded theatre. If you started out poorer or from a family that didn't even speak English then you just had to work harder. Perhaps getting there would take two generations.

And the poorer or more recently arrived hardly ever entertained revolutionary thoughts because they believed they could win, too, or at least preferred their individual right to decide over being handed a certificate of self-esteem and assurance that it was all society's fault. 

In today's America, to say the least, all those ideas and rules that led to success are now being reconsidered. The easiest way to put it is this: equality of opportunity--suitably extended beyond all previous limits by liberal reforms during the last two-thirds of the twentieth century--is judged to be insufficient. The demand now seems to be for equality of results in a society where the highest principle is not to be offended. And that, history has shown, is a formula for failure.

A brief digression here before the conclusion. We stayed at a charming tiny but definitely not luxurious inn. The bed and breakfast owner had been informed that we were basically kosher so he planned a delicious vegetarian breakfast for us, different from what the other guests were having. As he was cooking, though, he said very hospitably: "I hope you don't mind the smell of the bacon frying."

That, too, is America, isn't it? He, of course, was being most polite and kind in making a reasonable accomodation for us. And what was that accomodation? Providing an additional choice for us without narrowing the options of anyone else.

If we had not wanted to stay there we didn't need to do so. What were we going to do, ask him to change how everyone dined because we didn't want to share in it? How unthinkable it was for me to impinge on others' freedom in that way. Yet such things are being proposed, and even implemented, aren't they?

And then there’s the question of whether facing adversity and doing one's best without expectation of officially mandate success isn't the best way to establish self-esteem. For if adversity is removed, and competition or self-reliance subverted, might not self-esteem become hollow or even turn into an arrogant demand for entitlement? While if people are told that they--or the government in their names--have the right to tell others how to live, what to say, and narrow the permissible, their self-esteem becomes a prison for everyone else.

I don’t know. I’m just asking.

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