Self Esteem losing steam?
The recent memo purloined from Prince Charles made the accurate observation that ‘child-centred’ education, by encouraging false expectations and discouraging effort, seriously hampers the one who receives it. University teachers know this, since they have to deal with the products of an education which puts self-esteem before real achievement. Despite the plethora of As and Bs gained through dumbed-down examinations in dumbed-down subjects, young people tend to enter university without the skills required for real study. The likelihood that an incoming undergraduate can read a book or write an essay diminishes from year to year, and only the entrenched sentimentality of the educational establishment prevents it from acknowledging that the cause of this lies in the culture of self-esteem. The ruling principle of our educational system seems to be that children should be made to feel good about themselves. The curriculum should therefore be ‘relevant’ to their interests, and examinations should make no judgment of their linguistic or literary skills.
It makes perfect sense, of course. We are not created equal with regards to aptitudes, temperaments or aspirations. We can't all be corporate CEOs or astronauts. If you want to play a cruel mind game on a child, make him or her believe that there is no reason that he or she can't do anything. They will spend the rest of their lives in self recrimination over not having become a corporate CEO or an astronaut.
In an essay written over a century ago the philosopher F.H. Bradley reflected on ‘my station and its duties’, and said that the human being becomes what he truly is only by realising his freedom in society, and each act of self-realisation involves creating and adopting a social station. Whether you are rich or poor, smooth or rough, leisured or banausic, you become what you are through the circles of influence and affection that distinguish you. Unhappiness comes from being discontented with your station, while lacking the means to change it. And for all of us there comes a point when we settle in a social position which we have neither the power nor the will to change. It is from this sense of our social station that our duties emerge, Bradley argues. There is no single set of obligations, no ‘duty for duty’s sake’, that applies to all mankind. Each of us is encumbered by the duties of his station and happiness comes through fulfilling them. However humble your position, it comes to you marked with the distinction between right and wrong — a right way of occupying your station and a wrong way. Your duties may take the form of a professional ethic, of a specific role like that of doctor or teacher, of an office like that of prime minister. They might even take the onerous hereditary form of those imposed on Prince Charles as the Prince of Wales — duties which he takes extremely seriously.
If Bradley is right, then it is through the idea of duty that we come to feel content with our lot. The culture of self-esteem wants everybody to feel OK about themselves, regardless of merit. True self-esteem, however, comes through the sense of being right with others and deserving their esteem, which in turn depends upon fulfilling the duties of your station. The office cleaner who conscientiously does her job is rewarded with the friendship of the workers whom she benefits. It does not matter that her social position is a humble one; for by occupying it rightly she earns a place in society as honourable as any other. This is what George Herbert had in mind in those lines made famous by the Victorian hymn:
A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine:
Who sweep a room as for Thy laws
Makes that and th’ action fine.
It follows that a society can be hierarchically ordered without being oppressive. For every station has its duties, the performance of which is both an end in itself and a passport to social affection. And through education, ambition and hard work you can change your station, to arrive at the place that matches your achievements and which, through performing its duties, you possess as your own.