Sunday, November 28, 2004

Self Esteem losing steam?

Roger Scruton seems to think so, as he writes in an article for The Spectator:

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.

[...]

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.

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.

29 Comments:

Blogger Michael Herdegen said...

While it's true that few children will have the ability to do literally ANYTHING, it's also true that 80% (or so) of children have various abilities that could POTENTIALLY help them to rise to the top.

Look at our 20th century Presidents.
How many of them were a lock to be President ?

Between Teddy Roosevelt and the younger Bush, inclusive, there have been eighteen.
IMO, only six of them were seriously thought to be Presidential material long before running; the others nicely illustrate my theory that about 25 million Americans would make adequate Presidents, if they didn't have to win election.

Therefore, if we tell all American-born children that any of them could grow up to be President, we're only lying to about a third of them.

If we look at the elite in politics, visual entertainment, music, sports, or business, what we see is that to get to the top, three things are required: At least modest talent, perseverance, and luck.

Almost any given kid could meet those three requirements in SOME field.
Most people fall down on the second requirement, which is also the one most under personal control.

That might be what Bradley was getting at when commenting that all of us eventually settle in a station that we lack the power, OR the will, to change.

November 29, 2004 1:14 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

"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."

I dunno, that is a tough sell in North America. It's basically a derivative of class and feudalism. Since those in the upper stations have pretty much forgotten the duties downwards that went with the original idea, the whole argument boils down to a defence of privilege through psychobabble.

Scruton and the Prince missed the mark here. The connection with self-esteem is not with accepting a certain rung on the ladder but with leading an outward-looking life. If they had introduced the concept of vocation--the serving of others--it would have been more interesting.

The point can be illustrated by comparing the three words job, career and vocation. Those with jobs earn money in order to provide for other things--in many cases family. No grease monkey or store clerk ties up his/her sense of self-worth in the job. If he is single and lives only for himself, it is a mean life that will be forgotten quickly after he departs. If he has family, then that is his vocation--service-- and he looks to other things for contentment and to measure the value of his life.

Vocations--the military, holy orders, artists, some scientists, teachers and to a limited degree politics and the professions--incorporate a sense of duty that transcends self-interest. If that duty is taken seriously, the life may be fulfilling. (As an aside, I wonder how many people voted for Bush over Kerry because they sensed his superior sense of commitment and duty.)

Careers are self-focussed. If one puts career success above all else and sacrifices family and community to get to the top, one is risking a lot of misery and "what was it all worth?" musings at the end, irrespective of the degree of success. There are a lot of miserable, lonely people at the top.

So it isn't a question of being realistic about how far you can go in life, but how many other people you are doing it all for.

December 02, 2004 3:22 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Michael, I'd like to believe that the number of people who would make a good president is much smaller than 2/3rds of the population. Of course being a good president doesn't necessarily carry the same qualifications as what it takes to become president. Probably the biggest qualification is an overarching desire to hold power. People don't get to the top without it. Unfortunately, these are the kind of people that you have to be the most cautious of.

But being president is the most improbable vocation for anyone of any set of aptitiudes to aspire to.

December 02, 2004 5:32 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

"Scruton and the Prince missed the mark here. The connection with self-esteem is not with accepting a certain rung on the ladder but with leading an outward-looking life. If they had introduced the concept of vocation--the serving of others--it would have been more interesting."

Peter, I think that is a good way to put it. We don't class based language like "station" here, but I think he has an important point. The rung of the ladder is not as important as having the sense of satisfaction of having a good fit of aptitude, temperament and vocation. From my own experience, I've tried to aspire to the ladder climbing path, partly from a sense of needing to prove myself, partly from expectations I received from my father. I was in a management job from 2000 to 2003, and was pretty miserable in it. I managed to climb down a rung, and now I'm a "mere" software developer, or as they put it in our HR system, an "individual contributor". Of course I'm much happier writing code than I am sitting through endless management meetings or writing performance reviews. The example of a floor sweeper is an extreme, but a person is going to find more satisfaction, and will be appreciated more by society, for being a top-notch sweeper(or software developer, for that matter) than a sub-par middle manager or terrible president.

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