June 29, 2017

Feeling (too good) about ourselves

The junk science that became the self-esteem movement, by which a bit of common sense was turned into a politically-funded cult, is an old story with a few new cast members. Over half a century ago, Nobel Prize winner Irving Langmuir observed that scientists (and politicians) can trick themselves into

false results by a lack of understanding about what human beings can do to themselves in the way of being led astray by subjective effects, wishful thinking, or threshold interactions.

Recently in the Guardian, Will Storr took a closer look at California's [self-esteem] task force that spawned the whole crazy fad. He reports that the credibility of the of the nascent movement

turned largely on a single fact: that, in 1988, the esteemed professors of the University of California had analyzed the data and confirmed his hunch. The only problem was, they hadn't. When I tracked down one renegade task force member, he described what happened as "a lie."

The actual language used to describe the "lie" is considerably harsher. But it didn't matter. At the height of the self-esteem movement, the task force had "five publicists working full time" telling politicians (and Oprah) what they wanted to hear.

Tackling the subject in greater depth, Jesse Singal concludes in his recent New York magazine article,

Maybe the biggest problem here, whether one is discussing the waning self-esteem craze or the possibly burgeoning "grit" one, is the basic idea that some behavioral-science eureka moment will, on its own, do all or much of the work of solving big problems in education or the justice system or any other area rife with inequities.

As far as that goes, the self-esteem movement is one fad that never made it to Asia. As Lenora Chu points out,

"Self-esteem" doesn't exist in the Chinese lexicon, at least not in the way Americans use it. In China, a child's regard for herself is rarely as important as [are] stark evaluations of performance. Almost as if child-rearing were an Olympic sport, the Chinese rank children on everything from work ethic to Chinese character recognition and musical skill.

It's still common practice for Japanese high schools to rank students by test performance—and post the rankings in public. University entrance exam results are also posted in public, although using a numerical code known only to the student instead of a name.

In Japan, it all does come down to "grit," which has been at the core of Japanese education for a century. Known as gaman (noun, "patience, perseverance, self-denial") and ganbaru (verb, "to persist, to stand firm, to try one's best"), if you fail, it's because you didn't ganbaru enough.

As Singal notes, this sort of magical thinking can be just as problematic. But I think it is ultimately a lot more practical than the self-esteem approach. "Showing up (on time)" really is half the battle won.

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