In 1986, the State of California funded a “Task Force on Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility” with an annual budget of $245,000. Its main backer, a California State Assemblyman, claimed that raising self-esteem would reduce crime and delinquency, decrease teen pregnancy and underachievement, lower drug abuse and crime, cut pollution, and even help balance the state’s budget because people with high self-esteem would earn more money and thus pay higher taxes. The program failed and was terminated in 1995, by which time the whole thing had become a joke. None of the hoped-for outcomes was attained.1
What went wrong? Leaving aside the fact that the government has no business creating programs to promote self-esteem, the essential problem was that the task force, in company with most people, had wrong ideas about the nature and causes of self-esteem.These wrong views have been spread most directly by educators and their psychologist mentors. In this article, I will identify the false and damaging views of self-esteem held by those in the educational establishment and by the psychologists who influence them, show how these views undermine both academic achievement and the acquisition of real self-esteem, present the correct view of self-esteem, and reveal the ultimate destroyer of self-esteem: modern philosophy.
Self-esteem is recognized at some level, even by those who fail to understand its actual nature, as a critical psychological need. It is generally viewed as “feeling good about yourself.” This is superficially true: Self-esteem is a positive subconscious estimate of oneself. More accurately, however, self-esteem is the conviction that one is fundamentally worthy of success and capable of dealing with life’s challenges. Self-esteem is not a causeless feeling or appraisal. It has to be earned by means of specific actions, especially mental actions, but most people have never been taught what these actions consist of. Consider the field of education.
The conventional view of the educational establishment is that self-esteem does not have to be earned but rather is promoted simply by doing things to make students feel positive emotions or avoid negative ones. Education professor Maureen Stout calls this approach “feel-good education.”2 Feel-good education involves: lowering or removing educational standards (including the idea that students should form any rational standards of their own), making the teacher’s role passive, letting the students do what they want without fear of being evaluated or punished, making heavy use of social approval, making students work in groups, and prohibiting students from making value judgments. Consider, for example, Dr. John Gust’s self-esteem resource book for grades K–4. Here are some of the ways that he recommends for raising students’ self-esteem: Give praise (it does not matter for what); build a sense of group belonging, identity, and acceptance; tell students to praise themselves (for any reason they can muster) and love themselves as they are; tell them to smile and to know their cultural identity; and promote “competence” by means of reading fantasy stories, such as books by Dr. Seuss.3
Some schools are adopting rules that force children to play with kids they do not like, if the disliked children ask them to play, so as to prevent feelings of low self-esteem due to rejection. When communicating, children may be required to begin their sentences with “I feel” rather than with some claim of fact such as “You are a thief.”4 In class, students may be required to work in groups composed of children differing widely in ability. Academic “loners,” those who prefer to work alone and do not have numerous friends, are assumed to be mentally unhealthy regardless of the reasons for their preference or lack of friends. Students in groups learn to be “tolerant of diverse viewpoints” (the nature of those viewpoints notwithstanding), build up each other’s self-images, and seek social support.
In some classes, the more-able students are required to teach the less-able ones, thus arresting their own academic progress, so that the less able will allegedly not feel less able. Studies of the effects of these peer-teaching programs have shown them to be a failure. They do not improve educational achievement or self-esteem. Further, the advanced students resent having to help the less-able students rather than learning themselves, and the less-able students may be depressed by always having to be coached by others.5 This failure does not faze its educator-proponents who claim that the fault lies not in the concept of group work but with the students and society who did not appreciate its true benefits.
The “feel good” system involves not only a lack of standards and collectivism but also patently bad pedagogy, such as the “whole-word” method of teaching reading. The whole-word method is often preferred by teachers, because it is allegedly more fun for students to try to guess word meanings and pronunciations than it is for them to go through phonics drills. Drilling on phonics skills is discouraged, because it might bore the students. The whole-word method has been proven in numerous studies to significantly retard reading ability in comparison to using the phonics approach, which breaks the language down into its basic sound units or phonemes. (The whole-word method has been widely used in the U.S. for decades, although in recent years some educators and parents have been demanding a return to phonics.)
The abandonment of phonics has naturally been accompanied by a de-emphasis on reading itself, as well as on spelling, grammar, writing, and the active role of the teacher. Reading, in many schools, is often replaced by dioramas and posters (called the “cardboard curriculum”). Teachers are encouraged not to correct too many errors in students’ work because it might make them feel bad and thus undermine their self-esteem. Instead, students are urged to use “creative” spelling and punctuation based on their personal whims. In math, teachers are told to inform students that 2+2=5 is not necessarily wrong but rather is not accepted by the society in which they happen to live.6
Classrooms have become more “student centered” and less “teacher centered,” meaning that children often can do anything they want. The new role of the teacher is to be the students’ friend and to make them feel good about themselves. The ideal classroom is described not as a learning center but as a womb.7 (Observe that in the womb the fetus is not conscious of reality.)
Another aspect of the trend to make students “feel good” is an emphasis on egalitarianism: No one should feel inferior to anyone else. It is claimed, for example, based on the writings of Harvard Education Professor Howard Gardner, that there are “multiple intelligences” and that every imaginable skill is a type of intelligence, thus implying that, in some way, everyone is equally intelligent.8 Some educators even argue that students should not be forced to take objective tests to measure their competence, because some might do poorly or fail and thus feel bad about themselves. Since it is virtually self-evident that students do differ in academic ability, the only possible motive here is to eliminate distinctions between students by denying real differences.
Another way to deny differences in intellect is through grade inflation, which is rampant in American schools and colleges. In line with this egalitarian trend, some schools have even eliminated the title of valedictorian because it singles out one student as superior to the others. Other schools have solved this “problem” by having multiple valedictorians—as many as twenty-five—so that the honor becomes almost meaningless.9
Egalitarianism is also the key element in the teaching of multiculturalism, the doctrine that all cultures are morally equal and that none can be judged morally better or worse than any other. This view has become a dogma of the educational establishment, all the way from kindergarten to graduate school.
Much of this mayhem was caused by the theories of pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, who has had enormous influence on American education. Dewey denied the concepts of objective reality, permanent truth, even logic, claiming there are many “logics” which change in response to human needs.10 Reality, according to Dewey, is “indeterminate”; “its constituents do not hang together” but are “transformed” into a “unified whole” only by subjective “experience” or “inquiry.”11 According to pragmatism, reality is not an absolute that must be recognized, accepted, understood, conformed to. Rather, it is whatever people decide it to be—whatever “works” or makes them “feel better” by way of “experience.”
The acceptance of Dewey’s theories has led to classrooms in which free activity reigns and students learn randomly from “experience,” not via guidance from teachers. Dewey had no original ethical philosophy; but, by default to the standards of his time, he supported altruism (the idea that being moral consists in sacrificing oneself to others) and collectivism (the view that the group, not the individual, is the unit of value)—which reinforced the promotion of social consensus and group conformity in schools.
Maureen Stout, a professor of education, summarizes the resulting premises of the educational establishment as follows. Student self-esteem is damaged by: high expectations, all forms of evaluation (e.g., grading and testing), being graded (if they are graded) on performance rather than effort, competition, discipline, not being able to act on their desires, and not being promoted to the next grade even if they failed the current one. In short, modern education has become dominated by what Professor Stout calls “emotivism”: “How I feel” has replaced “how I think.”12 Teachers are no longer to teach; they are to become, in effect, therapists.
The consequences of “feel-good” education in the U.S. are well known. In virtually every international comparison in which equivalent tests of verbal and mathematical competence are given, American students come out near the bottom in comparison to other Western and developed Asian countries.13 A nationwide study of 7,000 children found that educational models focusing on self-esteem result in the lowest academic scores of any model evaluated.14 In short, our students may feel good about themselves, but they are largely ignorant. Any self-esteem that they may claim to feel, as a consequence of their feel-good education, is illusory.
Whereas Dewey influenced education by way of bad philosophical theory, others have influenced it via bad psychological theories.
Consider first the views of the late, world-famous, and very influential psychologist, Carl Rogers, on education. Rogers was against teaching: “[A]nything that can be taught to another is relatively inconsequential. . . . the outcomes of teaching are either unimportant or hurtful. . . . we [should] do away with teaching. . . . examinations. . . . grades. . . . degrees.”15 What should a so-called educator do instead? Praise the learners “feelings [and] opinions,”16 show empathic understanding, and let students do all their learning on their own. According to Rogers, teachers should let students do whatever they feel like doing. He thought that the value of the acquisition of knowledge is overrated, and that man is inherently too fact oriented. He argued that, rather than being taught facts, students should be placed in educational encounter groups, so that, through cooperative endeavor and social acceptance, they will become “self-actualized” (a never-clearly-defined concept that Rogers got from another psychologist, Abraham Maslow17).
Even Freud has had an influence on education. To quote Martin Gross, “Dr. Sigmund Freud has invaded the school house. . . . many schools operate in much the same way as psychological clinics.” The focus is not on the child’s skills but on his “feelings, attitudes, emotions . . . beliefs.”18
Now consider the influence of psychologists on educators’ concepts of self-esteem. Psychologists have championed two different, though related, views of self-esteem—both of which are false. One holds that a person should be non-judgmental toward himself (and others) and that self-esteem should not have to be based on self-judgment. The other calls for providing a person with self-esteem by giving him approval and praise—which need not be based on any objective criteria. Let us begin with the non-judgmental approach.
The most well-known psychologist champion of the non-judgmentalmessage has been Albert Ellis. Ellis understood that people sometimes judge themselves by irrational standards and thereby undermine their self-esteem. The rational response to such a discovery, of course, would be to explain to clients why certain standards are irrational and to help them substitute rational standards in their place. Ellis’s approach, however, is quite different. He advocates totally eliminating all standards of moral self-judgment. To quote Ellis, “[the concept of] self-esteem is the greatest sickness known to man or woman because it’s conditional”19—meaning, it has to be earned and requires self-judgment: judgment of who one is and what one does. Ellis, in effect, reverses Ayn Rand’s dictum, “Never fail to pronounce a moral judgment” to: Never pronounce a moral judgment.
Ellis’s prescription to eliminate moral judgments of the self is actually impossible to practice, because self-judgment is a psychological need. One’s subconscious automatically makes judgments of oneself (and of the outside world) based on one’s subconscious value premises, whether one chooses to be consciously aware of them or not. Everyone, of necessity, has some sort of moral code even if, as is often the case, it is a contradictory mish-mash of bromides, half-digested concepts, arbitrary preferences, the assertions of others, and the shifting norms of pop culture. The closest one could come to achieving Ellis’s non-judgmental state of nirvana is to consciously attempt to destroy one’s entire value system—to become a valueless blank. Because one is faced with the need to make choices and take actions in order to live, Ellis’s advice is impossible to follow fully; but, to the extent that one does follow it, one will achieve a state of living death.
The second view of self-esteem promoted by psychologists is that it comes from the approval of others. This view is most closely associated with the aforementioned theories of Carl Rogers. Rogers argues that the need for self-esteem is fulfilled when others provide one with unconditional positive regard—love and respect no matter what one thinks, says, or does.20
The view that self-esteem comes from the approval of others is held by many psychologists, and by most members of the public, as a virtual axiom. This view has a certain degree of plausibility in relation to infants and children. If children are treated badly (i.e., irrationally, coldly, abusively) by their parents, most will suffer from it because, at a young age, they do not have the cognitive capacity to grasp that the problem lies with their parents and not with themselves. Thus they may falsely conclude subconsciously that they are unworthy or incompetent. By the time they grow up and develop the capacity to see the flaws in their parents, false conclusions about themselves may already be automatized. It can be an extremely difficult process to replace those conclusions with valid conclusions. Furthermore, infants and young children are too young to have formed their basic moral character, so loving them cannot, at that age, be based on what they have made of themselves.
But it is not the case that loving a person is sufficient to give him self-esteem. Self-esteem is not something that can be given, like an overcoat or a candy bar; it has to be earned. Being loved by one’s parents is important. It makes life far more pleasant and far less painful than being unloved. It makes the world seem like a sane and benevolent place. It helps one conclude that other people can be trustworthy and a source of pleasure. It is a partial antidote to developing wrong conclusions about oneself, others, and the world. But it is only a foundation. Love alone does not make one ready to face the world and take control of one’s life. More precisely, it does not give one the tools needed for living. Parental love is still only an evaluation made by someone else.
Further, parents can love their children for the wrong reasons, which can even undermine self-esteem. Consider the kind of parents who want their children to be “popular.” Being popular in school typically involves such actions as striving to please others and being everyone’s friend, being “in” with the “right” crowd, not having strong opinions or values of one’s own, and, in some cases, hiding the fact that one is intelligent. Kids who seek their parents’ approval by seeking peer approval are at risk of never developing a real sense of self at all. Being loved is a wonderful experience if it comes from rational people and for life-serving attributes; however, to establish or preserve one’s self-esteem, one must gain and keep it by means of one’s own judgment, based on rational standards. Trying to attain or maintain self-esteem in any other way yields only pseudo-self-esteem.
The late Eric Fromm, a very popular, religious, socialist, psychoanalyst, preached his own variant of the social theory of self-esteem. He believed that all human beings are terror-stricken by the fact of separation from others. (This claim is best interpreted as a psychological confession.) This separation, according to Fromm, is a source of shame, guilt, and anxiety, and can be repaired only through love or union with another. Love, on Fromm’s view, is not an emotion but an act of commitment. And he was not too particular about whom one committed oneself to. He wrote that since “In essence all human beings are identical. . . . it should not make any difference whom we love.”21 In other words, as long as we can hold on to somebody, anybody, we will feel good about ourselves.
Fromm condemned self-love, which he falsely equated with narcissism. Real “self-love” is attainable and good, according to Fromm, only if it is unselfish. Fromm was opposed to what he called “capitalistic” love—meaning: love that has to be earned.
Observe that the above two approaches to self-esteem, in the end, are not fundamentally different. The non-evaluation camp says you should get self-esteem without having to meet any standards. The social-approval camp agrees but adds that, therefore, people should give you indiscriminate approval.
Educators today use both approaches to build so-called self-esteem in students; they avoid, discourage, or prohibit objective evaluation of students, and they heap unearned praise on them. The necessary consequence is students who are incapable of judging themselves or others, and who are bereft of real self-esteem.
The assault on self-esteem is at root an assault on evaluation as such. Evaluation requires two things: a) observing facts, including differences between the objects, people, or actions observed, and b) appraising them by reference to a standard of value. Modern educators, prompted by psychologists, have not yet gotten to the point of openly calling for people to disregard all facts, though they have made considerable progress here (e.g., pretending that people do not differ in their abilities). But they have made formidable progress in discouraging their students from making value-judgments, and those who will not make value-judgments cannot achieve or maintain self-esteem.
Let me stress that there are many good teachers, and even whole schools today, that are not guilty of “feel-good” educational practices; there are teachers and schools that embrace objective and even demanding educational standards. What I have been discussing are the general trends in modern education, especially as fostered by schools of education; and while these trends are not undermining the self-esteem of every student, they are undermining the self-esteem of many.
Far from instilling self-esteem in children, many modern educators and psychologists thwart children’s very ability to gain it. This is because their premises and teaching methods ignore the source and cause of self-esteem. Self-esteem is, as Ayn Rand defined it, man’s “inviolate certainty that his mind is competent to think and his person is worthy of happiness, which means: is worthy of living.”22 The fundamental cause of self-esteem is “reliance on one’s power to think.”23 The issue of self-esteem arises because man is a conceptual being whose consciousness is volitional. His mind is his main means of survival, and he needs the conviction that he will use it and use it properly to make choices and guide actions.
As Ayn Rand observes:
By a feeling he has not learned to identify, but has derived from his first awareness of existence, from his discovery that he has to make choices, man knows that his desperate need of self-esteem is a matter of life or death. As a being of volitional consciousness, he knows that he must know his own value in order to maintain his own life.24
Ayn Rand adds that man can properly start with the assumption that he is worthy of self-value but that he must then proceed to earn it through the moral choices that he makes.25 Observe two key features of her argument: First, man starts with the assumption that he is, in principle, a value (note that this is the opposite of the doctrine of Original Sin). This premise is something that loving parents can help a child to grasp. Second, he must sustain this appraisal within his own soul based on the actual choices he makes—which means he has to actually do something. He has to make a conscious, rational effort, “and that effort has to be exercised continuously throughout his life—in general, as a basic conviction, and specifically, as applied to each concrete instance, moment, event, or action of his life.”26
In short, self-esteem is an achievement of the mind, specifically, of how one uses it. It is not achieved by refusing to make evaluations but by making them. It does not come about by getting the approval of others but by gaining one’s own approval by means of one’s own rational choices. It is not a matter of feeling good without cause, but of making oneself fit to live in the real world—which is the foundation for feeling genuinely good about anything.
If man lives rationally, he does not need to and should not make choices or take actions for the explicit purpose of building self-esteem; his self-esteem will simply develop as a consequence of his being rational and achieving goals. Taking actions just to build self-esteem would be artificial and would divorce self-esteem from living. Suppose, for instance, that a very shy man would like to get a date, but he is afraid of rejection. He should not tell himself: “Well, if I give in to fear, it will lower my self-esteem, so I had better try.” Such an approach is backwards. The reason to get a date is the pleasure he can get from another person’s company, the skills he may acquire even if the relationship does not develop or last, and the romance that may blossom from the relationship. By giving in to fear, he is depriving himself of an important value, an important source of pleasure and happiness. If he acts (maybe with the help of counseling) to overcome his shyness, he will simultaneously lead a happier life and gain self-esteem.
What, then, is the relation between self-esteem and various life outcomes?
I will make three basic points here. First, self-esteem is the foundation for happiness. A person who feels unworthy and inefficacious cannot be genuinely happy. I use the term foundation because self-esteem is not a guarantee of happiness. To be fully happy one has to achieve values in the real world. If one’s spouse and only child die in an accident (for which one has no responsibility) and one’s business fails through no fault of one’s own, then one will not be, at that point, happy even if one’s self-esteem is high. Although one may be heartbroken and depressed, however, if one does have high self-esteem, one will not feel that one is a fundamentally bad person, and one will have the confidence to take actions to rebuild one’s life. In contrast, if one has low self-esteem, even having a family and a successful business will not bring full pleasure, because one will feel unworthy of what one has, unsure that one has earned it, and uncertain that one can sustain it.
Second, self-esteem motivates (though does not determine) productive action. People who are riddled with self-doubt will be motivated by fear; they will want to avoid actions and situations that entail risks, even though these could be beneficial to them. For example, a job-holder with low self-esteem may be unassertive in his work activities, may fear to speak up in meetings even though he has good ideas to offer, may become paralyzed by errors and criticisms, may fear positions of responsibility, may be reluctant to take steps to improve his job skills, and may spend much of his time trying to gain approval and recognition rather than doing his work. All this could undermine job success in relation to what is possible given his abilities. (It must be stressed that one does not have to give into fear and self-doubt just because one feels it. One can choose to act against the fear based on one’s best judgment.)
In contrast to an employee with low self-esteem, an employee with high self-esteem will view his job as a challenge rather than a threat, will feel confident about speaking his mind when appropriate, will relish undertaking new projects and moving ahead in the organization, and will not need constant “stroking” to temporarily relieve self-doubts.
What, then, is the relationship between self-esteem and productive action? If there are no prior, unresolved self-doubts, productive action based on one’s rational thinking will enhance self-esteem, provided that one is measuring achievement in terms of rational, contextual standards. This, in turn, will encourage further productive action. Thus the relationship between self-esteem and productive action is reciprocal.
Third, self-esteem benefits personal relationships, including romance. A person with low self-esteem will fear other people, will consider himself unworthy of receiving love, may become defensive in the face of valid criticisms, will be hesitant to initiate relationships, and may compulsively lean on others to prop up his low opinion of himself. A person with high self-esteem, however, will assume he is worthy of being loved and will be open and confident in his relationships.
The opposite of self-esteem is self-doubt or self-contempt, which is a consequence of not relying on one’s power to think, of not making rational efforts to deal with reality, of defaulting on this responsibility. Since self-esteem is a profound psychological need, the feeling of low or zero self-esteem is a virtually unbearable mental state. Thus a person who lacks self-esteem must, in some way, gain the illusion of having it. If he does not face up to his problem and begin to pursue the requisite values, then, in order to escape the feeling of self-contempt, writes Ayn Rand, “he will fake, evade, blank-out; he will cheat himself of reality, of existence, of happiness, of mind; and he will ultimately cheat himself of self-esteem by struggling to preserve its illusion rather than to risk discovering its lack.”27
How do people defend against the lack of real self-esteem? One way is by the use of psychological defense mechanisms. Defense mechanisms are mental processes that forbid painful or threatening thoughts from entering into awareness or that deliberately push unwanted but relevant thoughts out of awareness. A form of this is repression. Say, for example, that one hates one’s mother—and for good reason—but believes that it would be a sin to feel such an emotion toward a parent. Through repression, the emotion of hate is automatically prevented from entering awareness in order to protect the illusion that one is a good person for obeying conventional values.
A second type of defense mechanism is that of evasion. Suppose one is in a conversation in which something one said is proven to be wrong. Rather than acknowledging one’s mistake, one shoves the unpleasant facts out of awareness and changes the subject or denies the facts based on some rationalization.
A third type of defense is the use of defense values.28 A defense value is a personal attribute or aspiration that one uses to gain the illusion of self-esteem. The value itself may be irrational (e.g., the approval of others, sexual conquest, the ability to manipulate people, power-seeking), or it may be a legitimate value that one holds in a distorted way (e.g., intelligence). A person who holds intelligence as a defense value may, for example, seek compulsively to prove to others that he is smart, react with anger or anxiety if he meets someone who seems to be smarter than he is, avoid situations where his intellectual superiority might be threatened, boast of his genius, and/or scorn those who are less intelligent than he is. Defense values are not always held in the form of actual traits that one possesses; they may also be held in the form of aspirations—aspirations which one has no capacity to achieve and/or takes no action to achieve (e.g., becoming a great novelist, businessman, or singer). Defense values are held in a kind of desperate, compulsive manner, as though they were a matter of life or death—which, in a perverse way, they are, considering that they are used as a substitute for real self-esteem. Achieving defense values temporarily lowers anxiety but does not lead to happiness.
A fourth type of defense is what I call defensive actions. An example is substance abuse, such as alcoholism or illicit drug use. The motive for substance abuse is the desire to wipe out pain, or to gain the illusion of pleasure, without taking any action in the real world to change the conditions that are causing one’s misery or to achieve real pleasure.
Fifth, there are character disorders that may function as sources of defense. Consider, for example, narcissism which entails symptoms such as delusions of grandeur, the need for constant attention, exhibitionism, fantasies of unrealistic success, envy of others, feelings of entitlement to the unearned, lack of empathy, exploitativeness, and hypersensitivity to criticism. It is obvious that, with the exception of envy and hypersensitivity, these symptoms serve as a defense against low self-esteem (envy and hypersensitivity being symptoms of it). Narcissists, as is well known, have “fragile” self-esteem, which is why they desperately seek to be reassured of their worth.
In The Feel-Good Curriculum, Professor Stout correctly argues that what the “feel-good” movement in education has achieved psychologically is not real self-esteem but narcissism.29 Its victims have been taught to hold delusions about their competence and to seek the approval of others.
The common element in all psychological defenses is non-awareness—the desire to separate the mind from reality, to escape awareness of oneself (e.g., one’s profound self-doubts or weaknesses) and/or the outside world. That is why, in the long run, they cannot work. Defenses have many life-thwarting consequences, including increased self-doubt. Because the mechanisms do not work, they lead to increased use of the same or additional defenses, further distortion of reality, motivation by fear, and continued unhappiness. By seeking false or pseudo-self-esteem, one can never be at peace with oneself or the world; one is always on trial with one’s own subconscious and at odds with reality.
Considering all this, I must address the question of why so few people have genuinely high self-esteem. I have shown that the proximate cause is twofold: 1) the educators who have crippled children’s minds by teaching them to “feel good” rather than teaching them the knowledge and skills they need in order to live successfully, and 2) the psychologists who have urged the elimination of all standards for judging people and/or encouraged the use of social approval in a futile attempt to induce self-esteem. By embracing false premises and employing wrong methods, and thus inducing illusory self-esteem, they have made the attainment of real self-esteem impossible. What caused the educators and psychologists to hold such views and apply such methods? What is the ultimate cause of the assault on self-esteem? The propagators of bad philosophy.
The ultimate perpetrators of the assault on self-esteem are modern and contemporary philosophers. They have attacked self-esteem in two ways: epistemologically and morally. We will take these in order.
At about the time of the Declaration of Independence, there began a concerted attack on the mind in philosophy that continues to this day. This attack, led by Immanuel Kant and supported by his many followers, was specifically on the faculty that made the enlightenment—and self-esteem—possible: the faculty
of reason. First, Kant denied the validity of the sensory material on which
reason is based. According to Kant, we cannot know reality as it really is because our senses distort the data they encounter: “What objects may be in themselves . . . remains completely unknown to us.”30 Second, and related, Kant denied the objectivity of concepts, and thus of conceptual knowledge as such, claiming that these are built into the human mind and give rise to and impose order on the pseudo-reality we perceive.31 The widespread acceptance of Kant’s philosophy led inexorably from an initial attitude of awe and respect for the powers of the human mind at the peak of the enlightenment, to partial philosophical skepticism, and eventually to the total philosophical skepticism of today known as postmodernism.
Postmodernism is the full acceptance of Kant’s philosophy. It thoroughly and openly rejects reason, denies that there is such a thing as an objective reality, and thus holds that the human mind is incapable of knowing anything about the world with certainty. Consequently, it holds that neither facts nor values can be known; all that can be known is the subjective preferences of one’s culture. To quote one postmodernist, “The discovery of ultimate Truths is abandoned as impossible and mistaken. . . . the idea . . . that reality is understandable is rejected in favor of a multivocality where disintegration and instability is the norm.”32 What we claim to call reality, they say, is nothing more than a product of language, the language imposed on us by our culture, which has no connection to the real world. What we call reason is, at root, impotent, suitable only for the “fun” of playing language games.
What does postmodernism imply about education? There is no reality, so there is nothing to learn about it and no need to study it, except perhaps to see what language people have used to describe what they claim to be reality. There is no objective need to study grammar or spelling, because these rules are just the arbitrary rules of the culture and are no more valid than any other rules. There is no need to study principles of writing, because the concepts of our language do not relate to reality and definitions are arbitrary. There is no need to study Aristotelian logic, because it is just a Western bias and is no more objectively valid than any other type of “logic.” There is no need to grade papers objectively or worry about right answers, since there are no right answers. There is no need to study morality, because, with no objective moral standards and only subjective preferences, there is no such thing as morality; all people and cultures are equally amoral. It follows, of course, that there is no objective basis for judging individuals. This means that there can be no objective basis for giving awards or prizes only to certain students; thus awards and prizes must be given either to no students or to all students.
Once reason and knowledge are out of the picture, what is left? Feelings. We cannot give students knowledge, but we can make them feel good—by eliminating the “arbitrary” standards that they cannot live up to, by giving them awards that they have not earned, and by relieving them of the responsibility of exerting mental effort. We can replace so-called reality with illusion.
Psychologists, encouraged by philosophers, jump to agree. If people feel bad about themselves because they cannot live up to the standards they are trying to achieve, eliminate the standards—not just wrong standards but all standards. People do not have to earn their own self-respect; they can just assume it, on the grounds that they are living. If that does not fully work, if people still cling to standards that could make them feel bad, give them unconditional approval and unearned love. If they have to cling to something in order to escape the terrifying fact that they are individual entities separate from every other individual entity, have them cling to each other. It does not matter to whom they cling so long as they are selfless about it. Destroy not only their ability to judge or value themselves, but their ability to judge or value at all. Turn them into something lower than the lower animals (which do not have the power to destroy their own built-in evaluation mechanism). Turn them into the equivalent of vegetables: living entities without the faculty of consciousness.
If a person accepts postmodernism as his guiding philosophy, he cannot achieve self-esteem. He cannot take facts seriously, because, in his mind, there are no facts. There is no point in exerting mental effort, because his mind is impotent. He cannot use independent judgment, because he is determined by his culture’s language. Separating emotions from rational thought is pointless, because they are equally subjective. Thinking long range is impossible, because he cannot rationally project the future. He cannot make firm decisions, because certainty is impossible. Introspection is useless, because he might be deceiving himself. He cannot set rational goals, because reason is useless. Developing moral character has no meaning, because there is no such thing as an objective morality; “anything goes.” As for pride, having accepted that his mind is impotent and that he is not free to make choices, there is nothing in which to take pride. Insofar as one accepts postmodernism, one’s quest for self-esteem is doomed.
The foregoing is an indication of how modern philosophy assaults self-esteem on the epistemological level. Let us now turn to the assault on the moral level.
On the moral level, bad philosophy attacks the base of self-esteem on two fronts. As previously noted, it induces skepticism thereby destroying one’s capacity to recognize or embrace objective values. But since everyone needs moral values in order to make choices, those who skeptically claim that “anything goes” actually default to the prevalent morality, altruism, and advocate self-sacrifice. Although the “virtue” of self-sacrifice is promulgated by almost all philosophers, it was advocated most passionately by Kant. According to Kant, a moral action is one taken with no hope of any personal gain. In Kant’s words, “the principle of one’s own happiness . . . is the most objectionable [of all].”33 Man’s highest moral purpose, according to Kant, is doing one’s duty with no hope of personal benefit, not even moral self-approval. He held that men are radically and innately evil because of their desire for self-love. The ultimate proof that man is acting morally is that his actions cause personal suffering, preferably life-long suffering.34 Kant’s advocacy of self-sacrifice as an end in itself became, in the philosophies of his followers, sacrifice for the good of others (e.g., the state, the race, the party, the “common good”). A long line of philosophers supported this idea, including Comte, Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, and Dewey.
Kant’s views are also echoed by modern religionists. C. S. Lewis warned about the error of self-love, “No sooner do we believe that God loves us than there is an impulse to believe that he does so, not because He is Love, but because we are intrinsically lovable” (as opposed, presumably, to intrinsically evil).35 Other religionists call self-love the fact that we “sinfully want to be esteemed,” and a “virus of the soul,” because it is a denial of our “subjection to God.”36
What does altruism do to self-esteem? It undercuts it at root by holding that egoism, concern with one’s own interests, is morally evil. The desire for self-esteem implies that the self, at least in principle, is worthy of esteem—that the self is of value. Altruism is anathema to love of the self; it asserts that the self is not a value but an object that exists solely for the benefit of others. One’s first concern, according to altruism, should be not how to live one’s life but how to sacrifice it to some other person or group. Altruism relies on and promotes not pleasure and happiness but pain and suffering. If one acts for one’s self, one is not to enjoy it and should feel guilt because selfishness is a sin. If one sacrifices, on the other hand, one might take “pride” at the fact that one has given up what one values but also must feel guilt because pride is a sin. Altruism calls for giving up one’s rational judgment, one’s values, one’s happiness. To whom? To those who did not, could not, or would not earn these things for themselves.
It should be noted that altruism and egalitarianism go hand in hand. Altruism sacrifices the most able, the thinkers and the producers, to the non-thinkers and non-producers. Egalitarianism seeks to bring everyone to the same level and thus requires the sacrifice of the best in order to do it. Led by philosophers, modern educators seek to make everyone equal in their pseudo-self-esteem and ignorance, and modern psychologists seek to make everyone equal in their non-value and unearned approval.
By destroying one’s mind and ego, the acceptance of modern philosophy destroys one’s ability to gain genuine self-esteem. Further, because the acceptance of modern philosophy leads one to regard self-interest as immoral, it renders one not only incapable of achieving self-esteem, but ashamed even to pursue it. And if perchance one struggles nevertheless to gain real self-esteem, despite the immorality of the quest, one will not know how to get it, because neither modern philosophy nor contemporary psychology nor today’s educational establishment provides any legitimate guidance toward that end.
The remedy to this assault on self-esteem is rational philosophy, rational psychology, and rational education. What makes these fields rational is their acceptance of the facts and laws of reality, the nature and validity of man’s mind, the requirements of human life and happiness, the virtues of rationality and selfishness. These are the key elements of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, which philosophers, psychologists, and educators need desperately to discover, understand, and embrace.
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1 Roy Baumeister et al., “Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, or Healthier Lifestyles?” Psychological Science in the Public Interest, vol. 4, no. 1, 2003, pp. 3–4.
2 See Maureen Stout, The Feel-Good Curriculum: The Dumbing Down of America’s Kids in the Name of Self-Esteem (Cambridge, MA: Perseus, 2000).
3 See John Gust, Enhancing Self-Esteem: A Whole Language Approach (Carthage, IL: Good Apple, 1994).
4 Andrea Peterson, “The ‘Re-Engineered’ Child,” Wall Street Journal, April 8, 2003, pp. D-1, D-8.
5 Stout, Feel-Good Curriculum, p. 63.
6 Ibid., p. 147.
7 Ibid., p. 3.
8 See Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (New York: Basic Books, 1983, 1993); and Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century (New York: Basic Books, 2000).
9 Adrienne T. Washington, “Schools Get F’s for Abolishing Valedictorians,” Washington Times, May 11, 1999, p. C-2; Rob Hotakainen, “Valedictory without Absolute Victory,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, May 19, 1996, p. 1A.
10 W. T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy, Vol. V: The Twentieth Century to Wittgenstein and Sartre (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1975), p. 52.
11 John Dewey, Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (New York: Holt, 1938), pp. 104–105.
12 Stout, Feel-Good Curriculum, p. 40.
13 Martin L. Gross, The Conspiracy of Ignorance (New York: Perennial, HarperCollins, 2000), p. 2.
14 www.soulcare.org/Self-deception.htm (1997 version, p. 26).
15 Carl Rogers Reader, edited by Howard Kirschenbaum & Valerie Land Henderson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989), pp. 302–3.
16 Ibid., p. 308.
17 See Abraham Maslow, Motivation and Personality (New York: Harper & Row, 1970).
18 Gross, Conspiracy of Ignorance, pp. 13, 132.
19 Baumeister et al., “Does High Self-esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, or Healthier Lifestyles?” p. 3.
20 Carl Rogers Reader, p. 225 ff.
21 Eric Fromm, The Art of Loving (New York: Bantam, 1956), p. 47.
22 Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual (New York: Signet, 1961), p. 128.
23 Ibid., p. 177.
24 Ibid., p. 176.
25 Ayn Rand, “Notes for Atlas Shrugged,” The Objectivist Forum, April 1984, p. 5.
26 Ibid., p. 6.
27 Rand, For the New Intellectual, p. 176.
28 The concept of defense values was first identified by Dr. Allan Blumenthal.
29 See Stout, Feel-Good Curriculum.
30 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, translated by Norman Kemp Smith (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1965), p. 82.
31 Ibid., p. 172.
32 W. G. Tierney, “Leadership and Postmodernism: On Voice and the Qualitative Method,” Leadership Quarterly, vol. 7, pp. 373, 374.
33 Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, translated by Mary Gregor (London: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 48.
34 See Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, translated by T. M. Green & H. H. Hudson (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), p. 69.
35 www.soulcare.org/Self-deception.htm (2002 version, p. 1).
36 Ibid., pp. 3–5.