February 26 2014

Is The Self-Esteem Movement Killing Achievement?

Charlotte Hays

We have a portrait of Megan McArdle up on the homepage in which Ms. McArdle talks about the value of failure as a learning experience. This is the subject of Ms. McArdle’s new book, The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.  

This morning Naomi Schaeffer Riley touts another characteristic that (like failure) is not highly regarded in the Age of Self-Esteem: insecurity.

Schaeffer Riley is addressing the response to a new book by Tiger Mom Amy Chua and her husband Jed Rubenfeld, like his wife a Yale sociologist, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America.   

The couple has “catching all sorts of flack” because they view insecurity as a goad to success among immigrant groups. They have been charged with “cherry-picking” and called racists. Riley explains:

Insecurity,” the two write, is “a key to success — not exactly the lesson taught by America’s self-esteem-centered culture or its ‘just learn to love’ popular psychology. But for an individual to be driven, something has to be driving him: some painful spur, some goading lack.”

That insecurity is precisely what’s missing on today’s campuses. The fact that American college students spend on average just 25 hours a week on academics, according to a 2011 study, suggests that they are, on the whole, pretty secure. They know that with minimal effort they’ll get decent grades, so they see the college years as a time to have fun before they go off into the “real world.”

In other words, the goad is lacking.

Riley sees this as a reason that the U.S. needs more ambitious, hard-working immigrants on U.S. college campuses. According to Riley, immigrants bring to campuses the sense that there is a purpose behind getting a college education. Many are more likely than their counterparts to take difficult courses in fields where there is no grade inflation.

Riley writes:

Peter Berkowitz taught government at Harvard in the 1990s; he recalls of a number of first-generation Asian American students, “They were polite; soft-spoken in class, even diffident; and possessed razor-sharp and highly creative minds.” Good professors are thrilled to find such people in their classrooms.

This drive is even visible in the majors that immigrants choose. According to a Census report from 2011, foreign-born people make up 16.5 percent of the US population 25 and older, and a similar share of the population with college or graduate degrees. But among students with engineering degrees, a full third are foreign-born — and it’s more than a quarter of those with degrees in computers, math and statistics.

The thing about those subjects is that they’re hard, requiring many hours of study. And there’s not much in the way of grade inflation. So plenty of students just decide it’s not worth it. Some studies show that as many as 40 percent of students planning to major in engineering or science decide to switch to the humanities or social sciences before they finish school.

While I am going to steer clear from debates about immigration reform (I just don’t know enough), I want to make Riley’s article my must-read for today. I also want to propose it as an article that can be read with our without reference to immigration.

Insecurity is a goad—like failure, it has its uses. McArdle’s new book, Riley’s column this morning, and apparently the new book by Chua and Rubenfeld are a rebuke to the self-esteem movement. Isn’t it about time that we removed ego-inflation from the curriculum and concentrated instead on the virtues (e.g., the fortitude it takes to rise from failure or persevere in the face of insecurity) that will turn out a resilient citizenry?

 

 

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