The Esteem Regime

“Democracy demands that all of its citizens begin the race even. Egalitarians insist that they all finish even.” — Roger Price (Class)


Recently, a school nearby had to reverse its decision to discontinue awards night for academic achievement, because parents—to their credit—were overwhelmingly in favor of acknowledging those whose performance was laudable. (School authorities are still thinking about whether they should hold the athletic achievements awards night.) The original decision was based on the belief that those who did not receive awards would not feel good about themselves (rather than want to do still better in the future, I might point out). This is an odious philosophy.


Many years ago, the Oakland, California school system contemplated formalizing “Ebonics,” which legitimized vernacular and incorrect English (“axe” for “ask”) on the basis that so many inner city kids used it. Only a public uproar moved them back to the position of trying to teach the English that might actually result in acceptance to college or qualifying for a job. As Bill Cosby pointed out, no one is getting hired as an air traffic controller who begins the interview with, “Whassup?”


This isn’t a gender or race or ethnicity issue today, because the current movement toward a crazed egalitarianism is gaining momentum all over. Kids are awarded simply for showing up or trying (or trying to show up). In an attempt to build everyone’s self-esteem, we’re actually undermining it, because in the competitive world of capitalism the people who are actually rewarded are those who do the best. You might get a watch and modest pension for showing up for 30 years, but you don’t get a very nice life style if you’ve performed in a mediocre fashion. An “A” in attendance does not equate in importance with selling, creating, or leading better than others.


When I taught MBA and PhD candidates in 600-level courses at the University of Rhode Island, an assistant dean told me quietly in the hall, “We give everyone an “A” or “B” here, unless there is some very strong reason not to.” I promptly flunked a kid the first semester who had claimed ADD as an excuse to do no work, but didn’t have a shred of  medical evidence and was clearly just a slacker. A full-time faculty member told me, “You’re the only one with the guts to do that because you’re not a permanent professor here.”


I believe in a fair start and a level playing field, but where does is say that we should all be guaranteed an equal finish? Do we want an airline pilot who is barely competent, or a doctor who couldn’t pass the boards, or a bus driver who has emotional problems? Do we want help from people who achieved their status by merely being “present”? Trying is nice, but succeeding is better. (“Coach, I should be the starter, I struck out but I was trying to hit a home run!”)


Why are we so intent relatively recently on not rewarding the best, but rewarding everyone and actually subsuming the best?


One might ascribe it to a radical, liberal philosophy of not only redistributing income but also redistributing talent (or the recognition thereof, despite the actual amount). Or one could make the case that people insecure about themselves are pushing this agenda to atone for the credit they never received because others were better, or faster, or stronger, or smarter.


But it just might be that people are hungry for what others have, and are seeking to shortcut The American Dream instead of work to attain it. I remember when airlines invited only their best customers to use their air clubs (early 70s and prior). But then someone filed suit, and now everyone who pays the tab must be admitted. I recall when the best athletes started the game and, in tough competition, played the entire time. But now, some contests have rules that everyone must play. (Legendary basketball coach Adolph Rupp at Kentucky once said, “If playing the game is what’s important and not winning, why does anyone bother to keep score?”) Of course, that doesn’t apply in professional sports, where people are paid to win, not merely participate.


The American Dream’s access road was once one that required hard work, discipline, resilience, and the realization that one might fall short of one’s goal, but the attempt alone would still be an improvement. Today it seems as if no one wants to wait on line, everyone wants immediate entry into the ride at Disneyland. I’ve seen people board a plane early when the agents call “those who need some extra time boarding,” with a limp and a groan, only to watch them race out the jetway when we disembark, miraculously cured. People sprint into stores from reserved spaces, having affixed a handicap sticker to their windshields. Everyone wants to cut the line, to cheat the system.


The problem is that we’ve substituted rules for judgment and crazed egalitarianism for freedom. Just recently a boy was sent home from school for bringing in a small toy soldier carrying a rifle. That’s not zero tolerance, that’s zero intelligence. Do we really believe kids will be better able to cope in the world faced with that kind of witless, insensitive reaction? Do we want to create a nation of unthinking rules on the one hand, and guarantees of equality despite talent and achievement on the other?


Here’s William Graham Sumner on the topic (The Challenge of Facts and Other Essays):


“Let it be understood that we cannot go outside of this alternative: liberty, inequality, survival of the fittest; not liberty, equality, survival of the unfittest. The former carries society forward and favors all its best members; the latter carries society downwards and favors all its worst members.”


When I was graduated from high school, I was named “Most Likely to Succeed.” No one protested that only two dozen of over 200 seniors received awards, and no one had a problem with a king and queen of the prom, nor that some kids were more popular than others.


I’ve succeeded so well because I learned early what I had to do in a highly competitive world. (In an inner city school, we were bullied all the time! We either gave the kid a quarter to leave us alone, or we fought him. If we had tried to complain to school authorities, there would have been a line two blocks long. I learned that I had to take care of myself, and that I could.) And I had to learn to read, write, and speak English correctly just to pass the course, let alone excel. I don’t recall any of us being cut any slack in high school or college. You did the work and were given a grade (not pass/fail) and if you didn’t, you received no credit.


Self-esteem is a vital trait for success, perhaps the absolute key. But falsely created esteem will always eventually collapse, because the world isn’t run by people assuring an equal finish, it’s run by people who reward excellence and results at the finish. We need to stop pretending that poor performance is still a fine job and that showing up is the equivalent of doing well.


Take it from the guy who received that very prescient award, which probably couldn’t be bestowed today without hurting everyone else’s feelings. At the time, I never thought about whose feelings might have been hurt, I was simply happy that I merited the recognition. And I’ve tried to live up to it.


© Alan Weiss 2014

6 thoughts on “The Esteem Regime

  1. There also seems to be confusion about the difference between encouragement ad awards. I think everyone who makes a good attempt should be encouraged, and as they get better, they get more praise and if and when they’ve reached the award level they get one. If someone gets the same award for trying or participating, as the winner, or person who reaches the highest level, why should they keep getting better?

    There is also the mentality that kids who don’t get an “award” will spend the rest of their life obsessing and despairing about it so they need to be saved by a trophy.

  2. Alan,

    I am a big fan and really appreciate your writing and perspective on things. I could not agree more with what you have said.

    I have had to work hard for everything I have achieved academically and professionally with sacrifices along the way. I was never handed anything. When I did not do the work, I did not get credit or anything to make me feel better about it.

    Last I checked this is the greatest land of opportunity in the history of the world. The real joy comes in the journey, not the destination. The destination is the end and the beginning of the next adventure or opportunity.

    I too am sick and tired of parents passing their responsibility to teach their kids on to the schools. I have many friends who are career educators who feel the same way.

    However, just about the time I am ready to give up on the next generation, there are always some examples of folks who get it. Those are the ones who will rise up and lead when others won’t.

    I really appreciate your postings. Keep challenging us to reach for the stars. Status Quo is never good enough.

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