20 years later: Self esteem movement was utopian hucksterism

Twenty years ago, a California state document was flying off the shelves. “Toward a State of Esteem” was the final report of the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility. That body shut down in 1990, but Californians have good reason to look back.

Then-Assemblyman John Vasconcellos, a San Jose Democrat, authored AB 3659, which established the task force in 1986. In his vision, self-esteem was the key to problems such as violence, crime, alcohol and drug abuse, welfare dependency, teenage pregnancy, academic failure, recidivism, and child and spousal abuse.

In a Nov. 28, 1990, letter to legislators, Vasconcellos described self-esteem as a “social vaccine” against dysfunction. It also “provides us a vision for developing our human capital to make America competitive again,” and is the “key to community, especially to realizing our promise as a multicultural democracy.”

“Self-esteem is the best budget balancer, by far,” Vasconcellos wrote, “serving both to increase productivity and taxes, and to reduce human needs for public support and services.” An attachment to the letter, “Self-Esteem: a Profound Revolution,” touted “a revolution of faith: faith in ourselves and in our own innate capacities.”

But some task force members had doubts.

David Shannahoff-Khalsa, a researcher in neuroscience, told the Los Angeles Times that the final report was “propaganda” and its recommendations “simplistic and misleading. They could have been written by a group of sixth-graders.

“Self-esteem was never shown to play a causative role in the six social problems the task force studied,” Shannahoff-Khalsa told the Times. “The report is a massive effort to mislead people. There’s no basis for what is written in it.”

Critics took the self-esteem movement as confirmation of California goofiness, and Garry Trudeau lampooned the task force mercilessly in his Doonesbury comic strip. That did not stop “Toward a State of Esteem” from becoming the best-selling state document of all time, at 60,000 copies. More than 40 of California’s 58 counties formed self-esteem task forces.

Twenty years later, one is hard-pressed to find any evidence that the task force solved any social problem. With a current deficit of $19 billion, it certainly did not prove “the best budget balancer, by far,” as Vasconcellos claimed. But his vaunted “revolution” did have negative fallout, most apparent in education.

As John Leo of U.S. News and World Report noted, the self-esteem evangel was “on a collision course with the growing movement to revive the schools academically.” Further, “to keep children feeling good about themselves, you must avoid all criticism and almost any challenge that could conceivably end in failure.”

Timmy thus advances to the next grade even though he has not mastered the material. That is why, even though “social promotion” was outlawed in 1998, more than half the incoming freshmen at some California State University campuses still need remedial math and English. “Toward a State of Esteem” may be forgotten, but it is not gone.

Californians are suckers for utopian hucksterism. That is not to deny true self-esteem, a byproduct earned through achievement and responsible living. Nor is it to deny a need for task forces and commissions.

Last year, for example, the bipartisan Commission on the 21st Century Economy made sensible recommendations to reform the tax code and help California escape the boom-and-bust cycle. The Legislature, unfortunately, failed to follow through.

The lesson should be clear. California legislators need to implement common-sense reforms based on facts, and reject those based on fantasy. If that shift fails to come about, the road for the Golden State leads steadily downward.

K. LLOYD BILLINGSLEY is editorial director of the Pacific Research Institute. He wrote this article for this newspaper.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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