Elementary, Watson

5th March 2004 at 00:00
Incessant celebration of self-esteem reflects a culture that has left heroes behind for indulgent celebrities, says Stuart Waiton

Sherlock Holmes is my hero. I'm not sure if fictional characters class as "real" heroes but, regardless, he is mine. Not the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes I hasten to add, although I always liked him when I was young, but the "real" Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes.

Holmes, the creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, has grown as a heroic figure for me over the past 10 years, not least because of his somewhat dour and abrupt character mixed with pure genius and determination. Perhaps the reason Holmes can be a hero for me is precisely because he is a fictional character - in today's cynical times, real heroes are hard to come by and we are left with "celebrities" falling over themselves to expose their most private and intimate secrets on television and in the press.

Holmes's lack of interest in his own emotional state and happiness, a man too busy to be, as he might have said, "bogged down by such trivialities", makes a refreshing change today.

I thought of him while on a primary school visit with my son, who starts school in August. The trigger for my thoughts was a comment made by the head teacher about self-esteem.

Having noted the "think positively" posters on the classroom doors, and having been told before our tour that the school uses a motivational guru "to improve the children's self-esteem", I shouldn't have been surprised when she explained that the school was trying to change the "dour, negative culture in Scotland into a more positive one". I wondered whether Conan Doyle had been dour, or Adam Smith, or David Hume, or John Logie Baird.

There is nothing wrong with children having a "positive" culture in their school, but I would question whether the intense concern about self-esteem expressed by the head will actually create this. Indeed, in terms of educational performance, it may actually have the opposite impact.

In the United States, where self-esteem has been the educational mantra for many years, state research into the significance of self-esteem for academic achievement has failed to find a link. Indeed the American academic James Nolan has noted that in tests comparing American and Korean children the US kids think they are good at their subjects and the Koreans are less sure about themselves, but the results show the opposite to be true.

So despite American teachers telling their children that "you're the man" and the "dour" Koreans perhaps telling their kids that they are "not the man" - at least not yet - it is the Korean children who are excelling academically.

Self-esteem is portrayed and understood as a modern and refreshingly positive way of approaching young people in education; Nolan questions this assumption. Rather, he believes that the preoccupation with self-esteem reflects a society with nothing to be positive about in terms of its goals or beliefs.

No longer believing in religion, or in science and progress or in the nation state, Nolan suggests that the US, like the UK, has fallen upon the self-referential notion of self-esteem because it has lost any wider sense of belief. With nothing external to the self with which to inspire individuals and society, we have turned inwards to our "emotional well-being" as a benchmark of success. Or, as the above head may have said, "a good school is a happy school".

Following my school tour, I took my son to the doctor. On the wall I noticed a poster instructing parents to "praise your child whenever they do something well" - more concern about my son's self-esteem, but this time from the health authority.

The final instruction told me that when I praise my children, "make sure you mean it". I imagined my son tearing down the poster with gusto and me praising him - and meaning it.

The celebration of self-esteem is not a positive development but rather reflects a culture that does not know what a hero is anymore and is left with the pallid indulgent celebrity. Get me out of here.

Stuart Waiton is a director of YouthGenerationIssues.org.

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