Making A God Of Self-Esteem

What are we to make of a culture that seems to have developed amnesia, insecurity, and chronological snobbery at roughly the same time? For that seems to be our condition judging by how we approach contemporary education. The amnesia relates to just about every aspect of the necessary links between character, culture, and education. The insecurity seems to relate to anything to do with morality, and the chronological snobbery to the common (largely implicit) belief that the most recent innovation is more valuable than that developed in time past. Yet the forgetfulness, insecurity and faddishness are not total, and it is in an effort to overcome the polarization that exists between progressives and traditionalists that Dr. Gow has written this paper.

If we examine the current situation a little more closely, we note some inconsistencies: while contemporary models say it is inappropriate to commit the moral imperialism of suggesting that there are standards of conduct that are simply better than others, it is still somehow definitely wrong to be intolerant or to say anything that might make another uncomfortable or damage self-esteem. Such relativism is of a soft or mushy type and its inconsistencies suggest that it may yet be worked with. Commentators in the 1930s and 1940s indicated that a proper teaching of freedom required a firm sense of rights and duties. These writers expressed concern that disastrous shifts had already occurred which, unless corrected, would threaten society itself.

In Education at the Crossroads (New Haven: Yale, 1943), the French philosopher and theologian Jacques Maritain, said that the task of moral re-education is “really a matter of public emergency” (p.93). It was clear to Maritain that “…for the educational body as well as for the individual citizen, freedom, rights, and autonomy have responsibility, duties, and moral obligations as their correlatives. In the human commonwealth, freedom and authority are as necessary for one another, by virtue of the nature of things, as their occasional conflicts are inevitable in actual fact” (p.98). Yet it is precisely the inter-related nature of moral obligations with true freedom that contemporary education disdains and its confident avoidance of yesterday’s truths makes it vulnerable to the latest fad.

Where concern about “victimization” and “empowerment” within an increasingly vapid framework of “values clarification,” has usurped teaching about how choices relate to character and why certain conduct is virtuous, education has lost its way. In this paper, Dr. Gow focuses on a particularly good example of the current debased educational approach — the notion that education is primarily about furthering “self-esteem.”

As against the individualistic and relativistic tendencies of a “self-esteem” focused education, Dr. Gow suggests the need to construct a “moral vision” for today’s students. Her paper suggests that it is necessary to break through the polarization between the traditionalist and the progressive camps in an effort “. . . to come to grips with questions of the essential nature of education and methodologies which link these essentials.” In the course of her evaluation she notes that “. . . it will be obvious that one is working from the premise that intellectual and moral endeavours are inter-related and that this has very fundamental connections for the good life, morality, amorality, immorality and not least toward discovery of the real self.” In short, to have any meaningful “self-esteem” one must have a meaningful sense of a real self. An “itch and scratch” existence is simply not adequate. What is needed is a moral vision that must excite and convince and be freely chosen. It is implicit that to be chosen, it must at least be presented and it is against the stunning banality of the choices presented to today’s students that the exciting possibilities of the author’s suggestions will be immediately evident.

Such a moral vision, she says, cannot be indoctrinated if it is to be valid. Free assent based on their own reasoning from their own experiences will lead to a conviction that certain forms of conduct etc. are the only approaches conducive to “genuine community.” Yet, in the face of “self-esteem,” moral visions about what is best and noble are not likely to be taught much less, as Gow argues, experienced. We must first see how flawed and insufficient the current approaches are. Many of the strategies for building self-esteem are misdirected since they address only the material manifestation of discontent rather than tracking the deeper but less visible roots from which real lack of self-esteem arises.

The false approach that views each person as literally a law unto him or herself (auto-nomos = self law) cannot be the basis of a society of responsibly inter-related citizens. A more flourishing sense of civil society urges us to reach beyond the pale and emaciated visions of personhood that underlie so many educational insecurities today.

In the current British Columbia Ministry of Education’s Grades 8-12 programme entitled “Career and Personal Planning,” it is made clear that only “experts” ought to give any training in first aid. Yet, what expertise does the average teacher have to ground students in moral responsibilities, true freedom and the arguments in favour of a robust sense of citizenship? Dr. Gow’s paper joins an increasing chorus of critics who suggest that the current focus on “self-esteem” is not only foolish and insufficient, but it is also tragic and, as Maritain pointed out long ago, poses a genuine threat to the common good.

The content of “framework for values” lists put out by current Ministries of Education, which students are encouraged to add to and then rank-order, shows the confusion of contemporary models when they are placed alongside any usual list of “virtues” in the tradition. How can anyone think that a student’s self-selection of such “values” as “physical attractiveness” or “an adventuresome life” or “achieving something special” could be of any real guidance to a student (these examples come from British Columbia’s current manual for Suggested Classroom Activities for its Career and Personal Planning 8-12 Programme)? Gone is any sense that the relationship of moral choices to happiness needs to be pursued with some rigour and structure. In fact, in the “alert” accompanying the “values” exercise, teachers are told that “Judging values is not appropriate.” Yet the teacher is told that it is appropriate to “model the process” of value discussion using themselves as examples. The example given is interesting: “I am the oldest of seven children in a step-family. Both of my parents worked and I had to work part-time. I believe that hard work and effort is very important and helps you to value your leisure time.” Leisure time is no goal unless one is given insights into how to spend such time usefully (here one might recall that Josef Pieper devoted an entire book to the nature of leisure as the basis of culture!). Even the lesson plans are inconsistent with their avowed goal to not judge “values.” What is the point of exchanging any and every version of “what matters to me” unless it is to improve the lot of students?

Important matters are not best served by a stance of neutrality (even assuming such a stance is possible — which it is not). In such a setting the banal, trivial, or bizarre are placed on par with the noble and the worthwhile, and one is expressly directed not to make the distinctions that are, in fact, the essence of education itself. Faced with this approach, how could students even learn what they should be tolerant and intolerant about — and why should “rights” matter (they are referred to as important to the “empowerment” that the manual sees as an antidote to “victimization”)? These examples of confusion give some indication of how major a change is necessary and how difficult it will be to re-introduce a moral vision into education. But it must be re-introduced and the Centre will do what it can to assist this endeavor through a host of future activities that will examine what is missing from current models and what might usefully be employed by way of corrective. It is hoped that readers will find Dr. Gow’s paper an encouraging nudge in this direction.

Woman Write Pen Hand Self-Esteem Self Liberation 2



These days, taking issue with making a god of self-esteem probably places one somewhere between Atilla the Hun and the early Desert Fathers. But so be it! Of course one is not against self-esteem, simply that the term has become the virtual first principle, the major objective, the excuse for much of what is being heralded as the sine qua non of progressive education. In this there is confusion of well-intentioned sentiment with directives which often serve to exacerbate the very problems they seek to address.

Clearly, we are appalled at the crushing costs to youth which poverty, fractured family life, substance abuse, sexual and emotional assault are exacting — erupting in violence and suicide. More pervasively, sheer apathy of mind and spirit abound in many classrooms. Diagnostic work-ups by mental health professionals whether individual or collective in their focus, inevitably target “lack of self-esteem” as a key dynamic driving these crises. A California-based task force to promote self-esteem in the U.S. went so far as to conclude that “lack of self-esteem is central to most personal and social ills plaguing our state and nation as we approach the end of the 20th Century.”[1] We want to respond. Consequently, from broad-based Ministry of Education guidelines to specific texts and course materials, “building self-esteem” has become a consuming focus in the classroom. The dictum is that students must feel good about themselves, and too often this preempts the promotion of academic initiatives and diligence, and consistent standards of personal discipline and responsibility. This is where it is important to take issue. For most self-esteem curricula are rooted in little or no foundational philosophic engagement with the nature of self or the nature of esteem and therefore make little organic connection between self-esteem and questions of meaning or sense of purpose in life.

But this reification of self at the centre is scarcely new. Many of us recognize it as essentially the gospel of moral relativism exemplified in the Values Clarification approach to teaching moral “values.” This approach has been firmly entrenched in elementary and secondary school classrooms across North America since the late 1960’s. One Ontario study conducted among 10,000 teachers, 650 administrators, and 550 teacher-educators indicated that values clarification was by ten times the most popular approach to teaching “values” education.[2] Self-esteem curricula may sport different labels and packaging, the language may be traded or modified, but essentially it claims the same preeminence for individual license. It parades under the aegis of tolerance and is rationalized under the umbrella of pluralism. Self at the centre of all things.


To recap briefly, the underlying philosophy of this approach holds that for teachers to promote or support virtues such as honesty, justice, or compassion, constitutes indoctrination of children and is a violation of their moral freedom. It is argued that children — from kindergarten forward — should be free to create and choose their own “values.” The teacher “avoids moralizing, criticizing, giving values or evaluating. The adult excludes all hints of ‘good’ or ‘right’ or ‘acceptable’ or their opposites.”[3] If having gone through a seven-stage process of considering the alternatives and the consequences, a child chooses, for example, to value stealing or intolerance, his or her decision will not be challenged. In this model, the chief criteria is that students go through a process of clarifying their values and that they feel comfortable with whatever they choose. It is the process that is all important, not the content. Whatever you choose will be right for you because you chose it. In Values And Teaching: Working With Values In The Classroom, world promoters Raths, Harmin and Simon specifically state:

It is not impossible to conceive of someone going through the seven value criteria and deciding that he values intolerance or thievery. What is to be done? Our position is that we respect his right to decide upon that value.[4]

Students are exempt from all traditional moral precepts or constraints. Moral subjectivism is the only absolute — the intellect freed of moral obligation. Some educators have protested:

This statement carries the ideal of individuality to the point where one can no longer distinguish between the moral and the immoral. Can an educational theory produce a dishonest person and then merely say the choice of dishonesty is a legitimate expression of individual preference?[5]

One of the reasons for the extensive adoption of the values clarification approach, is that it purports to take a “neutral” position. It holds that we live in a pluralistic society which embraces many conflicting values and the best schools can do is take a neutral approach. At first blush, this strikes a responsive note and many educators and parents concur. They are advised that to do otherwise could smack of intolerance and even bigotry. But the position that, for example, any view regarding stealing, lying, cheating, murder, suicide[6] is as “right” as any other, is not a neutral position. It is just as much a dogma and doctrine as any other stance, and as such can be equally authoritative and indoctrinating. So the prescription that a pluralistic society has no choice but to support total moral relativism in its educational system is a false association of ends and means, fact and “value.”

Elsewhere, one has dealt at some length with analysis of this extremely influential movement.[7] However, the above references indicate something of the degree to which this educational model — well into its second generation — discounts the search for true meaning/true self and trades it off for “I will be or do whatever works for me at any given moment”. This, then, has fed, legitimized and perpetuated the wide-spread cult of self-esteem — the frenetic preoccupation with the necessity that we must “feel good” about ourselves at any cost — even the cost of addictions which assist us in maintaining the escape from real freedom.

I Am Identity Word Image Word Art Being Conceptual ego



Significantly, into the midst of the free-fall individual utilitarianism of the values clarification movement has exploded the so-called “politically correct” movement of the 1990s. It dictates that there is a “right” way to think, feel, and act concerning a very wide range of behaviours and issues. Were we ripe for such a movement? Had we discovered that wide-open moral relativism did not fulfil our expectations of autonomy and freedom, but rather plunged us into more alienation and disconnectedness? But alienation and disconnectedness from what? Or from whom? My self??? Was this illusion of freedom just too confusing and too “heavy?” In any case, into the moral vacuum of values clarification burst political correctness — yet another packaged solution to the question of self-identity.

As in most movements, there are positive aspects to the politically correct movement as, for example, the injunction that disparaging references to colour, gender, race be lifted from public parlance and printed materials, and that more inclusion of women’s and multi-cultural contributions to society should be fostered. But to mention only one extrapolation of that injunction, it is being heatedly argued in North American universities that the Great Books from Plato, Aristotle, through Shakespeare, etc. should be struck from course material on the grounds that these books, written by men, automatically perpetuate a model of male-dominated Western civilization and thereby reflect a skewed interpretation of history.[8] Again, foundational content critical to the educated mind is pronounced irrelevant in deference to ‘self-process’ as both means and end. Both the values clarification movement and the politically correct movement are anti-intellectual, reductionist and prescriptive. Layered on top of each other — or along side — they make for individual and collective chaos. In both movements, we witness the apparently unending hope and expectation of human beings that they will find the “self” (self-esteem) in the subjective freedoms of individual utilitarianism or in the “objective” solidarity of a collective “cause.” To note a further commonality between them, both these movements reflect the anti-historical position of the post-modern era. For the mind-set required for belief in the inevitability of progress and scientific optimism requires strategic dissociation of the so-called “modern” from the so-called “traditional.”[9]


In their compelling book, Bankrupt Education: The Decline Of Liberal Education In Canada, Peter Emberley and Waller Newell address this point:

Increasingly, public debate is polarizing teachers and parents into camps, and drawing battle lines between them, thus driving ‘traditionalists’ and ‘progressives’ into tight corners of polemic . . . the first [camp], it is said, wish to preserve the static, hierarchical, content-burdened curriculum, while the latter focus on dynamic interchanges, democracy, and process — and student-centred learning.[10]

Each is in danger, the authors point out, of not seeing the loopholes in its own approaches, thereby “flattening” and confounding genuine educational debate.

The construct which follows is offered in the spirit of trying to break through the polarization between the traditionalist and the progressive camps in an effort to come to grips with questions of the essential nature of education and methodologies which link these essentials. It will be obvious that one is working from the premise that intellectual and moral endeavours are inter-related and that this has very fundamental connections for the good life, morality, amorality, immorality, and, not least, toward discovery of the real self.

I would propose the construct of “moral vision” as a bridge for those on the one hand who are, understandably, opposed to presenting to students a purely cognitive and didactic approach to moral ideals but at the same time fall prey to concentrating so exclusively on the personal preference, affective domain that the rigors of critical and moral analysis become irrelevant. I am suggesting that the construct of moral vision and the objective of developing in students the capacity for moral vision incorporates both cognitive and affective components of learning and at the same time avoids indoctrination. As such, one is hopeful that this model may offer a constructive alternative and even serve to break through a measure of the entrenchment and polarization which characterizes much current debate.


There is a critical difference between a moral ideal and moral vision. An ideal is essentially a concept. A vision is essentially an experience. A moral ideal — however one may “look” to it — remains “extrinsic” to oneself; an objective toward which one may (or may not) strive. Moral vision, on the other hand, by its very nature denotes involvement; one “sees” with the inner eye; one is touched in the inward person.

An ideal can be dismissed as simply that; too ideal of attainment, too far removed from the realities of life in today’s society. But a moral vision cannot be dismissed, for it has been experienced. It is alive. It is personally compelling. It is the stuff of genuine morality, for moral vision has its roots in both cognitive and affective insights and these roots necessarily give life to moral incentive and commitment. A moral ideal can be taught. There are various methods of teaching ideals — some meaningful and some exceedingly non-meaningful — to which point we will return. Moral vision on the other hand cannot be taught. It may, however, be “caught.”

Perhaps it is necessary to state that the construct of moral vision as put forward here is quite clearly based on the premise that certain attitudes and behaviours in relationship with students — and indeed with people in general — are more growth enhancing and humane than others; justice and kindness are more humane than injustice and cruelty and so on. While most educators would agree with this premise, as we have noted, a major controversy still continues over whether teachers should be seen to be promoting or in support of such virtues due to the perceived danger of indoctrinating youth. It is important therefore specifically to examine the distinctions between a moral ideal and moral vision as they translate into teaching methodologies. Let us approach this first-of-all using the example of teaching mathematics, and then explore the obvious parallels which pertain relative to the presentation of the moral virtues.


Conscientious math teachers, whether they are working with students at the elementary or advanced level, seek above all, to inspire in their students a “feel” for math, a mathematical “sense.” Some teachers do this well for they enjoy the subject and their enthusiasm is catching. They are challenged by math not simply because they want to find the right answer, but because they are excited about the discovery of relationships and because they have a “sense” that they are grappling with fundamental realities. They have “caught a vision” of math as a holistic endeavour — and they readily transmit this excitement to students. At the same time, however, it would be unthinkable for such a teacher to teach, for example, that 4 + 4 = 8 “because it is simply a fact” or “because I say so.” Rather, he/she seeks to provide an experience for students within which they are able to uncover and discover this reality themselves.

Whereas the math teacher knows very well that there are mathematical theorems and objective mathematical truths which pertain, he/she will not present these theorems to be learned by rote. After all, being able to recite formulae and theorems does not constitute a grasp of the subject on either the part of the teacher or the student. The teacher realizes that if this is the extent of learning, students will be unable to creatively apply these “models” in advanced problem solving. Theorems will remain isolated parcels of memory work which ultimately disconnect and alienate the student from discovering the holistic nature of math in which lies, of course, both its essence and its excitement.

It is only as students are given the opportunity to test these theorems, in the sense that they may embrace and personally experience their reality that they may genuinely validate their truths and know why and to what end they may apply them meaningfully and creatively in problem solving. As this occurs, the student moves beyond a purely mechanical problems-focused perception of math to “connect” with its universal and holistic nature. The student experiences math as an integrator of self, society, and fundamental relationships. This becomes exciting. Euclid and Copernicus come alive. There are connections to explore and a self to expand.

But is it really essential to develop such a mathematical “sense?” Students who do not “catch” such a vision become increasingly disenchanted and disengage from investing themselves in it as a serious endeavour. They regard it as an isolated “subject” rather than a perspective. A whole world becomes closed to their intellectual and, one would argue, moral sensibilities.


By now the parallels with the addressment of the moral virtues are obvious. Educators fear, and validly so, that if moral principles or theorems such as honesty, justice, and compassion are inculcated on the basis of being “obvious fact” or “because I say so,” these principles will be regarded as ponderous rules or abstractions outside the “self” — divorced from real meaning. Again, validly, we hold that it is only as the student is given the opportunity to test these moral principles in the sense that he or she does (or does not) experience their reality, that the student may be able to genuinely validate them and know whether or not, or why, and to what end he or she will commit to them. As educators then, we need to identify modalities which might offer such opportunity for cognitive and affective moral exposure and for testing validity. From Von Goethe:

A teacher who can arouse a feeling for one single good action, for one single good poem, accomplishes more than he who fills our memory with row on row of natural objects, classified with name and form.[11]

Precisely. In the same way that we spoke of teaching mathematics toward a mathematical “sense,” it is incumbent upon us to follow the same objectives and methodology through the teaching of literature, history, philosophy, music, art, politics, and science. For this is the beauty and wisdom of a liberal arts education. It fosters a perspective which addresses the human condition with all its vagaries, inviting dialogue, refuting easy answers, calling us to transcend the mediocrity of self at the centre.

Further, in An Experiment In Criticism, C.S. Lewis asks, “Why do we read?” Not to “get” morality, but toward the enlargement of our beings; the opportunity to “see” and experience through another’s lens. For example, he said, he was not looking for C.S. Lewis in Lucretius but open to discovering Lucretius in C.S. Lewis.[12] Unless this is the nature of the search, I am always meeting myself: I see everything through my own mirror or the mirror of my special interest/lobby group which may take its perspective (mirror) as the measure of all things. Indeed such groups may seek to dictate to me the necessary components of my self-esteem in which case I can become a faceless means toward their prescriptive end. In either case, when my self or group-esteem is challenged, I can become highly threatened by opposing perspectives and openly hostile, unable to risk reasonable open debate in the spirit of civility. In fact, Canadian schools are becoming militant platforms for individual and group violence.

With corresponding dogmatism, classical works of art and literature can be deconstructed to parochial and exclusionist interpretations which seek to deflect the fact that eternal questions have a way of getting through to us in a way that oratorical answers do not. But the eternal questions get through only when we become aware that we have been programmed not to hear them, and as we seek to allow them expression. In fact, it is interaction with those eternal questions which takes us out of ourselves. It breaks the circle of wholly reflecting or wholly experiencing because, in this perspective, which inspires vision, one can reflect and experience at the same time. Put another way, the possibility for union takes place. The music plays the band. This is the intrinsic connectedness and freedom which liberal arts education understands so well.

Another modality which offers opportunity for moral vision is of course relationship between persons or in community. It can be argued, for example, that it is primarily through relationship that one really “knows” compassion for one has experienced it and can therefore “connect” with it as having reality and intrinsic validity. Beyond cognitive appreciation of the concept, in relationship one affectively understands and “feels”(i.e. experiences) the fundamental distinction, for example, between “Looking Out For #1”[13] and I shall pass through this world but once. Any good therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it for I shall not pass this way again.[14]

One has moved beyond perceiving morality as a list of ideals to personally uncover and discover its universal and holistic nature. One “catches” a vision of the virtues as integrators of self and society.


By and large, teachers are very aware that the teacher-student relationship can be a key factor in a pupil’s life. They are aware that especially when a student is, for example, lacking in compassion he or she desperately needs personally to experience compassion to be able to test and validate whether it can be real. But actually to be that testing ground; to respond to students with compassion; to mobilize the psychic and spiritual energy necessary to cope with dislike of some students, anger and threat, is very costly.

Understandably the teacher as role model is not very popular among teachers today. Yet this is moral vision in living action and it is exceedingly powerful. It is not a hypothetical moral dilemma or a contrived exercise about compassion or honesty or justice. It is seeing and feeling a teacher being compassionate, honest, and fair, especially when it is difficult to be so. At the same time, it should be self-evident that helping to create and maintain classrooms as moral communities is not only the function of students, their parents, and classroom teachers, but also the mutually supportive responsibility of principals, school boards, and ministries of education across all echelons of the system.


It is easy enough to nod our heads in agreement with this concept of moral vision actively lived in moral community. Yet it requires far more than intellectual assent. It requires hard work. It asks each individual to confront the issue at a very personal level; to ask “Are there any moral principles which I have experienced and tested and found to be valid: Honesty? Justice? Compassion?” That is, do I “connect” with any of these moral ideals as being essential integrators within my person and in my relationship with others (e.g., “I will be compassionate even when it is difficult to be so.”). Have they become for me deep and consistent commitments of will and heart; integral to my moral vision? For example, do I feel less than my “self” when I am not compassionate; that I have compromised a basic tenet of my being and broken a form of sacred trust afforded me as a human being among other human beings?

If the answer to these questions is “yes,” then each attitude and each situation in one’s life will reflect this holistic integrative orientation. At the same time, that individual will not be indoctrinating others, for one cannot indoctrinate a moral vision. One can simply offer as consistently as is possible an experience of honesty and benevolence, through which others may touch into the essence of commitment which, by its very nature, will involve self-sacrifice. And in participating in this essence, genuine community may be born.

If, on the other hand, the answer to the question is “no,” then each attitude, each behaviour, each situation in a relationship will be a law unto itself — disconnected from any holistic or integrating principle (e.g., “I will be compassionate if I feel like it or if the other ‘deserves’ it”). For the teacher, the endeavour of being a role model in relationship will be rejected as irrelevant because there is nothing foundational or consistent to offer to students. There is no frame of reference to inspire moral, intellectual, or spiritual vision; in Aristotle’s terms, a rejection of ethos (habit) and logos (reason) as essential components. Indeed where this is the case there is no reason for anyone to reach outside his or her self; only a pooling of subjectivity which serves to keep us circling in the whirlpool of individual rights. Indeed there is a sense that without the ego-inflating protection of self-esteem to buoy me up, I may become irretrievably sucked under. Consequently (or what I may perceive to be consequently), I must choose to answer “no” to risking the possibility of life lived beyond self at the centre. And thereby evolves the end of conscience. For as long as self-esteem remains a god, legitimizing whatever perversions the autonomous self may elect to pursue, it is surely true that community will not be possible. For bastardized forms of community in their collectivized reification of self-esteem cling to tribal exclusivism and name it “culture.”


In order to understand the foregoing in context, it is important to appreciate that up until quite recently in this land of opportunity, most Canadians have believed in the inevitability of progress. In many respects this power model may be described on four “legs:” 1) the inevitable triumph of objective critical intelligence over superstition, 2) sophistication over simplicity, 3) human beings over nature, and 4) abundance over scarcity.[15] It has been assumed that the combination of high-tech electronic and scientific management would power these four dynamics. Much of our confidence in this assumption centres in the ever evolving powers of the computer and its revolutionary capabilities to reduce the “human error factor.”

Less-heeded are warnings that our ability to think creatively about our world may be undermined by the very “information” which is supposed to help us understand it: that the data processing mind-set may replace thought, and that “data glut” may obscure basic questions of justice and purpose.[16] Clearly minute-by-minute eye witnessing of the Gulf War computer strikes, and yet the subsequent non-”victory” of this war, gave a razor-sharp edge to these warnings about the machine as human and the human as machine. And on a continuing basis, the push of a control button is all that is required to be “entertained” by Bosnian carnage, pornographic fantasies, killer video games at the corner arcade or, more symbolically, in the “family” room. This instant stop/start/replay/ violence and destruction depending upon one’s mood of the moment becomes fertile ground for the illusion of power and control at the cost of the utter desensitization of self.

On the social organization side of Canadian society we recognize the increase in crime, gangs, substance abuse, and the numbers of disenfranchised. But by and large we have assumed and counted on the fact that this could be handled by the appropriate organization employing the appropriate experts. This has given rise to an ever-expanding class of professionals who claim a monopoly on the basis of their bio-psycho-social (i.e., “scientific”) expertise — in social contract exchange for the public’s legitimation and trust.

But there is an angry restlessness now; a sense that the “experts” do not have all the answers and that our social institutions are not holding. At root, there is a lack of consensus about direction and “values” and this is acted out by individuals and groups through anger, scapegoating, and distorted perceptions of “me as victim.” This, in turn, feeds back into the social psychology of our institutions — the educational system being a prime example and a most critical one.

In short, to the extent that a society’s norms and values are unclear and dissociated from each other and from implementation in practice, day-to-day living in that society becomes idiosyncratic and fragmented. At the same time, we are loath to admit that the system isn’t working because we are afraid. So the pretense of truth and justice persists: rhetoric to mask the half-true or the untrue. In many of us, perhaps, there is the unspoken realization that as individuals we (choose to) participate in the hypocrisy and the power/control configurations which continue to perpetuate and further compound the very situations and problems we say we deplore. We “go with the flow” on the rationale that one has to survive. Damn the system, play the system, work the system, change it later?

We fight appearances with more appearances, layering on more jewelry to suit the occasion. It looks good, it feels good, it enhances the image. No longer are we in touch with whether or not we are trying to obscure the basic garment if, in fact, we are wearing a basic garment at all. Perhaps the truth of the matter is that the jewelry has become the garment.[17]

Exactly. The jewelry of deconstructionism is accented with self-esteem. Can adults be surprised that in projecting this life-view into the classrooms of our nation we are clocking escalating rates of teenage disorientation and suicide?

Characteristically, children and youth are the first to detect disconnectedness and pretense in adults around them. They are singularly open to truth beyond that which is seen. They deserve opportunities for vision. In the midst of shattered expectations, considerable disillusionment and a deep sense of malaise in Canadian society, we stand in danger of grounding such opportunities by claiming self-esteem as our ultimate security i.e., “I am all I’ve got.” As a result, many of our strategies for building self-esteem are misdirected — they address the visible (material) manifestation of our discontent rather than tracking the invisible (spiritual) root from which it springs.


I have tried to suggest that vision and, ultimately, hope lie in examining and addressing foundational and relational reality beyond self as the centre. Northrop Frye recognizes that this is how vision develops: “Normally it is only after prolonged contact with a specific discipline of thought or imagination that one can face the kind of reality that detachment reveals, a reality unaffected by socially acquired prejudices or passions of the ego.”[18]

I have proposed that there are significant parallels between teaching math toward developing a mathematical “sense” and teaching the virtues toward developing the capacity for moral vision. In fact both, as vision, require personal discipline if they are to be lived commitments. They offer essential connectors and integrators of the self: connectors and integrators in the sense that the self is called to touch into fundamental realities and in so doing comes to recognize our illusions as addiction. This can actually lead to a reframing of ego reality as referenced in the increasingly popular Twelve Step Programs which recognize the limits of ego and the necessity to invest in matters of the spirit.[19]

Indeed it is as we accept our human condition in humility that ironically enough we transcend our absorption with ego. This alternative way is often very painful. It demands perseverance of heart and will toward a gradual realization that the illusory or “false” self, as Thomas Merton would have it,[20] clings feverishly to its own agenda of pride, power and control and actually serves to limit the freedom of clear, honest vision. In Biblical terms, this is stated as the freedom which comes in losing one’s life in order to find it.[21] This internal and persevering engagement toward the integrating of mind, body, and spirit is not for cowards. It entails a willingness to penetrate the truth rather than to speculate on our own terms. There is an acceptance that the need to search for our true self is deep within each of us, that we do not grow out of it, that it is not childish or immature, much less merely “traditional.” It is this quest which liberal arts education embraces with all vigor.

I have tried to trace the “way” as being an attitude of heart (vision) as differentiated from simply “feeling” or cerebral opinion, and have suggested that the true professional professes from inner experience of this attitude. These attributes have been recently mocked and abandoned because of the prevalent hypocrisy of disconnecting the experience from the ideal. I would submit that this underlines much of what is currently defined as the crisis in self-esteem. Surely the way to move further is again to begin the humble way of trying to live out the mystery of the way which itself provides the superhuman grounding of confidence in each individual who risks to begin, to falter, and to persevere.

Kathleen M. Gow, Executive Director Centre for Cultural Renewal, Ottawa


  1. See Chester E. Finn Jr., “Narcissus Goes to School”, Commentary (June 1990), p.40.
  2. The Moral Education Project (Year 4): Annual Report 1975/76,Ontario Ministry of Education, Toronto:1978, p.6.
  3. L. Raths, M. Harmin and S. Simon, Values and Teaching: Working with Values in the Classroom 2nd ed.; Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Co. 1978, p. 55.
  4. Ibid, 1st ed., 1966, p. 227.
  5. Ivan Cassidy, “Values Educators Test the Spirits,” Journal of Education, sixth series; Vol.3, No.4 (Summer 1976), p. 26.
  6. For specific documentation see Kathleen M. Gow, Yes Virginia, There is Right and Wrong, Toronto: John Wiley and Sons Inc., 1980, rev. ed. Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1985.
  7. Ibid. See also Peter C. Emberley, Values Education and Technology: The Ideology of Dispossession, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1995.
  8. See for example D. Kimura, “A Defense of Discomfort and Discrimination” in Peter Emberley and Waller Newell, Politicizing the Classroom, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, forthcoming.
  9. For example, current usage of the term ‘chronological snobbery’ which refers to the dictum that ‘present-day’ thinking is, ipso facto, superior to ‘earlier’ or ‘past’ thinking. See also Iain Benson, “Tradition or Traditionalism?” in Centre Points, (Newsletter of the Centre for Renewal in Public Policy), Vol. 2, No. 1, Spring 1996. pp. 1-2.
  10. Peter Emberley and Waller Newell, Bankrupt Education: The Decline of Liberal Education in Canada, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994, p. 22.
  11. J.W. Von Goethe, Elective Affinities tr. by J.A. Froude, cited in John Bartlett, Familiar Quotations 11th ed. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1938, p. 1057.
  12. C.S. Lewis, An Experiment In Criticism, Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1961, p. 86.
  13. Robert Ringer, Looking Out For No.1, New York: Fawcett Publishing, 1978.
  14. These words have been attributed to many authors, among them Etienne de Grillet. However, the author is actually unknown. See John Bartlett, Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, Boston: Little Brown and Co. 1968, p. 531.
  15. See Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics, New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1990.
  16. See Joseph Weizenbaum, Computer Power and Reason, Penguin: London, 1976 and Theodore Roszak, The Cult of Information: The Folklore of Computers and the True Art of Thinking, Pantheon: New York, 1986.
  17. James S. Gow, “In The Wake of the Flood”, unpublished manuscript, 1991.
  18. Northrop Frye, On Education, Markham: Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 1990, p. 35.
  19. See, for example, Alcoholics Anonymous: Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, World Service Inc., New York, 1953.
  20. See Thomas Merton, The New Man, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1978.
  21. Holy Bible, Gospel of St. Mark 8:35.


Gow, Kathleen. “Making a God of Self-Esteem: The Tyranny of Misdirected Sentiment.” Centre for Cultural Renewal Discussion Paper #4 (October, 1996).

This article is borrowed from the Centre for Cultural Renewal.


Kathleen M. Gow is a sociologist, mental health specialist, author and a member of the Centre’s Research Council. She received a Bachelor of Arts degree and Master of Social Work from the University of Toronto, and a PhD. in Sociology at York University. Dr. Gow was awarded the Canada Foundation Scholarship for post-graduate work at the Tavistock Clinic for Children and Families in London, England, an institution famous for its work in the field of children, families, and education. Dr. Gow is the author of Yes Virginia, There is Right and Wrong!

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