Self esteem and the American worker

Published 8:24 pm Saturday, September 29, 2012

By Steven S. Kirkpatrick

As a child growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s, I can vividly recall being repeatedly exposed to the notion that “competition makes America great.”

This was a common theme in grade school and high school in both sports and the classroom. We were encouraged to defeat our rivals on the playing field, and outscore everyone on exams; how else to get into the college of our choosing?

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But during the past 30 years or so, schools throughout the country de-emphasized competition and instead began promoting the ethereal notion of “self esteem” as paramount.

As a result, our culture has promoted the notion that it is more important to “feel good” than to excel at anything. Schools are reluctant to give failing grades to poor students, because it will hurt their self esteem — despite the fact there is absolutely no evidence that promoting self esteem makes for a better, smarter student or a happier and more successful person. So where does that leave us?

For starters, the United States has become a laggard in international rankings of academic performance in mathematics, science and language skills. For example, a recent study by the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) reveals that the United States ranks 25th in mathematics among 34 member countries.

To make matters worse, we have managed to reach this sorry state of affairs while spending more money per student than any other country in the world.

Instead of pursuing imaginary goals that make school administrators feel good about making their students feel good, wouldn’t it be nice if their goal was instead to prepare children to work hard, earn a living, and make a positive contribution to society?

As an entrepreneur and business owner, one of my biggest concerns is being able to find good quality employees. Substantially all of my consulting clients have the same problem: finding functional employees who have basic reading and math skills, who also show up for work on time every day. Not to mention knowing how, as a colleague put it, “to treat the customer right.”

Sure, the unemployment rate has been very high for the past few years, but have you tried finding good quality semi-skilled workers recently? I consult with people who run maid services, lawn care, electrical contracting, flooring, roofing, and other businesses that rely on workers who not only need basic academic skills, but also possess a decent work ethic and know how to treat customers. In almost every case, their biggest problem is finding good quality workers, not customers.

Maybe that’s why we have so many foreigners coming to this country to do manual and semi-skilled work. The guys who cut my grass are from Mexico; the worker who installed the mirror in my bathroom was from Russia, and the fellow who drove me to the airport last week came from Pakistan.

All too often I find that their American counterparts have lower skills and higher expectations. After all, isn’t that what the self-esteem movement is really all about?

Steven S. Kirkpatrick lives in Chuckatuck. He is a consultant and advisor to entrepreneurs and small business owners. Email him at