Maryland searches for self esteem


Maryland has taken on a controversial issue, which originated in California, and which involves the teaching of self esteem.

In 1987, the California legislature appropriated $825,000, to be spent over a three-year period for a task force to study the relationship between social problems and the lack of self esteem. In sweeping words, the legislation's sponsor described it as "a pioneering effort to address the causes and cures of the major social issues that plague us all today . . . a search for a social vaccine."

Almost at once the legislation became the butt of jokes. Known officially as the California Task Force to Promote Self Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility, it was referred to in Gary Trudeau's "Doonesbury" cartoon as "California's Feel Bood Bill." Others referred to it as a touchy-feely bill. In a recent article in the Baltimore Sun, Richard Estrada wrote, "California is at it again. The state assembly . . . wants to go around raising everybody's self esteem.

Apparently Mr. Estrada was not aware of a similar effort by Maryland, which Gov. William Donald Schaefer has promoted. In 1989, an executive order entitled "Governor's Task Force on Self-Esteem" appointed a 23-member task force, which includes eight cabinet members, the president of the Senate, the speaker of the House of Delegates, two school superintendents, and representatives of the public and private sectors.

However, unlike the California model, this group was not funded and it was charged with reporting back to the governor in one year rather than three.

Thus, on the one hand the governor invested the task force with considerable stature, but on the other hand he gave it no financial support. Members of the task force see no inconsistency in this. As one member said, "If it's important enough to do, it's important enough to do as volunteers. Later, money may be needed to implement our recommendations."

In not providing any funds, the governor was no doubt politically smart, since taxpayers cannot complain that public money is being squandered on what may be considered by some as a "feel-good" bill.

In his charge to the task force, Gov. Schaefer directed the members to "develop and improve methods for promoting personal and public awareness of building healthy self esteem as a way of preventing social problems."

Rather than charge his task force with determining causal relationships between social problems and self esteem, his executive order states that "A body of research (already) exists which relates the lack of self esteem as a contributing factor to the social problems being addressed by state programs." Thus the governor is not re-inventing the wheel.

Added now to that "body of research" we have the 144-page report of the California task force, entitled "Toward a State of Self Esteem".

At its outset the California report attempts to dispel the "feel-good," "touchy-feely" concept by rejecting the common misperception of "self esteem as a condition of highly individualistic narcissism." The report's official definition of self esteem describes it as "appreciating my own worth and importance and having the character to be accountable for myself and to act responsibly toward others."

To acquire information on the Maryland Task Force, interviews were conducted with its chairperson, Susan White-Bowden, with four of its members, and with Dr. Charles Flatter, the staff director whose services are contributed by the University of Maryland. All indicate a monolithic commitment to their task.

At least two of those six interviewed come to their assignment out of deep personal tragedy which they relate to a lack of self esteem. One member, who had been a 15-year-old bride, had two suicides in her immediate family. Another task force member had been abused as a child.

Those two task force members and their colleagues emphasize that the development of self esteem begins in early childhood. In fact, the California report "encourages the availability for all children of adequate, effective, self-esteeming child care, including prenatal support (to the mother)."

Like their California predecessors, the six Maryland Task Force members feel that, second to the family, school is the major determinant of self esteem. Already, in Baltimore, an inner city group, oriented to schools, has organized itself under the title the Baltimore Council for Self-Esteem. The council's purpose is to enhance self esteem among inner city youth.

Other states are undertaking similar initiatives. The governor of West Virginia has asked Gov. Schaefer for introductory information in considering a similar task force in that state.

The response to Maryland's program has been so overwhelming that the Howard County school system has developed a clearing house for information on the Maryland self esteem program under the direction of Doris Vanach, supervisor of the Howard County school system's Staff Development Center.

For Maryland, the concept of self esteem is likely to encounter most resistance in the educational arena. If the task force report is to emphasize the school setting as a source of self esteem, resistance will emanate from those who emphasize test scores and who concentrate on our competitive posture internationally. No doubt any introduction of self esteem into the schools will be viewed by many as a challenge to the current emphasis on math, science and literacy.

However, task force members seem ready to meet this challenge. One member, a school superintendent, says "When kids from fragmented homes enter school without three or four years of good day care, we give them a low grade, which sends them a message, 'You're not very smart. You can't read.' Then the battle's lost. It's uphill the rest of the way. Yet, many of those kids can be turned around, but we have to have a school system with plenty of emotional support. Twenty five to 30 years ago kids had a lot of support from families. Today, school is the last resort for any semblance of self-respect. Self concept," he adds, "is the most critical element in determining how well a child learns, more so than grading and competition."

"Knowing yourself," he says, "is as important as content. Self esteem," he concludes, "is the missing link in teacher education, to reduce the effects of disruptive homes."

Like his task force colleagues, this school superintendent emphasizes that self esteem is not just "feeling good," nor is it 15 minutes of "values education" or "character education" in the classroom every day.

An outcome of the Maryland study will probably be an emphasis on schools as a major source of self esteem, second only to the family. And given the volume of disruptive families, the school thus becomes a primary source of self esteem.

However, task force recommendations are likely to concern all age levels. For teen-agers, one member emphasizes the importance of community service which enables that volatile age level to experience a sense of self worth to the community.

Another member speculates that employers, including large corporations and mom-and-pop stores, may be urged to provide parking spaces and day care to enhance self esteem at the work place. A member with a more cosmic view cites the 1970's as "new age thinking," the 1980"s as "me-centered thinking," and the 1990's as "societal service thinking."

His view is consistent with the California report which states, "Self esteem is the likeliest candidate for a social vaccine, something that empowers us to live responsibly and that innoculates us against educational failure, the lures of crime, violence, substance abuse, and chronic welfare dependency. The 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."

Such a sweeping manifesto has generated some resistance within the California task force. In minority reports called "Personal Statements," some members of the California Task Force have voiced their misgivings, as for example: "Appreciation of one's own ethnic and cultural heritage . . . sometimes was lost in the accumulation of information from academic and professional behaviorists."

When the Maryland Task Force submits its report to Gov. Schaefer, one of its recommendations will be the establishment of a permanent commission on self esteem. However, the task force will not recommend the use of tax money to support the commission. In the words of the task force chairperson, "The governor must decide whether he thinks it's of value to continue this in Maryland without the use of public funding."

For Maryland, the second state to venture into the arena of self esteem, the main question may become "Are we far sighted, or are we just far out?" Judging by the commitment of task force members, to be far sighted, Maryland must risk being far out.

Dr. Moses S. Koch is president emeritus of Essex Community College, and former president of Monroe Community College, in Rochester, N.Y. He has been published in the Washington Post, the Louisville Courier Journal and the Baltimore Sun.

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