Self-reliance, however defined, has admirers and critics, but both recognize that it was prevalent in the United States throughout the nineteenth century and somewhat beyond the middle of the twentieth century. During this period, innovations and industrial growth markedly elevated the standard of living for millions while enabling the United States to grow rapidly—in area, in population, and intellectually. The overwhelmingly urbanized second half of the twentieth century, however, saw a perversion of the idea of self-reliance. In progressive parlance, self-reliance became selfish individualism. Here is the attitude of John Dewey, the highly influential early twentieth-century education philosopher and reformer, toward self-reliance: From a social standpoint, dependence denotes a power rather than a weakness; it involves interdependence. There is always a danger that increased personal independence will decrease the social capacity of an individual. In making him more self-reliant, it may make him more self-sufficient, it may lead to aloofness and indifference. It often makes an individual so insensitive in his relations to others as to develop an illusion of being really able to stand and act alone—an unnamed form of insanity which is responsible for a large part of the remediable suffering of the world.1
From a social standpoint, dependence denotes a power rather than a weakness; it involves interdependence. There is always a danger that increased personal independence will decrease the social capacity of an individual. In making him more self-reliant, it may make him more self-sufficient, it may lead to aloofness and indifference. It often makes an individual so insensitive in his relations to others as to develop an illusion of being really able to stand and act alone—an unnamed form of insanity which is responsible for a large part of the remediable suffering of the world.1
But even the most fervent individualist will not deny that people rely on each other socially and economically; the pure laissez-faire economist defines the free market as one in which people are able to trade with each other voluntarily for their mutual benefit, and the most “minimal government” libertarian sees a need for defense, police, and a court system to enforce contracts as well as to try accused criminals. Willingness to assume responsibility for one’s own situation does not imply indifference to others’ plight, as may be seen from the flourishing of many charities in early America.
It is one thing simply to criticize self-reliant people; it is another deliberately to convert them to “dependence” in a compulsory school system. But Dewey’s writings left no doubt that he thought his ideas should be instilled in the country’s students. As one scholar has observed: There are times when Dewey’s unrelenting passion for discrediting and demolishing all that is traditional compromises his pragmatism to the point that his philosophy descends to nihilism. Dewey is intent on razing the traditional landscape as a prerequisite to building anew, which is why he is often more concerned with undermining tradition and conventional religion than he is with finding more efficient ways for students to learn.2
There are times when Dewey’s unrelenting passion for discrediting and demolishing all that is traditional compromises his pragmatism to the point that his philosophy descends to nihilism. Dewey is intent on razing the traditional landscape as a prerequisite to building anew, which is why he is often more concerned with undermining tradition and conventional religion than he is with finding more efficient ways for students to learn.2
What the nation, and the world, needed, according to Dewey, was citizens who were socially minded, so self-reliance was to be exterminated in the schools. Government schools were in place to prepare students to live harmoniously with others, and to help them recognize that they needed the rest of society. So while the states expanded the compulsory education system and the percentage of the population who graduated from high school soared, a new class of professional educators exerted major influences on education programs and objectives. To them, education was not academic achievement, but social engineering.
Not many national leaders sensed the radical nature of the changes taking place. An exception was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who, in a letter published in Life on March 16, 1959, while he was still president, admonished teachers and parents to “abandon the educational path that, rather blindly, they have been following as a result of John Dewey’s teaching.”3 Nevertheless, the theories of this new class of professional educators were durably incorporated into the education systems of the great majority of states in one way or another.4
Not untypical was the Educational Quality Assessment (EQA) developed and adopted by the Pennsylvania State Board of Education in the early 1970s, a program with which I had first-hand experience as a local school board member. The Pennsylvania legislature had directed the state board to develop an “evaluation procedure,” including tests, to measure “objectively” the “achievements and performance” of all students in the Commonwealth. So the state board, or, rather, the professional educators on its staff, deliberated and decided what exactly should be achieved by the state schools. The goals they developed—the only acknowledged goals of education in the government school system at the time—spectacularly demonstrated how far the education establishment had moved away from traditional teaching and into “affective” rather than “cognitive” areas. (See the appendix: “Pennsylvania’s Ten Goals of Quality Education with Subscales.”) For example, “Goal 2: Understanding Others,” highlighted persons of different race, religion, “socioeconomic status,” intelligence, and “handicap.” Whatever their phrasing, the questions directed to this goal were almost certain to reinforce the notion of “belonging” to different “groups” rather than emphasizing commonalities to advance “understanding,” as seems to be the intention of the goal. Any outstanding individual qualities are subsumed in the “group” to which one is assigned. This had not been the role of elementary or high school education in the past. Tolerance or, as the “subscales” put it, “comfort,” with all sorts of people, including droves of the children of immigrants, had come from sharing daily experiences in the classroom and elsewhere.
Each of the EQA goals had subscales intended to aid the framers of the questions to elicit “affective” responses on the tests and to provide data to be used to modify the curricula (see appendix). “Goal 5: Citizenship,” according to its subscales, had nothing to do with the structure and function of government, but dealt solely with attitudes such as “concern for the welfare and dignity of others,” “respect for law and authority,” and “responsibility and integrity.” These are traditionally parental “character-building” concerns, but in government schools they are extremely vulnerable to distortion by political bias. Most notably, there is nothing “cognitive” about them.
Only one of Pennsylvania’s “Ten Goals of Quality Education” purportedly measured anything academic, namely, “verbal analogies” and “mathematical concepts and computations.” There was no measure of learning in history of any kind; while students were to “value” scientific accomplishment, there was also no measurement of any kind of knowledge or skill in science. The word “values” found its way into the lexicon of education and was expressed in themes and classes like “values clarification,” which resulted in placing essentially equal value on anyone’s ethics, aspirations, religious beliefs, and the like, contrary to the desires of many parents.5 The idea of an artistic, musical, or literary masterpiece became passé. It follows that the Gettysburg Address is no more important than the latest popular rap.
The program called for imposing curricula changes on entire schools that scored low in any goal. Thus, even if an individual student scored high in “Understanding Others,” for example, he would be subject to systematic behavior modification if his school was below the standard. The program of “improvement” was implemented without notifying parents and with no chance to consider whether any rights were violated by doing so.6 Moreover, the system’s administrators insisted on attempting to raise a school’s low score in “Interest in School and Learning” even though they admitted there was an overall negative correlation in the data between this goal and scores on the only academic goal, “Basic Skills.”7 Many important questions were raised about the competence of the administrators even to accomplish what they wanted to accomplish.
Here is a more recent observation by David Gelerntner in America-Lite: How Imperial Academia Dismantled Our Culture (and Ushered in the Obamacrats): The big change in U.S. education happened mainly during the 1970s; it was widely and reliably reported in the 1980s—and has been largely ignored ever since. For roughly thirty years we have been aware of massive, portentous changes in how we educate our youth—and we have shrugged them off. And things have only gotten worse. American students learn little or no history or literature or civics. “Only a third of Americans can name the three branches of government,” noted the former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, “but 75 percent of kids can tell you American Idol judges.” We wince and move on.8
The big change in U.S. education happened mainly during the 1970s; it was widely and reliably reported in the 1980s—and has been largely ignored ever since. For roughly thirty years we have been aware of massive, portentous changes in how we educate our youth—and we have shrugged them off. And things have only gotten worse. American students learn little or no history or literature or civics. “Only a third of Americans can name the three branches of government,” noted the former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, “but 75 percent of kids can tell you American Idol judges.” We wince and move on.8
Gelerntner’s remarks in this passage are directed to the gutting of traditional academic subjects in the schools, but he also sharply criticizes the left-liberal bias of much of the curricula. Affectively, this bias was perhaps most blatant in “Goal 10: Preparing for a Changing World.” According to the subscales of this goal, the student should “try solutions reflecting a positive adjustment to change,” “avoid use of aggressive or withdrawing reactions in the face of change,” and adjust his “perceptions of length of time needed to emotionally adjust to change.” Clearly, a conservative or “reactionary” resistance to change, such as the forced introduction of socialized medicine, is anathema to the educators. One must accept and adjust to whatever seems inevitable, including the latest cultural trend.
This is not the function of education.
But that’s not all. Most pertinent to our inquiry about self-reliance, the number one goal imposed on all the students in government schools in Pennsylvania, having four subscales, was “Self-Understanding”—that is, instilling self-esteem in students.9 If not ranked first in virtually all other states, self-understanding was listed near the top in importance.
Perhaps it is common knowledge that self-esteem is a huge factor in elementary, middle, and high school education. This is nothing new—it has been an important presence for more than half a century.10 But what has been its effect? It may be woefully underappreciated that the great majority of working adults in the United States today grew up in an education system that placed self-esteem first among all the goals of education. It is a common joke that everyone gets a trophy for whatever “competition” takes place, from kindergarten on up. Egalitarianism is favored over meritocracy. Grade dilution is pandemic. It is often impossible to judge how well one’s child is doing academically. Failure, if it occurs at all, goes by some other name. All of this for fear of injuring the student’s self-esteem (although there may be other, more nefarious, motivations lurking as well).
Why all the fuss about self-esteem? The basic theory is that if a child’s self-esteem is low, he is less able or willing to perform. Children with low self-esteem are turned off by schoolwork because they are pessimistic about their own abilities. This negative attitude compounds and becomes self-fulfilling as the years pass; the child falls farther and farther behind, often rebelling in one way or another. The most basic functions of adulthood may appear to be beyond his capabilities. The problem with all this is that the professional educators’ prescription has been to praise any effort, however inadequate, to keep the child on task. This behavioral “therapy” has been applied not only to children with obviously low self-esteem but also to high achievers. But struggling schoolchildren can see what is right in front of them—that they are not doing as well as other students. Because of the constant praise they receive, more than a few no doubt conclude they are wrong in thinking they are not doing as well as their fellow students. Telling these students, either directly or implicitly, that their inadequate work is acceptable simply reinforces their inadequate behavior, especially when objective standards of evaluation are nonexistent or kept vague. The tragedy is compounded in that many children who do poor work in the lower grades often are capable of much better work in later years. If one’s work never receives an honest critique, there seems little reason to elevate one’s aspirations.
Self-esteem in the past was derived from self-reliance and internal motivation, not from “Good Job!” sticker pasted onto a homework page. Millions took the initiative to educate themselves or to supplement their education; Abraham Lincoln was not the only autodidact. Self-esteem in their case was attained by achievement; that is, by their demonstrated ability to do things well, they achieved a high level of self-esteem.
Beginning in the mid-twentieth century and continuing today, educators had it the other way around—foster self-esteem and the children will achieve. But it is dishonest—and possibly a breach of professional ethics—to delude a person into thinking he is performing well when he is not. Most important to this inquiry, that person will not have a sense of what is actually required to accomplish something. Perhaps an unintended benefit of the self-esteem program is that those who actually do go on to achieve something after being deluded, and defrauded, by educators may carry a healthy skepticism of authority throughout life.11
Possible other unintended consequences are revealed during some questions and answers, excerpted here, from a 1975 public meeting of a school board and the EQA administrators. The subject is self-esteem: (Question) Referring to Goal 1, if a student has an attitude of humility, or shyness, or introversion, such as Albert Einstein may have evidenced, will these test out as a low self-esteem? (Dr. Carl A. Guirriero, member of EQA staff) I am not sure what attitude he had....He was probably shy and introverted, thus he would have a low self-esteem. (Question) Do you believe a low self-esteem should be corrected even if it doesn’t impair academic achievement? (Dr. Guirriero) Personally, I think people should feel good about themselves; thus a high self-esteem. 12
(Question) Referring to Goal 1, if a student has an attitude of humility, or shyness, or introversion, such as Albert Einstein may have evidenced, will these test out as a low self-esteem?
(Dr. Carl A. Guirriero, member of EQA staff) I am not sure what attitude he had....He was probably shy and introverted, thus he would have a low self-esteem.
(Question) Do you believe a low self-esteem should be corrected even if it doesn’t impair academic achievement?
(Dr. Guirriero) Personally, I think people should feel good about themselves; thus a high self-esteem. 12
Shyness and introversion are here equated to low self-esteem. But humility has traditionally been considered a virtue in Christianity and perhaps other religions. In more than a few families and cultural groups, modesty is desirable. Maybe the EQA administrators didn’t really mean to undermine such “values” (since by the goals everyone’s values are entitled to equal respect), but here is a virtual admission that the test could not tell the difference between them and a low self-esteem.
Readers of Academic Questions may be primarily concerned with current university teaching propensities, but no doubt are equally familiar with and concerned about the deficiencies in preparedness of many college students, which have been the case for several decades now. As a grandfather, I am concerned about the same things, but as a patent attorney, I am also concerned about the decline in grassroots innovation and entrepreneurship, particularly of the kind that flourished in America roughly a hundred years ago that led to the establishment of great industries employing thousands of workers and clearly elevating the standard of living of millions of people.13
It appears that John Dewey’s war on self-reliance may have been successful. We are not seeing the kind of grassroots innovation and entrepreneurship today that increases productivity and the standard of living.
How many innovators are introverts? How many innovators were considered by their peers to be socially inept “nerds” in their early years, and what effect did the system’s emphasis on self-esteem have on their nerdy behavior? A notable study published in 2001 found that from “the 1960s to the 1990s” the self-esteem of college students increased substantially; during the same period, SAT and GRE scores fell and “[o]n the SAT, this change was so substantial the test had to be renormed in 1995.” The study’s authors conclude by surmising that “college students’ elevated self-views may be built on a foundation of sand.”14 It seems highly doubtful that a system expressly dedicated to conformity in personality, outlook, and behavior such as Pennsylvania’s EQA could at the same time be unintentionally deferential to nonconformists in general and geeks or nerds in particular, however defined. Not all innovators, by any means, are, or were, geeks, nerds, “nonconformists,” or potential Einsteins, but subjecting generations of students to systematic behavior modification may well have had a permanent effect on at least a few personality traits, perhaps most prominently self-reliance, a virtual prerequisite for entrepreneurship, and the declared enemy of John Dewey and his followers.
Creative activity, in many fields in addition to technology, has been shown to occur far more frequently and intensely before the age of forty than after fifty. So the deliberate conversion of the student population from having a strong sense of initiative to being easily satisfied with one’s own work regardless of its merits, if that is what happened, did not take long to see its expression in the reduced rate of innovation. A ten-year-old child in 1975 should have been at peak creativity in 1995. Thomas Sowell has pointed out that “[w]hile Americans won the lion’s share of Nobel Prizes in 1999, not one of these winners was actually born in the United States. If people born and raised elsewhere choose to come here and use their talents, fine. But do not claim their achievements as some vindication of the American educational system.”15
Of course, there are many young American adults who actually did invent and innovate in the years since 1980.16 Somehow they were able to shrug off the psychological manipulations of the educators—perhaps they attended independent schools, or maybe some of us have overestimated the effects of universal high self-esteem. Goal 7 of the EQA did, in fact, purport to encourage “Creativity,” although three of the four subscales were devoted to visual arts, performing arts, and writing. The fourth subscale gave equal mention to experiments in the “social sciences” with the physical sciences, and omitted biology altogether. The one possibly redeeming portion of the fourth subscale (for potential productivity-enhancing innovation) encouraged “willingness to design or work with mechanical or electronic gadgetry,” whatever “gadgetry” might mean.
Other writers have found widespread deficiencies in the education of science and math teachers, which result in emphasizing the arts (if anything) over science, and many reformers are actively promoting academic “STEM” programs for the study of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in elementary and high school. Such reforms are laudable, and we may see positive effects from them very soon, but for some percentage of students it may not be possible to overcome the effects on STEM creativity of the constant inculcation of self-esteem behavior modification even with increased exposure to STEM knowledge. Moreover, lately we have seen the already ubiquitous arts muscling in on the popularity of STEM programs, diluting it with “STEAM.” And, insofar as STEM programs are promoted as a matter of some purportedly urgent national purpose rather than in the interest of talented students who otherwise may not be adequately exposed to STEM, advocates should keep in mind the familiar “boom and bust” cycles in employment opportunities for technically educated people, as researched in great detail in a recent book by Michael S. Teitelbaum: Falling Behind? Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent.17
Perhaps when many members of the last few generations reached adulthood they were able to overcome the damage done by the professional educators. After all, most mature people, regardless of their early education, can see for themselves that it takes hard study to master subatomic physics or microbiology, and a lot of dedication to become a true expert in any field. Mature people appreciate genuine accomplishment when they see it. And, of course, those generations, like any other, spent more of their childhood outside of school, in “real life” environments, than they did in school. Bill Gates was fortunate to have parents who rewarded accomplishment; moreover, his early education was in private schools and unconventional in many respects. Both he and Apple founder Steve Jobs were college dropouts, and entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel is so soured on the university experience that his foundation offers monetary incentives for promising innovators to drop out of college to pursue their ambitions. There are more than a few other highly successful people of their generation who were mavericks in one way or another. But for our purposes, it is significant that the gross, deliberate inculcation of a high self-esteem in the great majority of the American population (along, perhaps, with a purposeful bias against introverts) coincides with the slowdown in innovation. It may well be that now, in their adulthood, millions of people who were deluded into thinking they were accomplishing something when they were not, lack the degree of initiative possessed by their earlier counterparts.
It’s possible that a large percentage of the working population who have high self-esteem, having grown accustomed to high praise for mediocre output (or worse), cannot now be expected to do the hard work of “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”—as innovators are driven to do. This could apply whether the putative innovation starts in a garage or in a well-organized research laboratory with all the latest instruments. But if we were somehow able to eliminate the harmful effects of the behavior modifiers, would the population automatically revert to having the self-actuated “can-do” attitudes of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? Probably not—those individualist innovator types may not be coming back. For one thing, few start to work at the age of twelve, as Edison did.
A pessimistic outlook is reinforced by considering the following, from the April 1983 report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform: “Our society and its educational institutions have lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling, and of the high expectations and disciplined effort needed to attain them,” and “For the first time in the history of our country, the educational skills of one generation will not surpass, will not equal, will not even approach, those of their parents.”18 Periodic updates of the report from various sources confirm that these warnings had no effect; the nation has passed through second and third reviews, and the risk has been emphatically realized. The declared goal of the education establishment, in effect for at least forty years, has been to elevate self-esteem, which it promotes at the expense of candid criticism, genuine accomplishment, and self-reliance. It is not surprising, therefore, that a commission searching for “excellence” in education consistently finds only mediocrity at best.