From Self-Esteem to Equity

Ernest J. Zarra, III

American educational institutions have been labeled the messianic hope of the future, as explained by the late Rousas Rushdoony in his book The Messianic Character of American Education.

Educators have been instructed that Failure is not an Option. Even though they bear the same titles, the major differences between Mercury and Apollo Mission Control Administrator Gene Kranz’s book and educator Alan Blankstein’s book are the principles behind avoiding failure. It is one thing to believe failure is not an option. It is quite different to ensure “success” by changing education from the top down to reduce rigor. Today, this is precisely what equity requires.

For over three decades, educators have been duped into thinking that telling students they were wrong was hurtful and an attack on the students’ self-esteem. By providing for every need and desire of their students, without teaching them that sometimes they are in error, educators have yielded material and emotional expectancies exacted from the rest of society.

Values such as hard work and sacrifice are lost on many young people in America today. Some simply do not feel their best efforts are necessary to be assured opportunities which are granted to others. For example, the University of California recently agreedto do away with the SAT and ACT as requirements for admission. UC is not alone. Race-based admissions have taken hold in many institutions of higher education. The focus is now on enabling students of color more access, hence “equity” in admissions considerations. Equity steps in to reduce rigor and ensure some students’ admissions success.

Equity is not a new educational concept. Equity is to guaranteed outcomes as self-esteem is to “everyone receives a trophy.” The children of the 1970s and 1980s self-esteem movement are now professors in our colleges. Along with the current reduction of education requirements and the vestiges of the self-esteem movement, our nation has produced more than one generation of narcissists.

Worship of self is not a new practice. In a sobering historical parallel, America has experienced rapid growth of its own cult of personality, exacerbated by narcissism. It is in this sense that I wrote Detoxing American Schools. In that book, I stated “twenty-first-century education is evolving and has many of the earmarks of a new type of cult. Instead of becoming a disciple of a guru or a mystic leader, woke folk choose their own personal and social awareness.” Students have now adopted their own personalized claim of worship and demonstrate it in how they worship themselves.

Mary Eberstadt sees it the same way: “Self-worship has become the ultimate expression of sacrifice on the altar of emotional identity and feelings.” In her book Primal Screams, Eberstadt concludes,

One thing that seems to happen is some people, deprived of recognition in the traditional ways, will regress to a state in which their demand for recognition becomes ever more insistent and childlike. This brings us to one of the most revealing features of identity politics: its infantilized expression and vernacular. . . . What critics of identity politics have missed is that the manifest panic behind cries of cultural appropriation is real—as real as the tantrum of a toddler. It’s as real as the developmental regression seen in the retreat to safe spaces on campus, those tiny ersatz treehouses stuffed with candy, coloring books, and Care Bears. It’s as suggestive as the pacifiers that were all the rage as campus accoutrement in the 1990s.

What shall we make of a generation of students whose melanin is their merit, and equity their pathway? How should American people adjust to the enablement of narcissistic pathologies, which result in the creation of new identities through emotions? Moreover, and just as important, how is a politically divided nation to respond to the demands that all people must actively recognize the recipients of equity for what and whom they claim to be?


Ernest J. Zarra, III, Ph.D. is semi-retired and is now a full-time education researcher and writer. Ernie has worked as a secondary teacher and district professional development leader in California’s largest high school district, presented as keynote speaker for various national educational organizations, and served as assistant professor of teacher education at Lewis-Clark State College.

Image: Max Fischer, Public Domain

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