Should We Think We Are Wonderful Winners?

The student evaluation form  used by the administrative unit in which I teach has a question that perplexes me and often amuses my students. “Did this course increase your self-confidence?”  The implication is clear. An optimal university course enlarges the already hyper-inflated self-confidence of American college students.  While dramatic exceptions of self-loathing students certainly exist, years of having been told that sometimes mediocre achievements are remarkable signs of personal worth would take their toll on almost anyone.  Embroidered press clippings are hard to ignore.

Our critical thinking class reverberates with admiration for Socrates’ famously saying “I am the smartest man in Athens; I know that I know not.” We begin by studying the Dunning-Kruger Effect , the Einstelling Effect , confirmation bias, and myriad additional cognitive biases that haunt our thinking. Then we spend time trying to appreciate how little evidence we have for our cherished and often firmly held beliefs and commitments. As the core of the critical thinking class unfolds, a sub-theme is the susceptibility of our arguments to fair-mnded criticisms.

True, students often feel empowered by acquiring and applying intellectual standards to their own thinking, as well as that of others. However, the overall effect of the course is certainly not to buttress their self-image.

The positive self-image industry was constructed on wishful thinking and manipulation of the limited science that explored its efficacy.   Ironically, I am typing this entry in Marin county north of San Francisco,  perhaps the epicenter of the wholesale embrace of the rush to celebrate human behavior because it is human and because persistent doses of praise allegedly serve as personal and social fertilizer for contentment and productivity.

But what fascinates me is the ease with which self-esteem was embraced.  First, what exactly is it?  What is its relationship to narcissism?  Solipsism?  Self-Delusion?  Are various magnitudes of self-esteem each demonstrably beneficial?

And then, I wonder:

  1. Does the rush to praise tarnish our alleged interest in honesty?
  2. At what point does self-esteem create a dulling impact on curiosity?
  3. How much self-esteem is a required prerequisite for risk-taking?
  4. To what extent is the positive self-esteem theme an illustration of well-meaning left-wing compassion for anyone subjectively uncomfortable and the related wish that we are all equally competent at the end of the day?                                                                                                           

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