Succes d’estime

In arts education, we used to talk a lot about raising young people’s self-esteem. That is tending to be replaced with the aim of increasing young people’s confidence. I’m not quite sure why that particular piece of jargon has shifted, but I do wonder whether it’s because people have realised that while low self-esteem is a bad thing, high self-esteem is also deeply undesirable – and in fact the people with the highest self-esteem are actually psychopaths. ‘Moderation in all things’ – a sentiment that can never go out of date.

I was reminded of this when I read the following quotation from the blog of Jeremy Forrest, the maths teacher who has gone abroad with one of his 15-year-old female pupils.

“About a week ago I had a bit of a moral dilemma to deal with, both internally and externally. And the over-riding question it left me with was this: ‘How do we, and how should we, define what is right or wrong, acceptable or unacceptable???’

“I came to a few different conclusions, mainly that actually we get a lot of things wrong, but at the end of the day I was satisfied that if you can look at yourself in the mirror and know that, under all the front, that you are a good person, that should have faith in your own judgement.

“That’s some philosophical gold for you there!!!”

Philosophical fool’s gold, Mr Forrest, I’m afraid. I was instantly reminded of the false syllogism which my sister once outlined to me with exceptional clarity, and which she said she often observed in the nicest of her friends: “I am a good person: good people do good things: therefore everything I do is good”.

I think we may all be guilty of thinking in this way at some point. We might recycle our newspapers but go on long-haul holidays, we might be lovely to our friends but horrible to the cashier at the bank, we might pride ourselves on our honest nature but we are actually crashingly tactless, we might consider ourselves a hell of a fellow but then call a policeman a pleb and a moron. We point out the mote in our neighbour’s eye, but fail to notice the beam in our own. In Mr Forrest’s case, the beam is roughly the size of HMS Victory’s mainmast. (This is not to say I don’t have any beams of my own.)

I am struggling with the idea that this man imagines that he will still be able to see himself as a ‘good person’ after what he has done. He has ruined the young life of a child in his charge (let us hope she recovers); he has ruined his professional life, he has presumably ruined his marriage (if I were his wife, I would have changed the locks by now and thrown his belongings into the street). He has caused pain, fear, humiliation and damage. He has allowed himself to do so by means of colossal self-delusion.

Seeing him do so, we can gasp in horror and condemn him roundly – as indeed I just have. Yet we should also check our own views of ourselves – we may not be about to do something as idiotically vile as Mr Forrest has done, but are we quite the wonderful people that we may think we are? We should not guard our own self-esteem too jealously, in case it prevents us from doing the right thing.

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Published in: on September 25, 2012 at 09:41  Leave a Comment  

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