Retrospective: A state of esteem?

JULY 29, 2010

A CalWatchdog Retrospective: 20 years after the California Task Force to Promote Self-esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility.


California state documents do not generally fly off the shelves but 20 years ago the Golden State had a hot seller. Toward a State of Esteem was the final report of the California Task Force to Promote Self-esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility. This body, which shut down in 1990, is largely forgotten but not entirely gone.

The prime mover was then-assemblyman John Vasconcellos, a San Jose Democrat who became known as the “Johnny Appleseed of self-esteem.” Vasconcellos authored AB3659, which established the self-esteem task force in 1986, when George Deukmejian was governor of California and Ronald Reagan president of the United States.

According to this legislation, self-esteem was the key to problems such as violence, crime, alcohol and drug abuse, welfare dependency, teenage pregnancy, academic failure, recidivism, child and spousal abuse, and the failure of responsible citizenship. Making California “a state of esteem” would solve all that, and more.

In a November 28, 1990 letter to incoming legislators, Vasconcellos described self-esteem, as a “social vaccine” against dysfunction. It also “provides us a vision for developing our human capital to make America competitive again,” and is the “key to community, especially to realizing our promise as a multicultural democracy.” The benefits would be virtually limitless.

“Self esteem is the best budget balancer, by far,” wrote Vasconcellos, “serving both to increase productivity and taxes, and to reduce human needs for public support and services.” The letter was co-signed by assemblyman Pat Nolan, a Glendale Republican.

An attachment to the letter, “Self-Esteem: a Profound Revolution,” touted, “a revolution of faith: faith in ourselves and in our own innate capacities.”

It was also “a revolution of hope,”  “a revolution of love,” a “truly grass roots revolution” and “the ultimate truly populist revolution.” Further, “the personal revolution, wherein each of us chooses to envision ourselves as innately good-natured, grows to experience ourselves and each other that way, owns and exercises our power and takes charge of our lives and our politics, our society and our future!”

For some observers the task force was the latest exhibit of California’s taste for utopian hucksterism. Gary Trudeau lampooned the task force mercilessly in his Doonesbury comic strip. That did not prevent more than 40 of California’s 58 counties from forming their own self-esteem task forces. Washington and Maryland aimed for self-esteem legislation of their own. The 25-member task force, meanwhile, was not all of one mind.

No generally accepted definition for self-esteem emerged, and task-force member David Shannahoff-Khalsa of Del Mar, a yoga teacher and researcher in neuroscience, denied that self-esteem could simply be given to anyone. He told the Los Angeles Times that the final report was “propaganda” and its recommendations “simplistic and misleading. They could have been written by a group of sixth-graders.”

Shannahoff-Khalsa also criticized the contributions by University of California professors. “Self-esteem was never shown to play a causative role in the six social problems the task force studied,” he told the Times. “The report is a massive effort to mislead people. There’s no basis for what is written in it.”

That did not stop Toward a State of Esteem from becoming California’s best-selling state document of all time, at 60,000 copies. It did not have a sequel documenting how self-esteem solved the various problems as promoters claimed it would. Twenty years later, observers are hard pressed to find any evidence that the self-esteem task force solved any problem.

In 1990-91 the state faced a budget shortfall of $3.6 billion. Twenty years later the budget deficit has ballooned to $19 billion. So self-esteem did not prove “the best budget balancer, by far,” as John Vasconcellos claimed. But his vaunted “revolution” did have negative fallout, most apparent in education, where it became the dominant theory.

As John Leo of U.S. News and World Report noted, the self-esteem evangelist was “on a collision course with the growing movement to revive the schools academically.” Further, “to keep children feeling good about themselves, you must avoid all criticism and almost any challenge that could conceivably end in failure.”

California’s government-run K-12 system thus advanced students to the next grade, even though they had not mastered the material, lest they not feel good about themselves. Such “social promotion” was outlawed in 1998, but more than half the incoming freshmen at some Cal State campuses still need remedial math and English. (See Vicki Murray, The High Price of Failure in California: How Inadequate Education Costs Schools, Students, and Society, PRI, 2008) So the self-esteem legacy endures, even though the California Task Force to Promote Self-esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility is forgotten and its “Johnny Appleseed” has moved on.

John Vasconcellos was termed out of the Assembly in 1996 then ran for the state Senate, from which he was termed out in 2004, after 38 years in the Legislature. Calwatchdog requested his appraisal of the self-esteem movement but a staffer at the Vasconcellos Project said he was in France and unable to respond. “A Message from John Vasconcellos” on the project’s Web site does address the subject in a fashion.

“I find myself longing to leave a lasting legacy that will preserve and sustain for future generations my radically new vision of government called the Politics of Trust,” Vasconcellos explains.

“What will best constitute this living legacy,” he writes, “is the generation of a new movement in American politics, grounded in the belief that human beings are innately inclined toward becoming life-affirming, constructive, responsible and trustworthy. I believe that from this faithful view of our essential human nature, a whole new series of policies, programs, and political processes can emerge that truly serve to inspire and benefit the growth and healing potential of each and every citizen in our community. . .”

“With your help I’ve successfully raised the banners of healthy self-esteem, of diversity, inclusion and collaboration, and of the importance of searching out the deepest roots of our problems,” the statement adds, concluding:

“I appeal to you for your full and active partnership in my final and most ambitious undertaking of my political career. Let us work together to broadcast our faithful vision of humanity and to revolutionize our system of governance to reflect who we are becoming as a people. Let us start with ourselves, so that we may ultimately empower every institution, from our families to the United Nations, to nurture and support our capacities to become empathic neighbors and authentic leaders.”

What goes around comes around, also true, in a way, of  Pat Nolan, the Republican assemblyman who co-signed Vasconcellos 1990 letter to legislators.

First elected in 1978, he became a rising star and the Assembly Republican leader. Then he accepted a campaign contribution that was part of the FBI’s “Shrimpscam” sting operation. Nolan plead guilty to one count of racketeering and in the mid-1990s spent more than two years in federal prison. He now works with Justice Fellowship, a division of Prison Fellowship, founded by Charles Colson of Watergate fame.

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