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Jewish World Review Feb. 7, 2002/ 25 Shevat, 5762

Suzanne Fields

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When self-esteem runs out of steam -- CONVENTIONAL wisdom makes gamblers of the oddsmakers and riches for the risk-takers. Sometimes.

The Super Bowl was exciting in the fourth quarter because the St. Louis Rams, who were supposed to win by two touchdowns, fell far behind, then drew even, and then couldn't stop a thrilling New England Patriots drive for a field goal as the clock ran out. Not unbelievable, but improbable.

That's often the way. Conventional wisdom doesn't always hold up, no matter how many people believe it and no matter what the "facts'' or "odds'' say. Not only in sports, but with certain fads and trends that make up conventional wisdom, too. Fads and riches gather a momentum of their own, and emotional enthusiasms get mixed up with the opinions of the experts and pundits -- the guys with the printing presses and the microphones -- and public opinion follows. This is often most dramatic in sporting events because a lot of factors, including the weather and human frailty, can make mincemeat of the odds.

I knew a bookie once who kept thousands of "facts'' on yellow legal pads, detailing everything anybody could know about all the Saturday horse races. He meticulously marked the condition of the track, the training of the horse, his knowledge of the jockey, and, he always joked (I assumed it was a joke), "what guy in the stable had a hypodermic handy.''

But there's always something somebody doesn't know. That's what makes horse races, and it's fascinating to watch how the vagaries of conventional wisdom play a part in making an idea take off.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book "The Tipping Point'' tells how certain products and ideas can spread with the speed of viruses to reach tipping points -- exponentially, as they say -- and accelerate to become a fad or sometimes a fearful trend. He cites examples in shoes and crime. Hush Puppies (the shoes, not the accompaniment for a catfish dinner) sold 30,000 pairs a year for years, and then, reaching a tipping point, catapulted to 430,000 pairs sold in 1994.

Sociologists have shown how graffiti inevitably leads to the deterioration of a neighborhood, and then runaway crime. What halts the momentum of a trend or an idea is sometimes difficult to figure out. (Rudy Giuliani figured graffiti was the cause of a lot of the trouble in New York and when he put the graffiti artists out of business Gotham was started on its way back.)

In sports, there are winners and losers, points on a scoreboard or the times of a race, but the tipping points in other places are harder to identify. Psychological dictums, for example, are often based on unproved theories accepted by credulous people in positions of influence and authority, who pass on their flawed judgment and soon there's flawed conventional wisdom.

The notion that "self-esteem'' is what makes winners and losers has influenced teachers and mental health professionals for decades, damaging a generation of young people who were taught to think well of themselves when they sometimes shouldn't have. Sometimes "self-esteem'' is based on nothing more than wishful thinking and the gratification of flattery. Skeptics of "self-esteem'' theories have been gathering counter data for some time, but only recently has such criticism begun to move close to the tipping point.

Several researchers have found that high self-esteem may not only be a false measure of self, but can lead to poor results in the classroom and a willful disregard for others. Students with low self-esteem may do better than those with high self-esteem, Nicholas Emler of the London School of Economics tells the New York Times. Why? "Because they often try harder. "Antisocial men are often racist or violent, he says, "because they don't feel bad (begin ital) enough (end ital) about themselves.''

One study of American school children who performed poorly in a math test discovered that false confidence, encouraged by their teachers, contributed to failure. They thought they were doing well when they weren't and consequently didn't try as hard as they should have.

When teachers puff up the self-esteem of failing students, they retard authentic achievement based on hard work. Self-approval and self-worth outrun self-discipline and self-control. Authentic self-confidence flows from learning and understanding, not from feeling. The self-esteem movement is based on simple-minded shibboleths such as "Love thyself,'' rather than "Know thyself.''

One teacher of American history cites an essay by one of his high school students, who wrote that limited knowledge lowers one's "self of steam.'' You might say he's discovered the boiling point, if not the tipping point. A New England Patriot would know about that.

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