For decades, Garrison Keillor has featured on his radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, the "News from Lake Woebegon," a fictional Minnesota town where "the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average."
That parody is becoming uncomfortably true to life, according to an analysis of responses to the annual American College Survey. Psychologist Jean Twenge found that college freshman are more likely to be self-centered and possess unearned self-confidence than at any time in the last four decades.
Twenge told the BBC approximately 75 percent of freshmen assert a greater "drive to achieve" than their peers, and about 60 percent rate their "intellectual self confidence" and "leadership ability" as above average. Just over half say their "social self-confidence" is above average, and just under half say their writing ability is above average.
In 1965, in only one of five categories-drive to achieve-did a majority of students (60 percent) rate themselves as "above average." In the latest analysis, in only one category-writing ability-did a bare majority of freshmen rate themselves as below average. Twenge also reports that the tendency toward narcissism is up 30 percent.
Twenge analyzed responses to a large-scale annual survey done by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Last year, the CIRP's own analysis found that freshmen have somewhat more liberal attitudes regarding social issues such as homosexual "marriage" and affirmative action.
Twenge is best-known as the author of two books on twenty-somethings: Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic. The BBC story described American teens as self-absorbed and suffering from too much self-esteem. It generated a flurry of hysterical coverage suggesting "We Are Raising a Generation of Deluded Narcissists" and college students unjustifiably "feel super special about themselves."
During the last three decades, the Self Esteem Movement fueled the notion academic and social success-rates would increase if students had strong self-images. Advocates hoped to battle problems like teen pregnancy, suicide, and violence-among other issues-by making students feel good about themselves.
"Before, the expectation had been that the responsibility of learning fell on the student-that the student needed to make the effort to do the work and to study," according to Jackquelyn Veith, who teaches pedagogy at Patrick Henry College. The self-esteem movement shifted that responsibility over to the teacher and insisted that no teacher imply students lacked effort or understanding. At the private school where Veith taught previously, "learning had to be 'fun.'"
Three generations and countless empty praises later, students are less responsible and teachers must feed students praise, while a fear of hurting students' feelings undercuts discipline.
Yet the Self Esteem Movement was a well-intentioned reaction to legitimate concerns about unfairness, Veith said. In the first half of the 1900s, racial and gender discrimination did damage many students. For example, women were expected to avoid the workforce and to become housewives, so their abilities and accomplishments were more likely to be downplayed than those of white males, Veith said.
But significant problems arose when the movement stopped rewarding achievements equally and started praising individuals equally, Veith said.
As a result, some students have unrealistically high self-images and see little or no need for improvement. But those who recognize their strengths and weaknesses do better.
Self-esteem is realistically related to what students can and can't do, Veith said. And it should be based on self-knowledge, not unwarranted praise: "The ability to be humble and to accept feedback is an area that everyone can grow in-adults as well as students."