LOS ANGELES, FEB. 19 -- Sure, people laughed. What other state would have the sun-freckled gall to take public money and spend it on something called the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility? Why shouldn't cartoonist Garry Trudeau, and every editorial writer between here and Bangor, Maine, make fun of it?
Many thought it would sink as quickly as the evening sun off Big Sur, one more West Coast quirk that, like orange juice stands and drive-in churches, had had its day.
The skeptics forgot that many good ideas were born in ridicule, and that many Californians had long ago lost interest in what the rest of the world thought of them.
Thus it was that today, in a hotel ballroom jammed with people and throbbing with self-awareness, the father of the political arm of the self-esteem movement stood up to declare a year of triumph, over doubt, over derision, over all negative vibrations.
"California is the state that more than any other has dared to wonder what it means to be human," said state Assemblyman John Vasconcellos, who won a three-year fight to persuade a skeptical legislature and governor to set up the task force. The tall, rumpled Democrat is now known as much for that effort as he is for his position as chairman of the powerful Assembly Ways and Means Committee.
"I don't know those 'Doonesbury' strips," said Jilliann Zweier, a sociology, English and theater major at the University of California at Santa Barbara who is preparing confidence-building programs for children. She avoids newspapers, since whenever she picks one up "I feel pain." Jack Canfield, president of the Los Angeles-based Foundation for Self-Esteem and a member of the state task force, smiled broadly and said, "I love Garry Trudeau. He did in two weeks what we thought would take two years to do, to raise the issue."
In the year since Trudeau's "Doonesbury" comic strip portrayed the task force as a refuge for metaphysicists and reincarnation buffs, 22 California counties have set up their own self-esteem task forces (nine counties said no). Like the state task force, the counties found the number of volunteers for positions on the task forces breaking all records. At today's opening of the second annual Southern California Self-Esteem Conference, 700 people paying a minimum of $125 each drowned Vasconcellos and Canfield in applause and prepared for a weekend orgy of discussions on the care and feeding of the psyche.
Hundreds of them were teachers and educators, armed with studies that show that smiles and optimism and gentle encouragement in the classroom can transform schools and change young lives. The task force office in Sacramento has received a growing volume of mail from social workers and educators outside the country. Its members -- a mix of fundamentalist Christians, gay activists, law enforcement officers, educators, counselors and New Age believers -- predict that many other states will follow suit once they see that the idea can save the state money spent on truant officers and prison cells.
"A lot of people thought this was just a California funny-farm kind of thing," Vasconcellos said, "rather than something serious and consequential."
Many of the exhibits and some of the workshops scattered about the Airport Hyatt Hotel today retained the tinge of the "Dare to Be Great" salesmanship industry that has sometimes given the self-esteem movement a bad name. Videotapes competed with audio lectures for space, almost all with the message that will conquers all, that you can be whatever you want to be.
Canfield, whose foundation sponsored the conference in cooperation with the task force, ended his own morning keynote speech with a pitch for his own set of merchandise -- "Self-Esteem in the Classroom," "Self-Esteem: the Key to Success" and others. The whole set, he noted, usually sells for $157, "but is just $105 if you buy today."
All social movements need money, and none of the psychologists, school superintendents and teachers present seemed embarrassed by the appeal. No matter how often the message had come from the mouths of hucksters, the educators here seemed convinced that it has real power, particularly when applied to troubled teen-agers.
In her workshop on "Self-Esteem in the High School Classroom," San Jose teacher Gail Dusa wrote her three main rules:
"1. No putdowns!
2. Dare to dream!
3. Who you are and what you do makes a difference."
Dusa, who teaches at a special high school for students with discipline problems, said she regularly confronted the tardy and the disruptive with the notion that their behavior affected the entire class. She encouraged personal notes from students with problems of any kind, called parents frequently and gave each student two copies of a monthly calendar of important assignments and her home telephone number -- "one for their notebooks and one to put on the refrigerator door."
She had the students draw color-coded charts of their daily activities, revealing to many how much time they spent watching television (always noted, in the Dusa system, with bright red crayon). She asked them to visualize themselves five years in the future, and look back to all that they had accomplished in that time -- an exercise that opened up expectations and shed a lifetime of negative thoughts, she said.
In a controlled study of such methods at Silver Creek High School, part of a middle- to lower-income neighborhood in San Jose, Dusa said, she discovered 75 percent of the self-esteem group completing 90 percent of their homework, compared with only 26 percent of the group that did not receive the 40 minutes each week of special training. The self-esteem students averaged one day absent each semester, compared with 16 for the other group. Thirteen percent made the honor roll, while no one in the control group did.
Robert Reasoner, superintendent of the Moreland School District in Santa Clara County, said another study of six Northern California high schools found teachers reporting an 80 percent decline in suspensions and other discipline problems in schools that adopted a curriculum designed to promote self-esteem.
The 25-member task force, with a three-year budget of $735,000, has finished a preliminary report and has scheduled a series of hearings and brainstorming sessions with self-development experts. The University of California announced in December that eight professors, including Berkeley School of Social Welfare Dean Harry Specht and his UCLA counterpart, Leonard Schneiderman, would prepare papers reviewing academic research on the connection between poor self-esteem and crime, violence, alcohol and drug abuse, teen-age pregnancy, child abuse, poor grades and chronic welfare dependency.
In his speech, Vasconcellos, a liberal Democrat, extolled a recent book by Hoover Institute scholar Thomas Sowell, a conservative, for illuminating the need to integrate visions of the outside world and the inner self into a formula for humanity.
The self-esteem the task force is looking for, he said, "is not the narcissistic . . . feel-good-all-over variety. It is the self-esteem that helps us encourage each other."