Self-esteem is a democratic idea. In a hierarchical society, one’s self-image is determined by one’s role: as patriarch, as Brahmin, as elder, etc. Aristocratic societies do not speak of self-esteem but of honor. In a democratic society, self-esteem is regarded as an entitlement. Unlike honor, it does not have to be earned.
Self-esteem in the West is largely a product of the Romantic Movement, which exalts feelings over reason, the subjective over the objective. Self-esteem is based on the wisdom that Polonius imparted to Lacerates: to thine own self be true. We are encouraged to discover and then affirm our inner selves, which will lead to personal achievement and satisfaction.
This is one of the conclusions drawn by advocates of multiculturalism. Their premise is that the traditional Western curriculum makes minority and female students feel ignored and left out. They argue that the result of such exclusion is an injury to self-esteem and an impediment to the academic achievement of women and minorities. Therefore, there are now many programs to boost the self-image of students, and not just minority students. One such program is Outcomes Based Education, which downplays grades and other measures of merit and instead focuses on such things as maintaining “emotional and social well-being” or developing “a positive personal self-concept.” As has been shown in numerous studies, this does not make successful students; it only makes happy students.