Universities, Individualism, and David Brooks

In a recent op-ed, New York Times columnist David Brooks raised an interesting and important question. Drawing on a recent book (largely neglected) by Hugh Heclo entitled On Thinking Institutionally, Brooks critiqued a report on education that a Harvard University faculty committee issued a few years ago. According to the report, “the aim of a liberal education is to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people and to help them find ways to reorient themselves.”
Brooks observed that this logic “is deeply consistent with the individualism of modern culture, with its emphasis on personal inquiry, personal self-discovery and personal happiness.” The problem is that this way of living neglects the important role that tradition and institutional custom play in providing order and a sense of duty that give meaning and form to life. Brooks quotes Heclo: “In taking delivery, institutionalists see themselves as debtors who owe something, not creditors to whom something is owed.”
Brooks points to the erosion of obligation and responsibility in the banking profession as one example of the problem, among many. “Faith in all institutions, including charities, has declined precipitously over the past generation… Lack of institutional awareness has bred cynicism and undermined habits of behavior. Bankers, for example, used to have a code that made them a bit stodgy and which held them up for ridicule in movies like ‘Mary Poppins.’ But the banker’s code has eroded, and the result was not liberation but self-destruction.”

Brooks is onto something important. But the problem is more subtle than he portrays. After all, individualism and individual rights are themselves foundational principles in the American political and philosophical tradition. Accordingly, we should not treat individualism, tradition, and institutional obligation as antithetical entities, but rather as mutually supportive principles. The question is how they fit together to foster meaningful existence and citizenship.
Brooks begins his piece by referring to the report from Harvard, America’s most noted educational institution. Indeed, the status of higher education today is a microcosm of the civic and philosophical tensions at stake, but not in as straight-forward a way as Brooks implies. In many respects, higher education has been at war with individualism over the course of the last twenty years. The rise of identity politics and administrative-bureaucratic regulations and prohibitions (e.g., speech codes, overly broad harassment codes, sensitivity and re-education programs, and the virtual “criminalization” of independent thought that is deemed hostile to “diversity” as defined by campus leaders) has not been the friend of individualism, but rather its enemy.
Several years ago an administrator at Penn chastised an unwary student for having the temerity to use the word “individual” in a memo to the university planning committee. “This is a RED FLAG phrase today, which is considered by many to RACIST,” the administrator wrote back. “Arguments that champion the individual over the group ultimately privileges [sic] the ‘individuals’ belonging to Penn’s largest or dominant group.” This administrator was connected to professional organizations that now comprise a national network, and her views were broadly representative of the thinking in these bailiwicks.
Interestingly, the diminishment of respect for individualism on campus has gone hand-in-hand with the belittling of respect for tradition. Many faculty members and the vast sensitivity bureaucracies that now straddle higher education often view tradition cynically, as predominantly the domain of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of intolerance. Sensitivity programs on “white privilege” are prominent at many campuses (including my own), and many history programs downplay traditional studies in political history, diplomatic history, and military history in favor of detailed study of race, gender, sexual orientation, and the like. And search the web site of any university, and you will find significant resources devoted to programs promoting “global citizenship” and global obligations. Seldom will you encounter much devotion to the traditions and citizenship of most students’ own country, even though, as Aristotle had to remind Plato, obligation and trust are best fostered at home, rather than abroad.
No honest and fair person can deny that American history is replete with various forms of utterly unacceptable discrimination, and that responsible scholarship should face and deal with these realities. But history and tradition are much richer than the cynical view assumes, often embodying principles and standards that provide the very means to challenge and overcome our collective sins. Martin Luther King understood history this way, as his reformist method entailed compelling America to live up to its principles and ideals—ideals that King deeply respected. King was also profoundly committed to the proposition that respect for the moral autonomy and responsibility of the individual is a necessary ingredient of any morally responsible mass political movement. To him, respect for moral obligation and individual freedom were not antipodes, but two sides of the same coin.
In Democracy in America, published in the 1830s, Tocqueville presented one of the most insightful political theories of the interdependent relationship between community and individualism. Tocqueville understood that “political freedom” required strong, self-reliant individuals who have confidence in the power of their own minds. But he also understood that such character is typically dependent upon the proper community support and sense of obligation. He feared that “excessive individualism” would undermine the support system that nourishes truly independent minds, ironically leading to mass conformity as individuals sought a faulty form of support in mass conformity, or what Tocqueville famously called the “tyranny of the majority.”
From this perspective, the problem is not so much that universities are promoting individualism over tradition, but rather that they have forsaken an appreciation and understanding of both. And the right relationship (or tension) between tradition and individualism is necessary for fostering the type of character that makes political freedom possible.
By disrespecting individual rights and tradition, universities are contributing to either student conformity on the altar of political correctness, or—more likely today—to excessive individualism in Tocqueville’s sense. Ostensibly progressive policies unhinged from due respect for individualism and tradition become oppressive political correctness; most students see the problems associated with these regimes, and refuse (in various ways) in the name of self-respect to go along. But because appropriate respect for tradition has been weakened or even eviscerated in higher education and society, the majority of students have no place to go for guidance except their own, still unformed, beliefs and lights. They assert their individual freedom, but do not know what they stand for or why, other than a vague sense of careerism which takes the form of resume padding.
An insightful undergraduate advisor and instructor I know at Madison has marveled to me that many students ask him such questions as “what should I be interested in?” What one is “interested in” is an existential matter that no one can answer except oneself. Such questions are a sign of a rudderless generation that has lost the mooring provided by a strong, confident culture. Until universities regain due respect for individualism and tradition, this problem will only grow.


  • Donald A. Downs

    Donald A. Downs, winner of the 2013 Jeane Kirkpatrick Academic Freedom Award, is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin Madison and Faculty Advisor to the Institute for Humane Studies’ Free Speech and Open Inquiry Project.

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