Tag Archives: David Brooks

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.”

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