Individualism and Institutionalism, Part Two

26 12 2007

Picking up where I left off in part one:

MisEducation’s Mind Field of the Moment
Harry Potter and Hogwarts:
Making Magic in Spite of School

Hogwarts Life Lesson #2 —
Individuals are not interchangeable. People cannot be standardized, though we often pretend otherwise. Teaching, parenting, and public service are neither noble nor shields for abusive individuals — they can be anything in between. It all depends on the individual.

Here’s an unusually raw example of institutional and collective concerns trumping individual needs and concerns in learning — a little boy takes the state fourth grade test but doesn’t understand an essay question well enough to address it.

So he writes nothing, which the institution chooses to interpret as his individual “choice” to be “insubordinate” — ever notice that this crime of insubordination literally means failing to subordinate one’s individuality to the satisfaction of some outside authority, to lose oneself and be counted underneath that authority? — and winds up suspended from school for a full week to teach him the *real* lesson of institutional schooling, spelled out in the official letter to his mother:

Thus, he has compromised the representation of what his peers know
and are able to do. Their scores will be reported as a group, not as
individuals. Additionally, this extends to the whole fourth grade, as our school
score, the one that is reported to the state and the media, is an average of all
fourth grade students. Thus, his choice impacts Tyler, his classmates, his
grade mates, and his school. As we have worked so hard this year to improve
our writing skills, this is a particularly egregious wound. . . .

Details of this case are posted in the standardized testing thread.


The ethic of individual effort and even the word “individualism” shows up today in, of all places, the extremely institutional New York Times. JJ

The Republican Party succeeds among the poor because it is
seen as the party of optimistic individualism.


Last week the Pew Research Center came out with a study of the American electorate that crystallized something I’ve been sensing for a long time: rich people are boring, but poor people are interesting.

The Pew data demonstrated that . . . affluent people are pretty well represented by their parties, are not internally conflicted and are pretty much stuck in their ways.

But poorer voters are not like that. They’re much more internally conflicted and not represented well by any party. . . These less-educated voters are more cross-pressured and more independent than educated voters.

If you’re looking for creative tension, for instability, for a new political movement, the lower middle class is probably where it’s going to emerge.

. . . George Bush won the white working class by 23 percentage points in this past election. Many people have wondered why so many lower-middle-class waitresses in Kansas and Hispanic warehouse workers in Texas now call themselves Republicans. The Pew data provide an answer: they agree with Horatio Alger.

These working-class folk like the G.O.P.’s social and foreign policies, but the big difference between poor Republicans and poor Democrats is that the former believe that individuals can make it on their own with hard work and good character.

According to the Pew study, 76 percent of poor Republicans believe most people can get ahead with hard work. Only 14 percent of poor Democrats believe that. Poor Republicans haven’t made it yet, but they embrace what they take to be the Republican economic vision – that it is in their power to do so. Poor Democrats are more likely to believe they are in the grip of forces beyond their control.

The G.O.P. succeeds because it is seen as the party of optimistic individualism.

But when you look at how Republicans behave in office, you notice that they are often clueless when it comes to understanding the lower-class folks who put them there. They are good at responding to business-class types and social conservatives, but bad at responding to poor Republicans. . .

Remember, these Republicans are disproportionately young women with children. Nearly 70 percent have trouble paying their bills every month. They are optimistic about the future, but their fear of their lives falling apart stalks them at night.

Poorer Republicans support government programs that offer security, so long as they don’t undermine the work ethic. . .


I heard filmmaker Jonathan Nossiter interviewed on NPR this
morning about his “Mondovino” (set for DVD release July 12.) He deplored the global marketing and contests/competitions that together have created wine’s disturbingly standardized taste today — a regression to some mean that is childish, simplistic, superficial, undemanding and robotic.

He believes we’re infantalizing and institutionalizing a few thousand years of individuality and complex nuance, apparently for the
sake of control, predictability and winning contest points.

He might as well have been talking about what school has done to education.

A months-old NY Times feature described Nossiter’s film as an obsession to be true to his own “real love of wine” even if it angered other “wine-lovers” which it does seem to have done (watch for more fallout from the 10-part TV serialization to come!)

From the movie’s box:
“Wine has been a symbol of Western civilization for thousands of years. Never has the fight for its soul been as desperate. Never has there been so much money -and pride- at stake.
But the battle lines are not what you’d expect: local versus multinational, simple peasants versus powerful captains of industry. In the world of wine, it is never the usual suspects.”

But on the upside of our “wine is to children” analogy, there was this travel story quote:

“On our trip, we quickly learned that kids and wine have one thing in
: they need to breathe in the open air. . .”

And for another view, film critic John Powers reviews the film “Mondovino” as a way to talk about the tough but realistic trade-offs we face when we value both diversity AND affordable access for the masses, both quality and quantity, both the quirky local and the successfully flattened globe, both the individual and the institution.

It’s a short audio column, maybe three minutes.

How many individuals did it take to make a New World?

A new population-genetic method for assessing human demographic history
reveals that the effective size of the founding population of the New World comprised less than 80 individuals.



Lobbying to institutionalize standards for individual home cooking tools in law?! Another
sign of the coming Apocalypse . . .

British Medical Experts Call for
Long, Pointy Knife Control

The authors of an editorial in the British Medical Journal
have called for laws requiring knife manufacturers to
redesign their wares with rounded, blunt tips.

. . .The authors of the editorial argued that the pointed tip is a
vestigial feature from less mannered ages, when people used it to spear
meat. They said that they interviewed 10 chefs in England, and that
“none gave a reason why the long, pointed knife was essential,” though
short, pointed knives were useful.

An American chef, however, disagreed with the proposal. “This is yet
another sign of the coming apocalypse,” said Anthony Bourdain, the
executive chef at Les Halles and the author of “Kitchen Confidential.”

(JJ’s note – I’ve read it and also his “Bone in the Throat.” He’s a real individualist’s individual.)

A knife, he said, is a beloved tool of the trade, and not a thing to be
shaped by bureaucrats. A chef’s relationship with his knives develops
over decades of training and work, he said, adding, “Its weight, its
shape – these are all extensions of our arms, and in many ways, our

He compared the editorial to efforts to ban unpasteurized cheese. “Where
there is no risk,” he said, “there is no pleasure.” Read the rest of this entry »

Individualism AND — not VERSUS — Institutionalism

26 12 2007

Unity-N-Diversity is tackling this topic just as I did at NHEN beginning five years ago. I had progressed from the old legislative email list to the forums. I started a thread titled, “Individualism versus institutionalism” but as you’ll see reading through these notes, a homeschool dad persuaded me to change the “versus” to be less exclusionist in my language, and change my thinking to match. Legal & Legislative Forum

(choose “printer-friendly” icon if needed, to read whole file)

Topic author: JJ Ross
Subject: Individualism and Institutionalism
Posted on: May 02 2005

This thread is to consider individualism and institutionalism — understanding how the tension between them has affected public perceptions of home education, the resulting political/legislative environment, and what it suggests for the future.

This topic arose on Kay’s HS legislative watch list and is being expanded here to be as broad and/or detailed as the participants care to make it. JJ

From 2002 on NHEN’s original legislative list:

“Public schooling in practice today is a socialist collective. Home
education is an individual repudiation of that collective. Every debate among us homeschooling individuals seems to rest on this tension between the claims of the collective and the yearning for self-determination — for ourselves AND our own children.

No wonder home education is viewed as such a threat by collectives
like unions and government bureaucracies, who perversely claim they can strengthen and support individuals by subsuming them.

. . . Maybe the real issue is not homeschooling versus
e-schooling, but community versus collective. . .”

It just occurred to me this topic’s elephant in the living room may turn out to be “church” —
personal faith is individual while organized religion is institutional.

So, is anyone balancing personal faith and organized religion within their homeschooling already coping with this tension between individualism and institutionalism?
What could we learn from that?

In news coverage of the Schiavo case, one story detailed its individual versus institutional tensions, and even showed them reversing position over time. I wonder if the personal and institutional tensions in education are having a similar reversal, from similar influences:

* involvement with a “cult of experts” who may not agree between
themselves or with family members, and whose professional interests can
conflict with individual or family interests,

* mistrust of strangers and large, impersonal institutions;

* subjective personal standards of morality, pragmatism and respect for
human life and dignity, coupled with a sense that one’s personal views
are too important for “compromise” of any sort;

* lay people latching onto complex (or misleading, even purposely false)
ideas and information spread across the Internet, ideas and information
fiercely held beyond all reason;

* the pendulum-swing nature of institutional change and public opinion;

* the rule-making, objectifying, standardizing thrust of government in
even the most personal, private human decisions;

* and as always — love and money, of course.

by Pam Belluck

BOSTON, March 26 – For years, when families and hospitals fought over
how to treat critically ill patients, families often pressed to let
their loved ones die, while hospitals tried to keep them alive.

But in the last decade or so, things have changed.

Now, doctors and ethicists say that when hospitals and families clash,
conflicts often pit families who want to continue life support and
aggressive medical care against doctors who believe it is time to stop. . .


“You can’t be a sweet cucumber in a vinegar barrel.”

Too much to summarize or excerpt – Stanford psychologist details how “place” can win over “person” through concepts like institutionalization, escalating dehumanization, stress and stereotyping, the seduction of boredom, the evil of inaction and much more.

Hard to read. Important ideas that do seem to apply.

Jeanne wrote:

We are deviant. We tend to deviate as individuals by not participating in this enormous social institution. However, there is also a concept of positive social deviance, and that’s how I see homeschooling.

A third-millennium book this brings to mind is “The Deviant’s Advantage” by Mathews and Wacker.

I’ve written about it before at NHEN (I’ll look around) and included it in our Thinking Parent Resources at the PDE website. The authors use this definition of positive deviance:

“Deviance is nothing more than marked separation from the norm, and it is the source of innovation, the kind of breakthrough thinking that creates new markets and tumbles traditional ones . . .”

That book came out in 2002, but the new Daniel Pink book says the same thing and in more poetic, developmental language imo — “A Whole New Mind” says in the flyleaf that it’s all about “what it takes for individuals AND organizations to excel.” Then just this week, there’s a national surge of emphasis on the same point, that the future belongs to those who think for themselves, who look ahead to innovate individual answers and create new meanings, rather than those well-trained by hidebound, standardized institutions (be they schools, employers, or governments) in regurgitating a codified piece of any past.

Newsweek’s current special report says our children’s future will be “China’s Century”, and how American schools can’t adjust but some enlightened families and individually motivated students are rushing to prepare. Even China itself is innovating rather than following traditions and old ways — its most powerful cultural export right now isn’t Confucianism or communism. It’s the movies, and it’s not the old chop-sockey stuff either.

Chinese and Asian cinema hybrids now are deviant, multiculturally diverse and open in some very influential ways. Hollywood has been cross-pollinated and neither the studio system or the governments involved matter much in determining how it will all turn out, nor could they prevent it.

Then Tom Friedman’s column in the New York Times this morning refers to how individual students can “positively deviate” from schools and universities while enrolled, without trying to change the institutions in any way. (He got to thinking about all this on his latest book tour for “The World is Flat: The Wealth of Yet More Nations”):

. . .there’s a huge undertow of worry out in the country about how our kids are being educated and whether they’ll be able to find jobs in an increasingly flat world, where more Chinese, Indians and Russians than ever can connect, collaborate and compete with us. In three different cities I had parents ask me some version of: “My daughter [or son] is studying Chinese in high school. That’s the right thing to do, isn’t it?”

Not being an educator, I can’t give any such advice. But my own research has taught me that the most important thing you can learn in this era of heightened global competition is how to learn. Being really good at “learning how to learn,” as President Bill Brody of Johns Hopkins put it, will be an enormous asset in an era of rapid change and innovation, when new jobs will be phased in and old ones phased out faster than ever.

One ninth grader in St. Paul asked me, then “what courses should I take?” How do you learn how to learn? Hmm. Maybe, I said, the best way to learn how to learn is to go ask your friends: “Who are the best teachers?” Then – no matter the subject – take their courses. When I think back on my favorite teachers, I don’t remember anymore much of what they taught me, but I sure remember being excited about learning it.

What has stayed with me are not the facts they imparted, but the excitement about learning they inspired. To learn how to learn, you have to love learning – while some people are born with that gene, many others can develop it with the right teacher (or parent).

Don’t you LOVE that?! Learning is an individual spark, not an institutional requirement, and it passes person-to-person through authentic human relationships, not government mandates. What could say it better: “To learn how to learn, you have to love learning — many . . . can develop it with the right teacher or parent.”

. . .In short, our own institutionalism in the West may be a bigger threat to our children’s education and future than the rise of rival nations. The mantle of power we perhaps should worry most about losing may be neither money, oil, or military force. It could be instead the one thing we always assumed was uniquely American by divine right – the Power of the Individual.


Churches that arose out of the new testament era were eventually institutionalized by the help of the Emperor Constantine. As a result, a hierarchy was established and the rule and the governing power went out of the hands of the ordinary people and into the hierarchy. I think a similar comparison can be made in early American education as schools have become an institution, individualism has in many ways gone out the door.

Yes, good example of what I was thinking about personal beliefs versus organized church hierarchies. (Emperor Constantine also was an example of church and state combining to rule? Imagine trying to fight THAT off to keep your own individual identity!)

Another book I read recently is called “A Sideways Look at Time” in which the author suggests the Christian patriarchal church literally standardized and prescribed the structure of time — hours of prayer every day, days of worship every week, months of the calendar every year– to control not the clock but the people. The idea was that the much more humanly satisfying “wild time” of children and women made pagans ungovernable.
Lots to think about!

Paul D. wrote:

“This thread is to consider individualism versus institutionalism”

I should like to make a very strong plea at this point to drop the opposition of these terms. Most characteristics of human organisations and individuals involve a spectrum, and introducing that little word “versus” forces us to come up with a definition by exclusion, a partition into the groups of “individualists” and “institutionalists” (or “institutionalised”?).

We’ve already seen the harm this can do in the case of the definition of “home schoolers”. Thinking and arguing in this way not only distorts our perception of reality, it also tempts us to attribute benefits illegitimately to the group we favour, unnecessarily raising the temperature of the dispute.

Very helpful point, thanks Paul — changing topic heading now.

The spectrum (or spiral?) image is helpful too, as a much better way to understand complicated connections and contrasts.

I did choose the -ism suffix for a reason, to mean something that’s become a sort of dogma in itself. Like scientism is sometimes used to mean elevating science to a sort of worship or all-purpose imperative, beyond what’s rational or directly supported by science itself. Too much of one good thing to the exclusion of all others, perhaps?

In this sense, individual-ism and institutional-ism would indeed be opposing mindsets set against each other. Jeanne’s earlier point was that home education can get squeezed by that tug-of-war between -isms and (thus I inferred) that it helps to learn more about how this has happened with these particular two -isms.

So I’m thinking that while WE ourselves don’t want to set them against each other in destructive or limiting ways, we need to realize that it’s often done by others, and to examine how both individual-ism and institutional-ism have negative effects on our freedom (one word I’ve never heard morph into an -ism!) And maybe figure out more about where home education catches the most light on that spectrum of the individual and the institution?

If this just seems confusing or anyone has a better way to capture this meaning, please do! Read the rest of this entry »