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.”


p.s. I posted this in the standardized testing folder too —

Think there’s a connection between home education and other unusual home choices that buck institutional, industry standards and attendant cultural pressures? I was aware of the home birth movement, but not this one –

A Movement to Bring Grief Back Home:
Many Bereaved Opting to Bypass Funeral Industry
By Rachel S. Cox
Sunday, June 5, 2005; A01

. . .His body, washed and dressed in his favorite clothes, lay in the master
bedroom, cooled by dry ice and open windows, and surrounded by fresh
flowers, burning candles, family photographs and mementos of his many
years as a lawyer, civil servant and father of four. Like a small number
of other bereaved in the Washington area and nationally, Judy Saul chose
to care for her husband’s body for several days at home.

Once the hospice nurse who came to certify the death had convinced the
D.C. coroner’s office that keeping the deceased at home was legal — as
it is in the District and all but five states (Connecticut, Delaware,
Indiana, Nebraska and New York) — Saul and a friend, Sally Craig, had
prepared her husband’s body with the assistance of Beth Knox, a “funeral
rites” educator whom Saul had met two months before. . .

This kind of after-death care, its advocates say, offers a more humane
and healing alternative to the standard American practice of handing the
body over to a mortician for embalming and display before cremation or

Knox said that in her seven years as director of Crossings, a Silver
Spring nonprofit she founded to help others carry out home funerals, she
has assisted about 150 families. Others active in the movement report an
increased interest in the practice, but the number of home funerals is
minuscule considering the roughly 2.4 million annual deaths in the
United States.

Like the hospice movement, which since the 1960s has helped the
terminally ill die peacefully at home, the home funeral movement aims to
protect what it calls individuals’ “right” to care for their own at
death. At its most abstract, promoters say, it hopes to dispel the fear
and denial that accompany an institutionalized approach to death, and
return life’s final act to its historical position as a natural,
profound and private event. . .

See full story at link.


New scholarly paper considering how to study what’s the “normal” between us as individuals and as cultural participants in society — more questions than answers but they are good questions to think about.

The Evolution of Norms
Paul R. Ehrlich, Simon A. Levin

Paul R. Ehrlich is with the Department of Biological Sciences, Stanford University (Stanford, California, United States of America). Simon A. Levin is with the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University (Princeton, New Jersey, United States of America).

*Published:* June 14, 2005

*DOI:* 10.1371/journal.pbio.0030194

*Copyright:* © 2005 Ehrlich and Levin. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

*Citation:* Ehrlich PR, Levin SA (2005) The Evolution of Norms. PLoS Biol 3(6): e194


Cultural evolution consists of changes in the nongenetic information stored in brains, stories, songs, books, computer disks, and the like. Despite some important first steps, no integrated picture of the process of cultural evolution that has the explanatory power of the theory of genetic evolution has yet emerged.

. . .There is a long-recognized need both to understand the process of human cultural evolution per se and to find ways of altering its course (an operation in which institutions as diverse as schools, prisons, and governments have long been engaged). In a world threatened by weapons of mass destruction and escalating environmental deterioration, the need to change our behavior to avoid a global collapse has become urgent.

A clear understanding of how cultural changes interact with individual actions is central to informing democratically and humanely guided efforts to influence cultural evolution.

While most of the effort to understand that evolution has come from the social sciences, biologists have also struggled with the issue. We argue that biologists and social scientists need one another and must collectively direct more of their attention to understanding how social norms develop and change. . .

    Sample Hypotheses about the Evolution of Norms

Hypothesis 1. Evolution of technological norms will generally be more rapid than that of ethical norms.

Technological changes are generally tested promptly against environmental conditions—a round wheel wins against a hexagonal one every time, and the advantages of adopting it are clear to all. Ethical systems, on the other hand cannot often be tested against one another, and the standards of success are not only generally undetermined, they often vary from observer to observer and are the subject of ongoing controversy among philosophers.

Hypothesis 2. In societies with nonreligious art, the evolution of norms in art will be more rapid than those in religion.

We hypothesize that art is less important to the average individual than his or her basic system of relating to the world, and conservatism in the latter would be culturally adaptive (leading to success within a culture).

Hypothesis 3. Military norms will change more in defeated nations than victorious ones.

Was the Maginot Line and the generally disastrous performance of the French army in 1940 an example of a more general rule? Does success generally breed conservatism?

Hypothesis 4. The spread of a norm is not independent of the spread of others, but depends on the spread of other norms (norm clusters).

Does, for example, empathy decrease with social stratification?

Hypothesis 5. Susceptibility to the spread of norms is negatively correlated with level of education.

Are the less educated generally more conformist, or does the spread of norms depend almost entirely on the character of the norm?

Hypothesis 6. Horizontal transmission will show less stickiness than vertical transmission.

This conjecture is based on anecdotal observations that norms like using hula hoops come and go and are primarily horizontally transmitted, and religious values and other high-viscosity points of view are mostly vertically transmitted . Legal & Legislative Forum :

© 2005



4 responses

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