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!

OOH, that exchange with Paul (and editing myself to try to make more sense) just made me think of the Fox and the Hedgehog (or the Ant and the Peacock?) — off to see which, and why . . .

Okay, why both books came to mind in this context —
“The Hedgehog, The Fox, and the Magister’s Pox” is about reconciling science with the humanities, or how to understand them as an integrated whole, and “The Ant and the Peacock” is about reconciling this seeming paradox in nature: are individuals or collectives favored?

The “ant” could be home education in this discussion — insignificantly small, renouncing tooth and claw — but also could be schooling because it lives in the “public-spirited ways of the commune.”

Or is home education the flamboyant peacock?

(Hint – To parallel Paul’s point, the question is deeper than choosing between individual and institution. The only right answer seems to be that homeschoolers and all humans are both and neither, and that the real trick is being able to see and appreciate the full spectrum of individual and collective characteristics in all its complexity.)

Is home education the single-minded and prickly hedgehog or the lithe, inventive fox? (“The fox devises many strategies; the hedgehog knows one great and effective strategy” – translation from Latin version by Erasmus)

The Hedgehog/Fox author says that our human tendency to make every question a simple dichotomy between two opposite choices is probably just baggage from caveman decisions like fight-flight, sleep-wake, mate-wait. I suggest that tendency itself should be evidence against institutionalized education – look what “school” does to knowledge and wisdom by breaking it up into little disconnected learning “standards” with forced choice right-wrong answers and discrete disciplines. (But that’s another thread?)

Neither book performs its scholarly concilience by taking sides, both books raise whole new lines of inquiry rather than prescribing answers, and both books are about beauty, goodness and intelligence, three things which one reviewer said “especially puzzled Charles Darwin.”

Jeanne wrote:

People are often surprised when my factory-manager husband — who seems very *traditional* — says his kids are homeschooled. He explains by saying, “Innovation!”, which makes sense in business-speak, so the question is answered to everyone’s satisfaction.

Excellent! I can just see them nodding, too. Great image.

And it suggests another idea – we could start a list — on-going, I mean, to keep adding to — of which frames like this would resonate in different contexts.

My former colleagues (educators and professors, school principals and psychologists, lobbyists for education funding and grants) are satisfied by “individualized instruction!” or “you can’t beat the pupil-teacher ratio!”

In the car yesterday, DD15 said something about a metaphor and I asked little DS if he knew what a metaphor was, not trying to quiz him but just so he could follow the conversation.

And he says: “Of course! (clears his throat) A metaphor is something not meant to be taken literally.”

DD and I shot each other a glance and laughed, and then asked him if he remembered where he had come across that word and meaning.

Upon which he describes a scene in “The Lion King 1 1/2” (doing all the voices) and, although I’m sure it wasn’t meant as English grammar instruction, apparently it did a rather fine job on this point just the same — Power of Story!

It seems to me the whole point of getting outside institutional curriculum and schooling is to exceed it rather than escape it, to individually go beyond and be bigger than those limits, in whatever directions catch one’s individual fancy, in as much depth for as long as one stays interested and engaged. So the homeschool-unschool approach would be based on adding, building, exploring and expanding, not shrinking, avoiding, and evading anything explicitly “educational” (much less limiting ourselves even more narrowly to only what fits some dogma labeled “home-educational.”)

And then we get to connect it all up in our own individual brains, each of which really is “unique” among several billion and cannot (should not!) be standardized or subsumed by any institutionalism.
About homeschoolers being “deviant” —

Jeanne, just a thought, you might want to include some sources specifically about “norms” and averaging, mean-median-mode differences and so forth, along with your links for cognitive science, philosophy and all the other sources you’re finding.

Depending on how the loaf is sliced, my family often seems to find ourselves in a small, abnormal group of 2-5 per cent on one end of some scale — home education is a major one of course, also a few unusual physical/medical things, some test scores, my own education, not being registered in any political party, heck, even the traditional family of four –biological mom and dad married and living with their own two children — is getting to be a form of (positive) deviance. I think now it’s less than one in three of American households or something like that.

Yet there are many other ways to slice the bread where we’re well in the middle of some huge indistinguishable middle or norm.

This year’s Tony winner for Best Musical, “Avenue Q,” introduces a funny song demonstrating through jokes on diverse characters that “everyone’s a little bit racist.” Maybe the lesson homeschoolers can take from that is that everyone’s a little bit deviant AND a little bit normal — homeschooling or not?

Nance posted this at PDE for Mother’s Day.

Edwatch by Julia Steiny:
Starting From Scratch
Sunday, May 8, 2005
Julia Steiny is a former member of the Providence School Board; she now consults and writes for a number of education, government and private enterprises.

re: changing institutions

. . . The old guard is getting fiercer about asserting its power, but since charters and other, newer schools — like the Boston pilots — inspire real hope for improving the quality of education in our lifetime, caving in to the demands of industrial-style unions maintaining factory-model schools makes less and less sense.

Not only the unions, but traditional school administrators are beating a path to their state houses to insist that money not be siphoned off for the newer schools on the block. With tightening state budgets and federal demands for improved test scores, battles are brewing between the often-dysfunctional old institutions and the powerless but more promising new schools.

A group called Philanthropy for Education got together to mull over this issue and produce a report called “A New Bet for Better Schools.” (Available through — click on Publications.) The report pulls no punches laying out the problem of philanthropies that badly want to support new schools while being accused of unfair prejudice against the old.

Right up front, the report acknowledges:
“The current public education system serves fewer than 60 percent of its students well. . . . This experience leads to two conclusions. First, if this country is going to come anywhere near meeting its escalated expectations for our schools, we’ve got to create significant numbers of schools that are different in fundamental ways from the schools we used during the 20th century. Second, we are not likely to get the kinds of schools we need by changing the schools we have. For the most part, we will need to create these different schools anew.”

And there you have education’s current dilemma. . .

JJ’s note – no, that’s just the SCHOOL SYSTEM’S dilemma, not education’s dilemma. The whole column is about the Aladdin-like changing of new schools for old, not really about “starting from scratch” at all, as its heading claims.

Changing school is only the institutional part of the dilemma. Useful to examine, but if you start from the fallacious equation of “Education equals Schooling,” any answers you get will be flawed too. Schooling is a subset of education, or maybe they’re two circles that partly overlap and share some area (not concentric circles though — I no longer believe that schooling and education share the same center.)

And we know that staring at *anything* too long without changing focus creates distortion, not clarity.

But all that said, she offers some good stuff about changing institutions – check this out:

“The report goes on to examine theories of organizational change. The texts they use are The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen of Harvard’s Business School and Creative Destruction by Richard Foster of the McKinsey Group. Frankly, their conclusions sound strikingly similar to those in Jim Collins’ Good to Great and other recent popular successes about organizational change.

Their bottom line: It is infinitely harder to change existing organizations than it is to start from scratch.

The reason for this resistance to change is what Foster calls “the invisible architecture” of the organization, which is to say its culture — “this is the way we’ve always done things.”

When powerful CEOs implement innovations, even they find that over time the company’s culture molds and erodes the innovation until it “fits comfortably back into the old culture.”

Starting from scratch means that you can define the objectives, values and structures without battling an entrenched culture. We know, for example, that typical, factory-model American schools were designed to be efficient, easily sloughing off problem students including those not making it academically. The 1950’s dropout rate was over 50 percent.

We also know that educating those once-sloughed kids requires engaging relationships. But the organizational structure and the culture of factory- model schools prevents students and teachers from being engaged with each other, with their work, with parents or with community.

Even many kids who survive and excel in traditional public schools loudly express wanting more interesting and relevant work, served up in less dull ways, where their own passions can play a part in at least some of what they learn. Engagement on anyone’s part never was a goal of the factory-model school, whereas it is a goal of virtually all charters. . . .

So I’m thinking the central spot where institutions and individuals connect or cross paths in educational terms must be somewhere in the “cultural” realm. Hmmm —

Unfortunately then irony creeps in – after her well-justified riff on how old institutions (school systems) fiercely resist new goals, and a final “so there!” flourish, the author relaxes into her conclusion and imo, falls smack dab back into her own institutional bias: this is all about saving the institution, the SCHOOLS, rather than anything individual like learning or education, freedom of ideas, critical thought, creating the future, or even “our children.” Apparently innocent of intent to defraud and sincerely believing she offers us a great service, it turns out she too is stuck on the same old institutional goals, just shined up to fool folks in the marketplace into swapping the old family lamps that are their true treasures.

Then sinking still deeper into that institutional trance imo, she ends with the most universal institutional code word I know of — amen. So be it. It’s bigger than all of us, no point in fighting divine providence. The masses can have reform but never escape the institution itself.

She writes:

. . . regular public school districts have by far and away the largest share of kids and power, but too often their objectives are so last year, we can’t afford them any more. We need the new world of teachers who are organized and encouraged to behave like professionals in engaging new schools. . .

“This is not an easy journey. But if we are going to retain the wonderful institution of public education through this new century, we must have the courage to help it change.”



While some of us were discussing the five-year-old girl handcuffed at school last month, the story about police and school systems recruiting students as “snitches” came out.

Neither case is about learning or teaching; both are about crime, law enforcement and population control, pure and simple. And they both stem from our increasingly institutional view of what’s best for young children (despite all the flowery individualistic language with which institutions try to make it seem otherwise) —

Here’s an excerpt from the snitch story, followed by my response from the PDE list:

Students Rewarded for Tattling at School
Associated Press Writer
April 26, 2005

. . . Critics call them “snitch” programs, saying they are a knee-jerk reaction to student violence. Some education professionals fear such policies could create a climate of distrust in schools and turn students against each other.

“There are very few things that I can think of that would be more
effective at destroying that sense of community,” said Bruce Marlowe, an education psychology professor at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I.

About 2,000 schools and colleges, from Honolulu to Palm Beach County, Fla., have adopted Student Crime Stoppers programs like
Houston County, according to the nonprofit Crime Stoppers U.S.A.,
which began helping schools set up such programs in 1983.

Most schools offer an anonymous phone line or a school drop box for tips. Rewards range from cash to gift certificates to free parking passes. The goal: “Heading off some problems rather than waiting until they happen and responding afterward,” said Tim Hensley, a school system spokesman. . .

Frank Farley, an educational psychology professor at Temple
University in Philadelphia, said students should be taught to speak up without being offered a reward.

“This idea of surveillance — there’s something unsavory there,”
Farley said. “We’re familiar with the history of that in the former
Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.” He added: “I think it’s bad civics.”

My “individual” response to the “snitching as bad civics” quote:

But we never step back to look at the institution of “school” itself, to see if IT’S bad civics? And to see how we could change the institution instead of the inmates?

Seems like that would be a smarter choice than just going with the flow, pouring on the acid and turning them all into one big barrel of pickles.

So this is the current thread running through Thinking Parent news discussion — when bad things happen involving our kids, what are our choices as we figure out how to respond? And what do kids “learn” from the different responses we can make?

I see connections between this and punishments of all types, for example. The reasoning is that we must command children’s respect for authority “for their own good.” Scofflaw behavior and disrespect for authority must be swiftly corrected and contained. I see a straight line between this choice of response and the way communities treat school-aged children, how truancy crack-downs lead to sweeping all kids (even hsers and the non-truant) off the streets with suspicious questioning and curfews, to the testing and accountability excesses that I fear soon will demand every child learn everything “for the good of the community.”

More law and order is one mainstream choice of response, but too often it feels like the only one. Schooling and education in our society seems to be more and more about law enforcement (and not without reasons.) I remember back in the 80s when the first handful of benign, helpful, positive “school resource officers” began appearing on school campuses, to the great concern of most parents and schoolfolk. Now we don’t even pretend they’re resources and role
models — their job is to handcuff, arrest and if necessary swat-team and lock-down the whole school, and apparently not even the kindergarten girls can call them Officer Friendly these days.

So here it seems their street protocol has gone another step. They are developing networks of snitches among the population they patrol and control. This makes perfect sense from a law-enforcement mindset, of course. And what fine preparation for the kids who will wind up in
prison —

There must be other choices. Not just for each of us in our free, autonomous families, I mean, but in our collective wisdom for the good of the society and schools we share. As DS9 has said ever since he was old enough to talk, “I need some more options!”

More from this NHEN discussion topic will be posted as Part Two.



3 responses

26 12 2007
Individualism and Institutionalism, Part Two « Cocking A Snook!

[…] Individualism and Institutionalism, Part Two 26 12 2007 Picking up where I left off in part one: […]

27 12 2007
JJ Ross

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?

So maybe we could use a word like “Christianism” these days, to distinguish world-conquering dominionist dogma as completely different from C.S. Lewis’ individual and private discoveries in “mere christianity?”

3 10 2009
How Humans Are Hard-Wired to Treat Each Other « Cocking A Snook!

[…] on both competitive and cooperative creatures, particularly as applied to homeschooling families: Individualism AND — not versus — Institutionalism Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Hard-wired for hierarchies?Hodge-PodgeMotivation […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: