Wednesday, January 28, 2009


Two days ago, New York Times columnist David Brooks published an editorial titled “What Life Asks of Us.” See N.Y. Times Jan. 26, 2009. In it, he argues that modern “liberal education” fosters individuality and personal self-definition, but leads also to “meaninglessness” in life. On the other hand, he argues that “institutional thinking” “saves us from our weaknesses and gives meaning to life.” I strongly disagree. Institutional thinking only gives meaning to those willing to accept the institution’s values. Meaning cannot be imposed. Meaning is subjective. To that extent, liberal education appears a far better path to meaning than institutional stricture. Only those too weak to think for themselves need an institution to “give them meaning” in their lives.

Brooks explores a critical issue: The schism between individual worth and institutional belonging in our society. The two concepts stand in fundamental conflict. On the one hand, there are institutions, which dominate conventional thought, property relations and “success” in America. On the other, there is individuality, which represents every human being’s unique perspective on the world, unguided by institutional dogma. To some extent, it is impossible to survive in this world without recourse to institutions. We all must contend with schools, employers, churches, families, courts, governments and even the post office. We must find our place within institutions to gain the credentials necessary to fend for ourselves. These are not “individualistic” pursuits. These are institutional challenges. We either follow the path set for us by the institution, or we do not receive the institution’s blessing. Without the institution’s blessing, we cannot fully realize our individual potential.

What is an institution, anyway? I thought about consulting the dictionary on this question, but I think it better to offer a definition tailored to the concepts at issue here. In this context, an “institution” is any human organization, endeavor or enterprise accepted as an authority over specific subject matter involving other human beings. This is a broad term. But it encompasses the most significant aspect about institutions: They are authoritative. Institutions impose rules and procedures on their adherents. They control knowledge and create hierarchies. If one does not accept the institution’s judgments, one must either face punishment or otherwise “fail.” And in every case, the institution has power over the adherent. The adherent is a “student,” “employee,” “practitioner,” “devotee,” “soldier,” “patient” or “prisoner.” He is an inferior party. He must take orders from someone with a higher station in the institution. In this system, individuality is only important to the extent that it supports the institution. It has nothing to do with personal meaning or definition. One either plays by the rules or fails. David Brooks calls this “meaning.” I call it imprisonment.

What, then, is “institutional thinking?” Institutions are systemic. They function like machines. Every man has his place in the system, and every man must play his part. When a man follows his appointed role properly, he is rewarded. He may even advance higher in the institutional hierarchy. But if he is too willful, or if he does not follow his appointed role, he faces harsh consequences. In school, the student may fail or be expelled. In prison, the prisoner may be thrown into solitary confinement. In the military, a soldier may be court-martialed. In the criminal justice system, a citizen may be branded an “outlaw” and punished accordingly. To avoid these fates, people in institutional settings must “act appropriately.” They must tailor their thoughts and behavior to institutional values and norms. If they “think institutionally,” they will succeed. They will please their institutional masters. But if they do not, they face negative consequences. Institutional thinking, then, represents a perverse form of loyalty. The adherent forgoes thinking for himself and follows the procedures that the institution expects. By yielding his individuality, he “finds institutional meaning.” In other words, he finds his “function” within a larger system.

How does liberal education fit into this calculus? Liberal education and individual self-definition tend to go hand in hand. As David Brooks explains: “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 help them find ways to reorient themselves.” Put another way, liberal education leads students to “question preexisting arrangements,” “examine life from the outside and discover their own values.” Liberal education deliberately exposes students to far-reaching, widely diverse knowledge from all over the world. It does not restrict itself to a particular viewpoint. In so doing, it breaks down the student’s preconceived values and replaces them with a healthy, inquisitive skepticism. Liberal education reconstitutes the mind and emboldens individual perspective. By studying across the gamut of human knowledge, students learn that no single argument and no single institution has a monopoly on truth. And in the end, they learn that they do not have a monopoly on truth, either. They have only their own minds, memories, impressions and emotions to formulate truth. This is true “individualism.”

Yet liberal education is inappropriate training for the institutional world that awaits graduates. After four years of exploration, iconoclasm and reinvention, they emerge into a world that demands institutional obedience. They take jobs in the private sector. They occupy the lowest rung in the institutional hierarchy. They are no longer individuals; they are now “Employee #4452A-L: Assignment: Word Processing Design.” Their wide exposure to diverse viewpoints will not serve them as they struggle to fulfill their superiors’ demands in the company. If they wish to succeed, they must stop thinking individually and start thinking institutionally. Those who cling too strongly to individuality and the values of liberal education cannot adapt to institutional thinking—and they fail. But they are not discouraged; they must simply find another way in life. Contrary to David Brooks’ assertion, there is certainly “meaning” beyond institutions. One must simply be daring enough to find it alone.

Not everyone is daring. Life would not be interesting if they were. To borrow from Friedrich Nietzsche, we cannot all be Zarathustra. Yet those who truly digest the values of liberal education feel the urge to become Zarathustra. Nietzsche put it best when he railed against “Good People” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1884)(my translation): “The Good People must crucify anyone who invents his own virtue! That is the truth! But there was a second man who discovered their land, the land, heart and earthly kingdom of the Good People and the Just People: the man who asked: ‘Who is it whom they hate most?’ He who creates; that is he, whom they hate most; they hate the one who breaks tablets and old values, the breaker—they call him ‘criminal.’” Von Alten und Neuen Tafeln 26 (Of Old and New Tablets verse 26).

Nietzsche’s metaphors apply squarely to “institutional thinking.” “Good and just people” follow the institutional path in life. They do not create their own virtue; they merely recite the “tablets” and observe “old values.” They would not rise within the institution if they did not conform their thinking to “the tablets.” And Nietzsche brings out another key characteristic of institutional thinking: It hates. To continue the metaphor, institutions have no tolerance for those who “break tablets and old values,” because “tablets and old virtues” represent the institution’s defining traditions and protocols. Institutions define themselves against anyone who dares to break their codes, just as a court brands a deviant a “criminal.”

David Brooks suggests that we should not dare to be Zarathustra. We should not dare to find our own truth in life, nor should we break tablets. Rather, we should become “good and just people” who merely follow “the tablets” and old values. He says that we can find “meaning” by giving ourselves to institutions. He may be right in some cases, for not everyone has the strength to hew his own path in life. In fact, most people do not. Institutions can supply a “roadmap to meaning” for all those people who do not have the courage, capacity or strength to be Zarathustra. Most people simply want comfort in life, with minimal challenge. Institutional thinking offers an easy path to that destination. One must merely understand the institution’s requirements, acknowledge one’s place in the hierarchy, follow the protocol and do as one is told. In the end, this may bring comfort and even a sense of “having done the right thing.” But is it really the right thing? In my view, institutional thinking means playing by others’ rules. What good is life if we cannot even follow our own thoughts? Surely there are other paths to “meaning” than surrendering one’s existence to institutional dogma.

David Brooks’ article deeply affected me because I always reflect on my unconventional approach to life. I took my liberal education to heart. I relished my time in the world of ideas. I enjoyed exploring problems from numerous perspectives. It broadened my enthusiasm for life because it made me see how multifaceted life can be. Yet that very enthusiasm led me to despair once I saw that “success” depends on membership in a constricting institution. It seemed that my education had been a cruel joke: Struggle to reinvent yourself, learn to be your own person, then go out into the world and be the same as everyone else. I learned to prize and defend individuality; then I found it meant nothing in a world dominated by institutional thinking. In the years that followed, I have tried my best to adhere to my individuality, despite constant needling from institutions. After all, most people define themselves by institutional standards, and as Nietzsche pointed out, they hate anyone who does not subscribe to those standards. It has not been an easy path, but I am unbowed. After all my effort, I do not like to hear authors like David Brooks admonishing me to “get with the program” by adopting institutional thinking. I have not surrendered and I do not plan to. Contrary to Brooks’ advice, I do not allow institutions to “ask things of me.” Let others find meaning in institutional standards and protocols. Let them—as Nietzsche wrote in Human, All-Too Human Part II (The Wanderer and His Shadow)(1879)—“dance in chains.” Menschliches, Allzu Menschliches, Teil II, Der Wanderer und Sein Schatten Aph. 140.

I will simply dance, thank you very much. I will leave others to put on chains. In either event, I will find meaning. I do not need to chain myself to an institution to do that.

1 comment:

SteveW said...

Institutionalism is part of the age-old struggle between the new and the old, conservative versus liberal, stare decisis versus a fresh look.

First - I dislike Brooks view completely and I largely agree with you. However, I view institutions much more favorably than you (interesting, considering my near-anarchist libertarian views). Institutions capture prior knowledge, and to the extent that the prior knowledge is correct then institutions are beneficial (assuming they are operationally sound, a different issue).

It is not true that institutions entirely block individual thought. Many institutions encourage individual thought, and can provide a mechanism to quickly spread good ideas generated at the individual level. However, institutions do implement a process by which individual thought is implemented, and the process can be liberal or onerous. Striking the correct balance between the new and the old, the fresh and the previously known, is what makes an institution effective (or in-).

Should all ideas be open to full individual review? Do I need to teach my children to run back to first principles on every issue (assuming I can even teach them first principles free of my own biases). Should we continuously question whether the Earth is flat or round, or can we take that as given and try to advance to "higher" principles? On the other hand, should we ever close out any ideas, or should everything be open to re-visitation under the right circumstances? If string theory changes our view of space time, maybe we do re-visit the shape of the Earth.

I suggest that finding the correct balance of capturing and learning the old, while leaving ideas to be exposed to and overturned by the new, is the proper challenge. As you note, institutions are necessary, and I suggest the problem is that they have become dysfunctional. When the institution is unable to process better ideas, when the leaders have motivations that do not match the interests the institution was created to pursue, and when the institution becomes operationally deficient due to disorganization, corruption, etc. then the institution becomes "bad." However, I can't seriously question that the institutions we have today, dysfunctional though they may be, have made me personally more free to pursue and profess my own view of my life to an extent unimagined just a few generations ago.

Cave men, virtually free of institutions, were not free thinkers. Rather, their lives were rather confined to a few necessary pursuits. I may go so far as to say that institutions have enabled the pursuit of meaning. However I do not think that institutions provide meaning. I'm not sure if there is meaning out there, but I think you have to find it as an individual if there is.