I believe in the value of the individual (and question individualism)

One of the things that I find myself thinking about often these days is how the word individualism is really a distraction from the individual; how individualism as an ideology is a disruption of what any politics of the individual should be about: that is, the individual.

If my wording sounds circular and therefore confusing, it is for a reason: I think the problem with the way we talk about individuals and their value is that individualism is about a system of living, that is, an economic system, that is hostile to the individual person.

George Carlin once said in a television interview that he had no use for people, but that he liked individuals very much (I am paraphrasing). He said that once people started forming groups, that was where the problems began. There was a tyranny in groups. Carlin also told his audiences late in his life that they were owned; that the United States was run by a club and that he and they were not in it.

I like the Carlin example because it speaks to the trouble I find myself encountering when I try talking about the value of individuals. I think the value of life -whether in the person, the plant or the animal – should be self-evident. But the rhetoric of individualism makes that seemingly self-evident truth hard to articulate. Why? The reason is, I believe, because there is nothing self-evident about the value of life in a system that determines value on the basis of profit and what can be called “profitable outcomes.”

Life is not based on profitable outcomes. Anyone who has children knows that the world of parenting is a world of non-stop challenges: challenges to time, to patience, to schedule; parents are constantly put in the position of balancing the need for spending time with their children to love them, nurture them, mentor them against the demands of work, money-making. There is no natural equipoise here and a lot of what amounts to parenting is not about profitable outcomes in any sense other than maintaining peace at home or hoping that the child will fare well in the near-term to longer term. Any parent knows that there are so many unknowns, so many unpredictable events and risks involved in raising children that duty, obligation and of course, love, become far more important than anything resembling profit.

I am harping on the word profit because it is so quickly, so easily paired with this concept of “the individual” that comes up in conversations about society and politics. Why does the individual matter? Because the individual is the basis of a free system that is free by virtue of its ability to serve the individual. For instance, a social and political system is designated as “free” if it is seen as enabling the individual to pursue their own interest. You will notice that seldom is it “group interest” or “family interest,” or even the interest of their community: it is self-interest. This is a basis of liberal democracy, political liberalism and its various neoliberal and libertarian offshoots. The individual is the focus and therefore the measure of liberal democracy.

My dissatisfaction with this construction is manifold; I can think of a long list of criticisms of it which I could -and should– include here. But I will not because it will deviate from a broad, sweeping point which I am trying to make. That point is simply this: individualism has little if anything to do with the living, breathing, thinking and feeling individual. It has to do with the limits that should be imposed on other individuals, groups and the state in order to prevent their interference with said individual in the pursuit of happiness, property or liberty. It has little to do with that individual’s need to organize with others, to place noneconomic and nonmaterial imperatives before their ability to compete in a legal, economic and social system which values her on the basis of her work ethic, her ability to pay, her contribution to the profit-system. In other words, I am dissatisfied with a political ideology, individualism, whose basis is in negative liberties.

Why am I telling you this on a page dedicated -seemingly- to education? Because my fundamental belief, the belief underlying this page and my work with others is that I do not feel that negative liberties -freedoms from- are enough to protect the individual from the unforeseen challenges and tragedies of life; that negative liberties do not prepare individuals for the many unprofitable choices they will need to make in order to contribute to their communities and their families; I do not believe that negative liberties are enough to help individuals understand what their own value is and what their calling in life might be.

I also believe that thinking in terms of the individual makes individual acts of protest symbols of personal aberration, heroism or pathology, depending upon the predilections of the viewer. This narrowness of understanding, this constricted lens is also an obstacle to solidarity. It is why I feel the need, also, to post these three photographs which have a broad and deep story accompanying them. Better yet, broad and deep stories. To get to these stories, to absorb their meaning and to think about them in terms of the aims and goals and purposes of education is to begin to question individualism.


Can young children benefit from independent study in history?

Yesterday I had the privilege of guest teaching a course entitled “Historians, Communities and the Past” which is taught by my good friend Tim Compeau, PhD at Huron University College here in London.

Over the course of 90 minutes we engaged in a Socratic discussion about the question: “Is it responsible to allow grade school children the option of self-directed learning in the field of history?”

The conversation was very engaging in no small part because we reflected on whether one of the chief problems in educating children and young adults is that educators, policymakers, teachers and parents become focused upon names and disciplinary boundaries at the expense of allowing for interdisciplinary discovery, exploration and problem-driven learning. Or, to put it another way: at the expense of creativity.

Here is a scenario:

Imagine an 8 year old student who has become fascinated by schools; she is interested in the schools built by pioneers and how people in earlier times were educated -especially in rural and remote communities- in one room school houses. She decides that she wants to learn everything that she can about one room school houses. After talking with her teacher and her parents, she decides that she wants to undertake a project (independent study) to learn everything that she can about how one room school houses came to be; where they were pioneered; why they have persisted; how they work. She visits museum exhibits, watches movies, reads books and even talks with people who have knowledge of, or personal experience with, being educated in one room school house environments. She is then allowed to undertake her project.

To my mind, a series of questions arises from this hypothetical:

1.) If this project were a school project, what discipline would this child be studying? Do we simply call it social studies, or can we say it is history, sociology, education and economics?

2) Can this project be accommodated as a primary/elementary school classroom project?

3.) Is a teacher/student relationship required here?

4.) If we do not allow the child to undertake this study are we hindering her education?

5.) Is it inconceivable that an 8 year old child could do this or have a desire to do this?

6.) Is this student actually developing an interest in sociology, education and economics (as well as history) by her choice of this project? Does subject (academic discipline) in the conventional sense even matter in this case?

As you might imagine, this type of scenario prompted much discussion. I leave it to you to decide how you might answer these questions or think about this matter.


An outstanding link for studying the past & present

I am posting a link to the Studs Terkel radio archive. http://studsterkel.wfmt.com

This archive includes broadcasts Terkel did over his long and distinguished journalistic and broadcasting career.

As a teacher of history and the humanities I am thrilled to be able to use this resource with my students but also to use it as a means of expanding my understanding of the American past and present.

Jeremy Nathan Marks

Ecological Imperialism

I am currently studying environmental history with a student. The book, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (by Alfred W. Crosby) is an eye-opening examination of the growth of European imperialism from the standpoint of botany, epidemiology, agriculture, animal husbandry and also includes a fascinating study of climate and sailing.

The book requires readers to rethink how they understand and imagine the meeting of cultures. All too often we’ve been led to believe that one civilization colonizes another because it has superior technology, belief systems and a more sophisticated cosmology. Crosby challenges all of that. He also challenges the idea that European colonization of the globe was an inevitable result of the sophistication of European cultures.

But one of the most interesting questions his book raises is how the Europeans themselves were suited to new and alien environments and how well they did or did not adapt their thinking, mores and habits. In this age of globalization and global tourism where a person can go to the tropics, stay in an air conditioned villa, eat imported cuisine and traverse the landscape in familiar vehicles, it is all-too-easy to forget that even in the most easily settled of European colonies (e.g. Canada, Australia) colonists were often ill-suited to their circumstances and held to belief systems and aesthetic values which not only did not serve them but often led to a violent relationship with the land itself.

One of the finest examples of this in literature and film is the novel and movie “Picnic at Hanging Rock” about a turn-of-last-century picnic gone horribly wrong in the state of South Australia. The tension between the daughters and matrons of British culture and the ancient, un-English landscape of the Australian continent is palpable in Joan Lindsay’s novel and in Peter Weir’s cinematic adaptation. What stands out for me is the difference between the children of the wealthy, whose parents made money in international business, and those labourers who appear to be the descendants of the original English colonists. The question of adaptation, acclimation and acculturation cuts across the matter of social class:

Jeremy Nathan Marks