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.


What kind of teacher am I?

What kind of teacher am I?

I have been thinking for a long time about what it is that I do as a teacher. Since I have taken what might be called a “non-traditional” route within the pedagogical world, I find myself thinking about how to explain to the people I meet the nature of my vocation.

How do I see myself? And what does it mean to be a teacher whose classroom is an office space in his house, the living room of a student’s home or even sits within a clutch of books carried around in his satchel? It certainly does not resemble the traditional institutional world I come out of: a world of hi-tech classrooms, large modern campuses and highly formalized curricular models. I have elected not to pursue that familiar pathway because I feel that my ideas and instincts, my pedagogical methods and my views on hierarchy and educational democracy do not quite fit within that institutional context. Instead, I see myself as part of a line of educators which includes reformers like John Dewey, Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, Jonathan Kozol and Paul Goodman. I offer this admission not as an implied condemnation of traditional schooling but to help sketch out just how I am looking for a different forum in which to teach and to be taught.

I would like to begin by clarifying something: I am not, strictly speaking, a tutor in the familiar sense of the word. I advertise and offer tutoring services and enjoy helping students improve upon their critical thinking and formal writing skills but I do not think of myself as being primarily a “supplemental” educator, a term implied by the word “tutor,” at least in our North American context.

When I founded DEMOI Independent Learning in April 2013 I originally advertised myself as a tutor in the Oxford University sense: I am someone who works with students to design a rigorous course of independent study and then meets weekly (or multiple times per week) with each student to discuss their reading, writing and what they are thinking about in response to the work. I think the Oxford Tutor model is an excellent one because it affords the teacher and the student the opportunity of designing a course and then assigns both the responsibility of steering that course. I like to think that what I have done is taken this model and adapted it to the home schooling/un-schooling model of pedagogy by making it primarily a project of informal independent study. I have found this to be a tremendously stimulating experience because neither my students nor I can ever predict precisely where our work together will go. There is a spirit of adventure to our endeavours and I believe that the educational experience we share is truly a mutual one.

I will explore this concept of mutuality in a subsequent essay but for the moment I would like to pause over what precisely it is that students and I do together in our one-on-one “Oxford-style” sessions.

I think that the greatest gift independent study has to offer people of all ages is the ability to concentrate on a chosen field of interest. Too often we are told that we cannot just jump into a new field of study because we lack the requisite training or have not taken the proper “prerequisites.” I have encountered this mindset in graduate school and it succeeded in denying me the opportunity to study advanced topics that truly inspired me. In order to avoid this mistake with my students I encourage them to challenge themselves and tackle material that might seem, at first, to be a little “too advanced” to some. The material that we select is based upon their chosen topic. For example, this past summer I read The Iliad with an eleven year old student because it interested her and she wanted the challenge. It was a great experience. I also have taught a European history class to a group of 12 and 13 year olds using a university-level textbook. The reason I think this can be done is twofold: if someone shows an interest in a subject then I think this is an indicator that they are actually prepared to undertake it. Also, because I do not believe in grades or tests I am not worried about having my students pass rigorous examinations designed to determine whether they have truly “mastered” the material. (Mastery is another subject worthy of a future essay.) I do not think that “mastery” is necessary unless a student decides to pursue a professional career where specific forms of credentialing and testing require that they demonstrate quite specific skills in order to receive certification. And even there, we could have a fun debate about where and when credentialing is appropriate and why.

I will be exploring many of the ideas mentioned above in subsequent essays. My website is now in its final stages of development and when it appears it will contain a blog in which I regularly discuss the work that I am doing in the pedagogical field and what my students and I are currently up to.

Thank you for reading.