On individualism – A commentary

EDUC 823
Simon Fraser University – Faculty of Education
Curriculum & Instruction in an Individual Teaching Specialty
MEd Post-Secondary, VCC Cohort
Dr. Michael Ling
Student: Kathryn Truant
January 23, 2020

We live in a world where people have a right to choose for themselves their own pattern of life, to decide in conscience what convictions to espouse, to determine the shape of their lives in a whole host of ways that their ancestors couldn’t control
(Taylor, 1991, p. 1).

            I do not like being told what to do. I am not talking about following direction and receiving guidance. I am talking about being subjected to another person’s prescribed perspective, even though I find the standpoint of others, especially those far more educated and well-read than myself, extremely interesting. But, I am an individual. I have strong opinions, and I cannot thrive without a sense of autonomy. I also have a strong commitment to community. This is who I am.

            In “Three Malaises,” philosopher Charles Taylor outlines conditions that he feels are responsible for the decline of civilization (1991). Taylor argues that the first malaise, is ‘individualism’, which “is connected to an abnormal and regrettable self-absorption” (p. 2). The other two malaises are important for Taylor’s argument; however, I only want to reflect on individualism in this commentary, specifically, why I believe that Taylor has nothing to fear from individualism as a root cause of societal decline. He states: “People lost the broader vision because they focused on their individual lives” (p. 2).

             I understand that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and at first I question whether Taylor’s comments are satirical, because I find them deliberately absurd. I am not an expert on societal decline, nor have I researched individualism in the depth that Taylor has. Besides, I am not a philosopher (I’m a dental assistant). Nonetheless, this commentary is solely based on my own ideas and sensibilities as an individual person, one who is extremely connected to the world along with its inhabitants (flora and fauna included), and to my role on our beautiful planet. I do not agree with the potential damaging effects that individualism has on society in the same way that Taylor does. I do not believe that people are inherently “narrow” (Taylor, p. 2), so as not to understand the concept of cause and effect[1]. That said, I want to make clear that individualism (personal freedom/autonomy) is okay if it is not at the expense of others. In other words, the freedom to make personal choices is respectable and virtuous, if those choices do not cause adverse effects on other people, places, or things. Do not be ‘narrow.’ THIS IS THE PARADOX.

            Taylor is among other nay-sayers who have published prophetic observations. He states: “Modern freedom was won by our breaking loose from old moral horizons . . . through the discrediting of such orders” (p. 1). This statement resonates with me; it reminds me of an essay I was assigned to read in first-year English by Gertrude Himmelfarb, A Neo-Luddite Reflects on the Internet (1996). Himmelfarb compares the ambiguous societal effects of the Internet to similar effects that arose with the advent and subsequent widespread use of the printing press in the 15th century. She writes: “When the printing press democratized literature, liberating it from the control of clerics and scribes, the effects were ambiguous” (p. 1). The ambiguities that Himmelfarb suggests are references to historian Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (1979): “the advent of printing facilitated not only the production of scientific works, but also of occult and devotional tracts” (Himmelfarb, p. 2). The church was no longer in control of what people read. Individuals could begin to form their own views and perspectives.

            Is Taylor being deliberately obtuse? Was Himmelfarb? One cannot assume that individuals will use new found freedom in an adverse manner. On the contrary; I believe that individualism is the cornerstone of critical thinking, especially ‘thinking outside the box’[2].

            The above-mentioned author’s arguments (Taylor, Himmelfarb, and Eisenstein) remind me of the children’s story, The Boy Who Cried Wolf (Aesop. n.d.). In this story, a shepherd boy issues false alarms that a wolf is eating his sheep, and continues until the villagers in the fable no longer listen to his cries. When a wolf does arrive, the risk may be pending, but the danger has been discredited. Remarking on this fable, eighteenth century writer and clergy man, Samuel Croxall explains: “when we are alarmed with imaginary dangers in respect of the public, till the cry grows quite stale and threadbare, how can it be expected we should know when to guard ourselves against real ones” (Wikipedia contributors, 2019, para. 3).

            Further, the story of Chicken Little (Thiele,1823) is the tale of a chicken who believes the world is ending because of a “mistaken belief that disaster is imminent . . . the fable is interpreted as a warning not to believe everything one is told” (Wikipedia contributors, 2019, para 1 & 4). These children’s stories make me wonder what was happening to foster their advisory tales? Note: I’m no historian either.  If I were to guess, they are rebellious attempts to challenge authority, AND attempts to guide the reader to form their own individual views.

            A Neo-Luddite Reflects on the Internet, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, and Chicken Little are all cautionary accounts. Does Taylor fear change? Am I missing Taylor’s point entirely?

            I have mentioned that I do not like being told what to do (or how to think). I do not like cautionary tales. I prefer to learn from trial and error, and I support this type of pedagogy with my learners as well. I’ll repeat Taylor’s concern: “People lost the broader vision because they focused on their individual lives” (p. 2). I’ve mentioned that I believe that individualism fosters critical thinking: a new way of thinking. People like Alexander Fleming (he discovered Penicillin and has saved millions of lives), Mother Teresa (her approach to charity challenged the comfortable confines of the Catholic Church), and Steve Jobs (in my opinion, the greatest technological innovator of my generation), just to name a few, would not have ‘broken the mold’[3] in their own domains were it not for the hard-won “modern freedom[s]” (p. 1) that Taylor refers to. It seems to me that all three were thinking of a ‘broader vision.’ And, what about Harry and Megan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, and their recently attained freedom from the British Monarchy? Who knows what they will do to make the world an even better place? My commentary is not intended to discredit Taylor’s observation on individualism; I like that it is provocative.

            It is purposely obvious in this commentary that I am an optimist: I have faith in society’s systems. My professional practice as a dental assistant requires a strict and well-established approach to instruction (for the protection of patient and operator safety alike): I would not want to discredit it. Taylor’s essay makes me think that my students need to be afforded freedom to act as individuals in the bigger scheme of things. They need to learn from mistakes in a safe environment. Each of my students bring something special as individuals to clinic each day. I learn from them, and they learn from each other. If outcomes are being met in an effective way, I am open to suggestions to improve efficiency. We are a community of individuals working toward a common vision: ours is to practice in service to ourselves, and each other. I appreciate Charles Taylor’s cautious view of modern freedom; it affirms my own secure view. I want to continue this dialogue in subsequent commentaries as I figure out how individualism affects freedom, education and collaboration. ‘Stay-tuned’[4] folks.


Footnotes:

[1] cause and effect (adjective): noting a relationship between actions or events such that one or more are the result of the other or others (Dictionary.com, 2020)

[2] thinking outside the box (metaphor): to think differently, unconventionally, or with a new perspective; to encourage novel or creative thinking (Wikipedia contributors, 2019)

[3] break the mold (phrase): put an end to a restrictive pattern of events or behaviour by doing things in a markedly different way (Lexico, 2020)

[4] stay-tuned (idiom): to wait or remain alert for new developments or for further information (Your Dictionary, 2020)

References:

Aesop. (n.d.). “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” Aesop’s Fables.

Dictionary.com (2020). Cause and Effect. In Dictionary.com. Retrieved, January 23, 2020 from https://www.dictionary.com/browse/cause-and-effect

Eisenstein, E. L. (1979). The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Himmelfarb, G. (1996). “A Neo-Luddite Reflects on the Internet. The Times Higher Educational Supplement, November 1, 1996.

Lexico. (2020). Break the Mold. In Lexico: Powered by Oxford. Retrieved, January 23, 2020 from https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/mold

Taylor, C. (1991). “Three Malaises.” Sources of the Self [Class Handout]. Faculty o Education, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, British Columbia.

Thiele, J. M. (1823). Untitled [Fable: The Story of Kylling Kluk].

Wikipedia contributors. (2020, January 22). Henny Penny. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved, January 23, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Henny_Penny&oldid=937034439

Wikipedia contributors. (2019, December 11). The Boy Who Cried Wolf. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved, January 23, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Boy_Who_Cried_Wolf&oldid=930334263

Wikipedia contributors. (2019, November 17). Thinking outside the box. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved, January 23, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Thinking_outside_the_box&oldid=926631926

Your Dictionary. (2020). stay-tuned. In Your Dictionary. Retrieved, January 27, 2020 from https://www.yourdictionary.com/stay-tuned

[1] cause and effect (adjective): noting a relationship between actions or events such that one or more are the result of the other or others (Dictionary.com, 2020)

[2] thinking outside the box (metaphor): to think differently, unconventionally, or with a new perspective; to encourage novel or creative thinking (Wikipedia contributors, 2019)

[3] break the mold (phrase): put an end to a restrictive pattern of events or behaviour by doing things in a markedly different way (Lexico, 2020)

[4] stay-tuned (idiom): to wait or remain alert for new developments or for further information (Your Dictionary, 2020)