Wednesday, February 04, 2009

On Thinking Institutionally

Via cousin Ally, this article in the New York Times is fantastic, and worth a quick read:
A few years ago, a faculty committee at Harvard produced a report on the purpose of education. “The aim of a liberal education” the report declared, “is to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people and to help them to find ways to reorient themselves.”

The report implied an entire way of living. Individuals should learn to think for themselves. They should be skeptical of pre-existing arrangements. They should break free from the way they were raised, examine life from the outside and discover their own values.

This approach is deeply consistent with the individualism of modern culture, with its emphasis on personal inquiry, personal self-discovery and personal happiness. But there is another, older way of living [...]

In this way of living, to borrow an old phrase, we are not defined by what we ask of life. We are defined by what life asks of us. As we go through life, we travel through institutions — first family and school, then the institutions of a profession or a craft.
Read the whole thing.


  1. "New generations don’t invent institutional practices. These practices are passed down and evolve." This was stated and then ignored. Institutional practices change and adapt but the practices themselves are inanimate objects; it is the people in those "new generations" who are doing the adapting and changing that bring about the evolution. And such changes are not infallible just because they are coming about through our venerable institutions. There needs to be a better balance between the veneration of institutional practices and the real affects of those evolved practices on the rest of us. Not even venerable institutions are above criticism when they are evolving discordantly.

  2. Agreed, basically. Hence the tag on the post "Balance". I think typically people are off-balance toward the individual side as they're younger, and the institutional side as they're older; it's good to maintain that balance throughout.

  3. On the other hand, if the students were to go against the comfortable and familiar and become conservative Republicans, and reveal this fact in coursework, their grades from this same faculty would suffer greatly.