Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

"Institutional thinking" and "thinking for one's self": finding common ground

Paul Grobstein's picture
In the 27 January 2009 New York Times, columnist David Brooks writes
"I thought it worth devoting a column to institutional thinking because I try to keep a list of the people in public life I admire most. Invariably, the people who make that list have subjugated themselves to their profession, social function or institution."
Rod Blagojevich and Barack Obama might be interesting test cases for Brooks. So far as I can tell, Blagojevich's path to the governorship of Illinois reflected a strong commitment to fully mastering and acting in terms of the skills and values of the profession/social function/institution of Illinois politics ("I came out of the alleys of Chicago politics ... Its nuts and bolts, and you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. I came up that way" NYTimes 29 Jan 09), which should put him high on Brooks' list. Obama, on the other hand, seems to be successful in large part because he was unable or unwilling to "subjagate himself" to that same profession/social function/institution, which should put him low. My own relative ranking of the two would have it otherwise. I wonder if Brooks' mightn't also? Perhaps Brooks is less of an "institutionalist" than he likes to think he is?

Maybe there's a way to think about things that doesn't pit an appropriate respect for human institutions against an equally appropriate respect for helping "individuals ... learn to think for themselves," and so doesn't require a choice between them? Along these lines, it may be relevant that Brooks is an historian, one who thinks about the significance of the past for decisions in the present. I, on the other hand, am a biologist, one who thinks about a present that certainly reflects the past but is most significant for the openings it offers in the future (cf Fellow Traveling with Richard Rorty). In biological evolution, the past is prelude to the future but neither determines it nor provides an adequate guide to meeting its unknown and unknowable challenges. Hence actions in the present need to be judged not by the lessons of the past but rather by the new possibilities they create in the future.

Biological evolution not only places more emphasis on continuing change but also offers an exemplar for a more bidirectional and mutually supportive relationship between individuals and professions/social functions/institutions. It is not only individuals who change over time but professions/social functions/institutions as well. Yes, of course, professions/social functions/institutions provide "rules and obligations" that individuals can make use of, frequently productively, just as all living organisms make use of their genes and the surroundings, inanimate and animate, in which they find themselves. But living organisms don't settle for that. They innovate or, failing to do that, they die out. And in innovating they alter their surroudings and the genes available to the next generations. Similarly, it is the business of new generations of humans not only to notice "rules and regulations" but to alter them. If "New generations don't invent institutional practices," the institutions die out. Individuals "thinking for themselves" might well be thought of not as a threat to professions/social functions/institutions but rather as assets to their ongoing evolution, as that institutional evolution can be reciprocally supportive of the healthy evolution inherent in individuals "thinking for themselves." (For more on their reciprocal relationship, see Individuals and Cultures).

It may indeed be true that "Faith in all institutions ... has declined precipitously over the past generation." But if so, the solution is not to be found in a return to an earlier age of "institutional thinking." It is to be found instead in a better understanding of the continuing evolution of institutions, and a stronger commitment of institutions to the continuing encouragement of individuals "thinking for themselves," for the mutual benefit of both individuals and institutions.

Maybe this is all about how one looks at historical products and the stability of institutions. Brooks sees the most "admirable people" as those who have "subjugated themselves to their profession, social function, or institution." I tend to think the most admirable people are those who have through their own individual vision successfully shaped their profession, social function, or institution so well that they seem to embody it. Its not impossible these are the same people, and Brooks has neglected to notice the extent to which the individuals contributed to the institutional shapes into which they seem to fit so well.


LK's picture

Majoring in history many

Majoring in history many moons ago doesn't qualify David Brooks as an historian. But anyway, it's a straw man, and it's not needed for the argument, because Brooks isn't thinking like an historian.

I am not sure what Paul means when he says that an historian is someone who "thinks about the significance of the past for decisions in the present." The study of history, like the evolutionary biology he describes, helps one understand that "the past is prelude to the future but neither determines it nor provides an adequate guide to meeting its unknown and unknowable challenges." Historical training gives us an appreciation for context and a sensitivity to causation. It encourages us to be skeptical of appearances and question how things seem, it demands that we question assumptions, and it reminds us to look at all angles before drawing conclusions. It teaches us how to ask questions -- and that is indeed a skill that can be applied to the present as well as the past. And of course, historians study change and innovation -- "continuing evolution" -- in institutions, in rules and regulations, and in individual lives. Historians study the past but they don't live there.

Historians have been much in evidence lately in the discussions about the economic crisis and the dreams of a new WPA. I suspect it is indeed helpful for policymakers to understand how the New Deal both did and didn't work -- there's lots to learn there, including the difficulty of stimulating a failed economy (as well as a warning, since many argue that the New Deal only really worked with the start of WWII and massive levels of production)-- but I don't think any historian would say that an understanding of FDR's policies should define the current stimulus package.

David Brooks isn't an historian -- he's a conservative. I suspect that tells us more about his discomfort with change.

Alice Lesnick's picture

underneath the binaries

Brooks' argument here rests on unnecessarily, even incoherently, rigid oppositions. What life asks of us and what we ask of life are seldom fully distinct from one another, and are often thoroughly entangled. For example, take the age old experience of raising children. There is ongoing give-and-take in the process; what any individual in a family wants and needs enters the fabric of the family's life, becomes part of what obliges and supports each member, and is modified by the participation.

Questioning past ways of thinking or of doing things does not necessarily lead the questioner to break with and to break with respect for social institutions. As the theologian Sharon Welch (1990) argues, a mature institution is self-critiquing, with processes in place and under development for the facilitation of dialogue, feedback, and revision. In this dynamism, it is strong, rather than brittle with defensiveness.

To say that inquiry is individualistic is dangerously to confuse personal agency and responsibility for narrow selfishness and disrespect.