Rugged Individualism vs Cowardly Conformity

Alfie KohnI was reading a recent article by Alfie Kohn, Four Reasons to Worry About “Personalized Learning.” It’s about this “new” thing in education that involves forcing kids to learn the same old test-based skills but allowing them to take a “learning path just for them.” It reminds me of those old computer games where you would wander around a haunted house; you could do anything you wanted, but there was only one way to get out of the garden and so on. The whole thing is entirely typical of the modern American approach to education: treat children as though they are widgets that must all be milled in the same way. God forbid we would do something that can’t be systematized.

But he started the article by bringing up Alexis de Tocqueville. Conservatives love to quote Democracy in America because it says Americans are exceptional. But it is hardly laudatory. In particular, he noted the strange dissonance between American individualism combined with the “relentless pressure to conform.” So the government isn’t legislating that you act like everyone else; the society does it without being told. This is something I have noticed in my own life: the last thing Americans like is an actual individual. Kohn quoted sociologist John W Meyer to the effect that we are “free to expand as a standardized individual.”

This goes along with a common view of conservatives, “You are free to say anything you want — as long as you don’t say anything too outrageous.” In other words: you have freedom to say whatever you want as long as you do not, in fact, say whatever you want. In some ways, I don’t have a problem with this. I believe in the right of neo-Nazis to go around denying the Holocaust. I also believe as a society that we should we should marginalize such people. But in America, the range of opinion that is deemed acceptable — the Overton Window — is razor thin. (Although our wonderful mainstream media has done quite a good job of making extreme right-wing views far more acceptable!)

Kohn noted, “how our pitiful individuality was screwed to the backs of our cars in the form of customized license plates.” That does have an appealing rigidity to it: in California at least, the “individual” is allowed up to 7 characters — which can now include a “heart” symbol! But I actually think it is worse than that. People now pay for the privilege of advertising corporations. At least with a license plate, the “individual” has to use the system to say something about themselves. With the corporate t-shirt, she only has to decide that she too uses that product. She’s a “Duck Dynasty” person or a “Miller Light” person or for the truly “outside the box” thinker, an “Ubuntu” user.

Along these lines, Kohn also mentioned the Burger King “Have it your way!” campaign, “[W]e were now empowered to request a recently thawed slab of factory-produced ground meat without the usual pickle — or even with extra lettuce! In America, I can be me!” Sadly, I’m afraid that in his sarcasm, he’s right. In my experience, my fellow countrymen are an incredibly banal lot. There is something about this country that tends to sap our innate differences.

Terry Eagleton discussed this in his last book, Across the Pond (see my review):

The British dislike authority not because they are opposed to the state on principle, but because they want to be left alone to breed pigeons or attend classes in flower arranging. They do not want to be free of regulation so that they can aspire, rise through the ranks or accumulate profit, but so that they can putter about as they please. They are not so much individualist as idiosyncratic.

It is disheartening to think that, like so many things about us Americans, our loud-mouthed declarations of our individuality are just a cover for what we know to be true: we are a bunch of cowardly conformists. I’m not suggesting that we change. We are who we are. But we either need to stop claiming to be individualists or accept those among us who do stray outside the razor-thin breadth of what all red-blooded Americans think.


And yes, I do consider myself an actual individual, although I have been hammered into a more compliant shape from decades of good ol’ American “individualism.”

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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