Hit the reset button on the cult of individualism

Societies with a more collectivist culture appear to have fared better during the pandemic, writes Kenneth Primrose, who says humility and the common good are more important values to instil in students than ever
8th January 2021, 12:05am
Coronavirus & Schools: Societies With A More Collectivist Culture Seem To Have Fared Better In The Pandemic, Writes Kenneth Primrose
Kenneth Primrose


Hit the reset button on the cult of individualism


"Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it."

Arundhati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

In an interview shortly before his death, Jonathan Sacks observed that the countries that seemed to have handled Covid-19 most poorly were also the most individualised ones. Rabbi Sacks' point here is that societies where individualism dominates - the US and UK, for example - will have less regard for the common good, particularly where that might require the curbing of individual liberties. This, as we'll see, has profound implications for schools.

Collectivist societies, such as those in Asia, have weathered the coronavirus storm considerably better as a result. Exactly how much of the spread of Covid in the US and UK is because of our individualism is a complex question to answer, although the observation does open the possibility that individualism has not always been a net win for society. As we walk across this threshold, now seems like a good time to redress the balance between personal liberty and collective responsibility.

Over the past few centuries there has been a progressive march towards the sunlit uplands of individualism, where the sacred values of freedom of conscience and expression reign supreme. For generations, we have been both formally and informally schooled on the unqualified goodness of these principles - and for good reason. Yet a look at the issues plaguing both individuals and society at large would suggest that the shift in our moral ecology towards the individual has come at a price.

There are detrimental effects to fierce and unfettered individualism, which are felt by both society and the individual. Rights have often come without attendant responsibilities; the Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl famously lamented that he wished that the US had erected a Statue of Responsibility to balance the Statue of Liberty. This loss of collective responsibility has given us societies in which many feel alienated, where communities are fragmented and where there are epidemic levels of depression. A place where people vote as consumers rather than citizens ("What's best for me?" versus "What's best for us?" ). Where there is a lack of commitment, and where the life ambitions of so many can often seem morally vapid and self-seeking. (On this point, a telling survey on the changing ambitions of teenagers in the US and UK was published last year, which found that the most popular choice of career was vlogging - I'm not sure ambitions come much more vain than that.) As a society, many of us are just not that interested in committing to the common good.

We should start considering what it would take to engender a will towards the common good rather than one of narrow self-seeking behaviour. John F Kennedy famously urged Americans to ask "not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country". It's a plea that sounds pious today, a relic of some forgotten morality. But it's also an enchanting notion and should find us asking: what would it take to shape people who instinctively ask how they can positively contribute rather than ask what they can get or consume? Schools narrate the values that are the sediment of our society, though they also prescribe them for future generations. It is in their power to influence the moral sensibilities of the next generation; now is a moment for thinking carefully about what we want that generation to look like.

Cultivating humility

If there is a virtue that pours cold water on the burning individualism of our day, it is that understated and most attractive of virtues: humility. A curious virtue in that if you think you possess it, you almost certainly don't - exemplified by Donald Trump's mirthless assertion that he had "more humility than you would think". Trump is an egregious example, of course, but his utterance points to the fact that humility has lost the full force of its meaning in the modern context.

A quote often misattributed to CS Lewis captures the sense of it well, describing humility as "not thinking less of yourself, it's about thinking of yourself less". It's a virtue that flies in the teeth of Instagram, LinkedIn and the propensity to obsess over self-image. Though unlike many of the other virtues that might benefit from being approached more directly, humility can only really emerge as a product of where we direct our attention. Approach it directly and it disappears like a mirage in the desert.

So, what experiences and education are baked into the humble disposition? The answer is varied and complex, although I would like to suggest two broad ways it can be developed in our schooling - specifically, through instilling gratitude and a sense of purpose. These well-worn concepts are thrown around too glibly these days, but hold within them a powerful inoculation against the cult of the self.

There has been an increasing recognition that practising gratitude is good for our wellbeing. "Gratitude journaling" is often prescribed by therapists and GPs to this end, although gratitude can also be nurtured through a deeper understanding of our interdependence. The Thursday-night clapping that occurred during the first lockdown seemed to serve several functions, one of which was to realise how dependent we were on others - not just the medical professionals, but also supermarket workers, delivery drivers, refuse collectors (the list is long). It was a recognition that while we might be individuals, we are encumbered and highly dependent ones. Whether accidents of nature or nurture, or the inheritance of history and geography, we did nothing to earn these things. Those claps momentarily chased away that persistent illusion that we have earned the good that surrounds us - a notion as pervasive as it is pernicious.

It is through the realisation that we are interdependent beings that a sense of humility emerges. Philosopher Michael Sandel makes this point in his new book The Tyranny of Merit, commenting that "humility is a civic virtue essential to this moment, because it is a necessary antidote to the meritocratic hubris that has driven us apart". Indeed, realising that we are the recipients of generosity is liable to make us not just more grateful, but more generous towards others. As we realise that we sit in the shade of trees we did not plant, we are more likely to plant trees under the shade of which we will never sit.

Serving a bigger purpose

The pursuit of happiness seems to be a guiding principle for many, yet so often it is a very quick route to mischief. If our life intentions do not reach beyond the small parameters of a desire for personal happiness, they will scarcely even achieve that. The Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton observed that "a happiness that is sought for ourselves alone can never be found". To pursue happiness for its own sake is to misunderstand how happiness is attained. Like humility, happiness is a mirage, but if you serve a purpose larger than yourself, you are not only likely to discover a measure of humility, but also more likely to get happiness thrown in. And if we find ourselves in a place in life we never intended to be, a sense of humility and connection to something larger than ourselves gives us a map to a better place.

It is part of the work of schools to help those in their care to discover a sense of purpose and vocation; this is at least part of what it means to live a meaningful life, although many young people today are in a crisis of meaning and purpose - something that is directly related to the burgeoning mental health crisis. Indeed, Stanford University psychology professor William Damon wrote his excellent book The Path to Purpose to address the lack of purpose and direction in young people, and to suggest some ways forward.

The idea of serving a purpose bigger than yourself is not confined to careers - it also applies to the way we attend to the environment, human rights, social inequalities and spirituality. Purpose and service belong firmly in the moral sphere, and they teach us that we serve something bigger than ourselves. That is not only healthy for society, it's also liberating for individuals.

So, how does this land with schools? Schools are instrumental in shaping how people think about, and interact with, the world. If we talk about "doing good" to furnish a CV with some bleeding-heart credentials or exotic experiences, then young people will instrumentalise the world to that end. If the idea of service is promoted as an intrinsic good (rather than an instrumental one), then moral behaviour takes on a different inflection. Writer David Brooks drew a similar distinction when talking about the fact that our culture encourages us to work on our "résumé virtues", while often neglecting our "eulogy virtues".

Perhaps this sounds like a good idea, although it's not entirely clear how it would look in school corridors and classrooms. But a school has various levers for shifting moral attention away from individualism and towards the common good.

Firstly, the language and rhetoric we use is instrumental in shaping culture. If we want to embed a culture of gratitude and interdependence, then this needs to become part of the habits and language governing the school. To speak often about the value of service for its own sake, and to challenge conventional assumptions about success, will reshape the moral environment. Secondly, we should provide more opportunities for serving others - both inside and outside of the school day (but keep them untainted by talk of Ucas and CVs). Thirdly, a school culture should encourage students to think about, and commit to, that which is purposeful and meaningful - spiritually, morally and vocationally.

There are many ways to approach all this, and no doubt all schools do these things to some degree. Even so, it may be helpful to ask: what would it be like if we did all this really well? How different would our students be if they had humility baked into them during their school careers? How different would the school look? How different would society look?

Rebecca Solnit's book A Paradise Built in Hell so eloquently communicates that it is only during a crisis that we know who we really are. If anything, the current crisis has shown how communal and interdependent we are by nature, which is wisdom that should form part of any reset agenda. If schools are to serve the next generation well, it will in part be because they impart the idea that we are profoundly interdependent - and that purpose is found in committing to things that are bigger than ourselves.

Kenneth Primrose is an assistant vice-principal at a school in England, who previously worked as a head of religion and philosophy at a school in Scotland

This article originally appeared in the 8 January 2021 issue of Tes Scotland

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