The “ism” of Individualism

Education today, I claim, fails to cultivate the personality or develop the individual.  Understanding this requires a look at the vexing notion of individuality.  One is not likely to understand education’s failure to develop it if one does not know what it is.  In Generation Me (2006), Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D., writes of people now in their twenties and thirties:

            Two of Generation Me’s most prominent characteristics are our individualism and our lack of political engagement. We firmly believe no one is going to help, so we have to stand on our own. (229)

survivalfittestTo be clear, “individualism” is faith, a belief, or ideology like, as the “ism” implies, socialism, communism, or capitalism.  Acting in accord with this “ism” does not mean a person is, psychologically speaking, an individual at all.

            Many of the students, with whom I work, believe in this particular “ism.”  I am not saying, of course, that they know they believe in this “ism,” but they certainly act as if they do. They seem, as Twenge says, to feel the personal sphere and the political sphere are distinct.  This explains, why, according to Twenge, many young people don’t vote.  But, as I am suggesting, the “individualism” of today’s young people is itself an ideology or a politics.  Not voting does not mean one does not have a “politics.”

            That the young people of today might believe in such an “ism” of course makes sense.  During the period of their growing up, more and more individual Americans, some few of them at least, have become richer and richer.  Such people might appear to be able to stand on their own.  And as some few individuals have acquired greater and greater wealth, less and less money has been put into the public sphere, into repairing the roads, or building up parks, or into education.

            Standing on one’s own two legs is a wonderfully significant stage in the development of the child.  But it is by no means the final stage in the development of the individual.  The bottom line ethic however of bullying capitalism makes the ideology of individualism appear somehow heroic.  Being able to stand on one’s own in a world of dog eat dog indifference appears the stuff of struggle towards liberation.  Twenge writes, “Many young women said their mothers explicitly told them to act as individuals. ‘My mother has always encouraged me to be independent and never depend on anyone but myself, wrote Melinda, 22.’” (192)

            The young women whom I teach appear much like Melinda.  When I ask I find that most intend first to acquire a career.  Marriage will come later, if at all.  And whether or not one will have children appears a very open question.  These young women, whether they know it or not, have benefited from the feminism of the 60’s that aimed at the liberation of all women.  But these young women do not regard themselves as the heirs of that feminism.  They do not see themselves as feminists and do not like being identified as such because they see feminists as “women who hate men.”

            If I felt being a feminist meant “a woman who hates men,” I wouldn’t want to be one either because being one might make one appear to be a not very friendly person doomed to a life of consumed by hatred.  Feminism as the liberation of a group has been changed by well meaning mothers and fathers into the “ism” of individualism.  This supplies the young women with the meaningful goal of standing on her own two legs and becoming independent and, at the same time, obscures the profoundly deep and ongoing conflict between men and women.  Individualism liberates at the cost of deep repression.

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