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What Are Students Thinking? Part III: Examples of Expressive Individualism

Part III in a series. Read part I here and part II here.

Today I want to demonstrate what I outlined yesterday by telling some stories of conversations I’ve had with students and pointing to examples of expressive individualism in culture and school curriculum. Take a look at the two pictures above. These are prominently displayed ads in shop windows in the mall in my town. The first one on the left says "A collection to celebrate tween girls, to encourage self expression and individuality." I came upon them within moments of walking in. There's nothing wrong with "celebrating tween girls," of course. I have two daughters, who will one day soon be in that age range. But notice the focus: you, and expressing yourself. You look within to find your truth, and the authentic life is expressing what you find within. E.I through and through.

Here is a recent Taco Bell commercial: “eat like you.” Pay attention to the last 15 seconds, specifically to one of the featured characters, when the slogan “eat like you” is plastered in big letters on the screen. The kind of person celebrated here is the individual who expresses the inner self. You do you. Again, E.I through and through.

These are just three recent examples of a ubiquitous social American religion. If you pay attention, you’ll see the dogma of E.I all over the place...sometimes explicit, many times implicit and tacit; background assumptions, more or less. There doesn’t need to be a “class” that teaches E.I to kids; everyone simply understands it. This is what your kids see and hear all day, every day. The constant drum beat is "it's all about you. Choice is sacred. You are in charge." It’s in the water, so catechesis proceeds apace. Here’s an example from English class at the Tx public high school I teach at. My first year teaching in TX, part of my job involved assisting in certain English classes as an ESL aide. The very first unit, which lasted 9 weeks, that the jr English curriculum prescribed was called “moving beyond boundaries.” That is the exact tag line for the unit. The enduring understandings--the “insights” the curriculum designers hoped to impart in the students--all had to do with liberation from unchosen boundaries and individuals blurring, mixing, confusing, transgressing, and eliminating categories. Several activities revolved around the thought that boundaries--moral and otherwise--are social constructions that can be re-negotiated if need be to allow for individuals to express their inner identity more freely. The whole point was that you, not anything external to you, defines yourself. Second, from my own English classes this year. We had just finished reading Ayn Rand’s Anthem, which is a super, hyper individualistic novel in and of itself, but never mind that. The culminating project the curriculum called for was called “build a town.” Students had to create a fictitious town, complete with a mission and values, and they had to create a Google slides presentation on it. Every single presentation had the same top two values: “you can be who you want to be here,” and “in this town we band together for the common, collective good.” No one really thought through to the conclusion that those two values don’t really hang together well. So I started asking a few questions. After one girl’s presentation, I asked her “who is the poster boy for your town?” (ie, your model citizen) She said Willow and Jaden Smith, because according to her, the black community has rejected them for their “edgy” lifestyle. When I asked a few questions to get at what she meant by “edgy,” it referred to their sexually permissiveness. I guess even one of them is polyamorous according to her.

So I asked her if there were any limits to any of that, and she said no; next, I asked "is there anyone you would kick out of your town?" and she said no. Then: "what about Donald Trump?" (this was well before Jan 6) and immediately she reacted "aw hell naw he'd have to go! No Donald Trump in this town!" The irony was lost on her. The point is not that she should have accepted Trump into her “town,” or that Trump is unfairly put upon by elite liberals. He deserves (most) of the scorn he gets. The point was that she hadn’t really thought through her individualistic ethic, and even when I pointed out the weakness of it by asking a few questions, she did not change. I then asked her "what if you found scientific evidence that the poly lifestyle is unhealthy for emotions, relationships, mental health, etc? Would you change your mind on your tolerance of polyamorism?” Answer? No, because that's their choice and she can't oppose a person's choice. I asked, “is there anything that could cause you to re-think and change your mind?” No, for the same reason: it's all about choice. She was very dogmatic. She had a very hard time articulating the limits to her ethic: she would limit someone’s behavior "if it's weird" “What would make something weird? "If its bad." “What would make something bad?” "If its weird?" ok, same question...what does that mean? "Its weird if it makes someone uncomfortable." That's pretty much all she could say. That’s as deep as her intellectual well went. The one thing she was sure of was the sacredness of the choosing individual, who looks within to find his “truth,” and then expresses it. The role of society is to not only not get in the way, but actively assist the individual in expressing their inner identity (which is equated with inner feeling). Another story that bears this out, again from English class: Last year we read To Kill a Mockingbird in my Jr. English class. After we finished the novel, I made the point to students that Atticus Finch was a moral reformer--he morally opposed his culture and called it to do better. I said “we know that Finch was right to do so, but how do we know? How do we know he was right?” The only answer they could come up with was “because he stood up for his own beliefs.” There was nothing deeper than that. They immediately lurched towards an individualistic answer and couldn’t go deeper than that. They had a hard time grasping that there’s anything amiss about that, that if that’s as far as it goes that we won’t be able to differentiate between the Atticus Finches of the world and the Bill Cosbys. Both “stood up for their beliefs” in a sense. In their education, both in school and at home, they’ve constantly been taught to “stand up for your beliefs,” but have rarely been pointed to any transcendent standard that helps them decide which beliefs are worth standing for and which things/causes/values are worth loving. The only compass they have is an inner one, one of “choice.” If you choose it, that’s all that can be said. If they are pointed to a transcendent standard, such a standard is made merely a function of their beliefs. The “transcendent” part is re-interpreted in an individualistic manner. It is an outworking of their own choice in ice cream flavors, nothing more.

Last anecdote: just the other day in my Honors English class, we read a poem called “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye. The point of the poem is basically that to be skilled in the virtue of kindness, you need to experience loss and suffering. Well, that might not be absolutely necessary, but it’s still a good point: meeting someone whose soul is deep, who is skilled in virtues like kindness--its pretty rare to meet someone like that who has had a soft life. Usually the deepest people out there have experienced some kind of suffering in life.

Anyway, near the end of the discussion, I asked students “is there such a thing as ‘too much kindness’? That is, can it get out of balance? How can we achieve balance in the virtues?” In my thinking, this has to do with balancing something like kindness with other virtues, like righteousness, justice, pursuit of truth, etc. But *every single student* that spoke up gave an answer like “at the end of the day, you have to put yourself first. You have to love yourself first before anything else.” Even the socialist minded students, the “Bernie bros,” said something like that. That’s telling.

For them, even those who are super collectivistic in their thinking, it all comes back to Expressive Individualism: I am my own. Everything is to be measured in relation to how it ultimately serves my own ends and forwards my autonomy. Those who are socialistic in their political leanings are on that bandwagon because they think socialistic government policies are the best way to achieve that end.

I have stories like this for almost every day in my classroom. All this is in “red” Texas. Folks, I hate to break it to you, but moving from a blue state to a red state--say, from CA to TX--will not get you away from any of this.

If you are to give your kids a fighting chance, it will require relentlessly intentional, thoughtful, active, and purposeful discipleship in your parenting. For all families--those who homeschool and those who send their kids to public school/charter schools/private schools alike--the days of outsourcing the educational task to the educational establishment are over. The same can be said about church life--don’t leave your kids spiritual lives up to the youth pastor. Many youth pastors work tirelessly and are good people, but they have your kids for--maybe--two hours per week. The culture gets at kids for many, many hours more. Church on Sunday, youth group on Wednesday, a Christian school during the week (for those who are able to make this choice), and maybe a dinner time devotion at night--this will not be enough.

In a future blog post, I will cover some thoughts on what this intentional parenting might look like.


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