The subversion of modern education, and hence of modern civilization, is grounded in carefully designed manipulations of language, a kind of conceptual hypnotism designed to lull an incautious population into sleepy compliance with tyranny. One of the key terms in this mass hypnosis, a centerpiece of progressive pedagogy, is “individuality.” This word, spewing from the crater at the peak of socialist educational theory like lava, has long since flowed down to the valleys and villages of modern life, incinerating souls and leaving in its cooled wake a thousand hollow cavities in the rock, where men once stood.
The purpose of the pseudo-concept “individuality,” like its various sister-terms, such as “authenticity” and “creativity,” is to obscure the authoritarian goals of its purveyors behind a pretty mask of freedom. It is therefore understandable that the notion, meticulously planted in generations of young minds as a substitute for the proper ethical idea of “individualism,” has blossomed into general use, even among people who do not realize they are espousing the lexicon of progressivism. The problem is that no word is “just a word.” The corruption of language leads to the gradual corruption of thought, as the ideas behind the new word slowly displace the ideas behind its predecessor in the public consciousness.
Part of the long project of undoing the damage done to civilization by public education – assuming, as we must, that it is not already too late – is to re-engage modern humanity in the ideas that were once its crowning achievements. And this requires exposing, explaining, and then thoroughly demolishing the distortions and euphemisms by means of which the progressive subversion has been perpetrated.
In the spirit of constructive demolition, then, let us directly compare “individuality” with the concept it was designed to supplant, “individualism.” In fact, despite the (intended) superficial resemblance, the two concepts could not be more profoundly opposite.
First of all, the magma at the core of the volcano. The man most directly responsible for the idea of individuality is the father of modern progressive education himself, John Dewey. His understanding of the individual was diametrically opposed to the traditional view of individualism which Dewey, channeling Marx, associated specifically with classical liberalism (which Marx identified as “capitalism”). In short, he argued that whereas the “old individualism” presumes that individual human beings exist independently of their social relations, and that society is the product of the voluntary associations of individuals, in fact the contrary is true: the individual is a product of social relations.
Dewey did not mean anything so prosaic as that individual character and taste are influenced by the social structures within which one is raised. Rather, he was making the radical claim that without pre-existing social structures, there are no individuals. In other words, whereas modernity had previously viewed individual human beings as the primary realities, and “collective humanity” as an abstraction derived from these – thereby making politics the quest for the best way to protect the natural individual – Dewey believed that the collective is the primary reality, from which “individuals” may or may not develop.
This last point is the key. The development of “individuals,” in Dewey’s new sense of the term – a sense which explicitly denies principles of metaphysics, ethics, psychology and logic going back more than two thousand years – is not only dependent on the prior existence of the collective, but is contingent upon the existence of a correctly structured collective. Put simply (but accurately), Dewey, paralleling Marxist doctrine, believed that only socialism could produce fully realized individuals. The means to his preferred notion of “democracy” – a lyrical fantasy of absolute majority rule based in collectivist ethics and (literally) collective thought – would be an educational establishment that promoted his “new individualism,” individuality. Individuality, as opposed to the antiquated “classical” individualism, would, on his view, consist in acting out one’s feelings regarding one’s relationship to the collective, after a process of guided self-critique.
Here is one of Dewey’s typical expressions of the view:
Liberty is that secure release and fulfillment of personal potentialities which take place only in rich and manifold association with others: the power to be an individualized self making a distinctive contribution and enjoying in its own way the fruits of association. (The Essential Dewey vol. 1, 295)
Translated from the abstractions of Newspeak into English: “Individuality” means striving to make oneself interesting and useful to the collective, on the collective’s terms, and without rocking the social boat except in the name of strengthening the social uniformity that allows the aims of authoritarian socialism to flow “naturally” from the practice of absolute majority rule. Individuality means “active” conformity to the collective, as indicated as early as 1899 in one of Dewey’s more lucid critiques of non-progressive education:
The mere absorbing of facts and truths is so individual an affair [in the “old” sense of individual] that it tends very naturally to pass into selfishness. There is no objective social motive for the acquirement of mere learning, there is no clear social gain in success thereat. (The School and Society, 11)
In other words, genuine development of one’s individual mind and character are the enemy of the collective’s interests – of “objective social motives.” This leaves only the development of socially useful skills and conformist attitudes as the purpose of education. That Dewey must implicitly exempt himself, as a theoretician, from this critique of the “selfishness” of “mere learning” is typical of the progressive intellectual. He seeks to establish a “true democracy” in which a confused, irrational mob of usefully skilled automatons sing songs of harmony and individuality – songs written by the overlords and oligarchs who stand to benefit, not only materially but in self-protection and self-importance, from this anti-individualist, anti-theoretical, anti-rational system of mass indoctrination. (Hobbes claims that men’s choices are driven fundamentally by fear and vainglory. While one may debate its universal application, this is an undeniably apt framing of the motives of progressive/socialist intellectuals, who are to genuine philosophers what Charles Ponzi was to legitimate businessmen.)
With that initiation into its poisonous sources, we may now compare individuality to individualism more directly, with a view to understanding just how the moral inversion of modern civilization has been achieved in practice.
To begin, individualism is an ethical position, based on a rational understanding of human nature and the virtues which follow from it. Individuality, by contrast, is basically an aesthetic idea, sparks of color issuing from the gray mass of the collective. It is how the socialist collective preens, namely by holding parts of itself up for its own approval and acceptance.
While genuine individualism leaves plenty of room for serious disagreement about specifics, it always begins from a metaphysical view traceable to the ancient Greeks, namely that earthly existents, including living entities, are essentially individuated. The notion of the human soul, so central to the thinking of Plato and Aristotle, is inextricably tied to the accepted primacy – at least in the material world – of individual beings. Human life is fundamentally individual (which, as Aristotle shows, does not mean anti-social); hence the good for men, i.e., “virtue,” is that which accords with our nature as individual living things which desire to survive and thrive.
Individuality, on the other hand, serves only the supposed collective good, and therefore has no place for virtue (literally “manliness”). Instead of moral rectitude, the progressive ethic deifies subjective feelings, attitudes, and “values,” in particular those which glorify the collective and debase the individual. “You didn’t build that” is the resentfully anti-individual sentiment of a perfect Dewey dupe. The applause it brings from the fellow collectivists in attendance is a model of the relationship between the “new progressive individual” and the social group – the former’s individuality is defined by his ability to excite the approval of the group in marginalizing those non-conformists who have the gall to pursue interests with “no objective social motive.”
In sum, individualism encourages proper pride and self-reliance; approval will come as it may, but it can never be the primary motive of genuine virtue. Individuality, on the contrary, is defined by an emotional need for approval and acceptance. One stands out (though without fundamentally challenging) precisely in order to be noticed, to be applauded, to be more fully and actively immersed in the collective and its majoritarian will.
In this sense, it is profoundly correct to say that individualism is an adult ethic, individuality essentially childish. This should not be surprising, in light of the fact that individuality has been created and propped up by authoritarians, with a view to reducing their subjects to a compliant mass of obedient, needy, trusting dependents.
Individualism begins by presuming the fundamental distinctness and dignity of all human beings, despite their similarities. Individuality is the consolation the oligarchs offer the chattel for their essential indistinctness within the collective mass. Anything superficially “different” or “unique,” as long as it promotes, rather than threatening, the progressive status quo – in other words, as long as it does not in any way challenge progressive authoritarian rule – is to be encouraged and glorified. The more “unique,” the better.
George Washington exemplifies individualism; Madonna individuality. Thomas Edison’s mother, who educated him at home when he was dismissed as a problem child after three months of formal schooling, exemplifies individualism; Sandra Fluke individuality. Ronald Reagan, who gave up acting to become a leader, exemplifies individualism; Barack Obama, who took up acting to become the historically cool socialist who knows Beyoncé personally, individuality.
By deliberately displacing individualism in favor of individuality, the educational establishment has done much more than replace a well-grounded philosophical notion with ill-defined poppycock. It has completely reversed a fundamental moral tenet of the modern world and classical liberalism, by means of verbal trickery. Rather than simply renouncing individualism outright – i.e., being honest, and allowing collectivist ideas to stand on their real merits and appeal – the progressives, from Marx and Dewey straight through to Bill Ayers and the other current education “reformers,” have sought to deceive an entire civilization into accepting its own demise under the guise of one of its own most fundamental principles.
This “new individualism” has won the day. How do we know this? We can see it in today’s grown-up children, the perfect realization of the progressive educational ideal: never has civilization displayed more kaleidoscopic “differences,” irreverence towards traditional beliefs and behavioral norms, infatuation with dreams of “being somebody” and “expressing yourself” – or more irrationalism, childlike dependency, disrespect for others’ lives and property, unwillingness to take care of oneself, and mindless moral conformity.
Dewey would be pleased. We have instituted his plan of a world without the selfishness of “mere learning,” in which men are unthinkingly compliant with the will of the collective (and its “guides”), beyond his wildest dreams.
Today’s colorful array of collectivist “individuality” may be a little uglier in practice than Dewey had imagined – but no tyranny is perfect.
(This article originally appeared at American Thinker.)
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