To a Friend on the Importance of the Individual

September 2022

The following is a stylistically edited letter, sent to a colleague just before American Thanksgiving in November of 2021.

Dear Robin,

Ever since you asked me why the concept of the individual is so important to me, I have been ruminating on the question. As you know, I was raised as an only child by a single parent. And largely because my mother was overburdened, from a young age I knew I was basically on my own when it came to pursuing important goals. All this brought about a kind of isolation of the spirit. Yet despite the difficulties, the situation also produced some important benefits. For instance, it fostered my reflective tendencies and imagination, as well as the ability to enjoy solitude, and to use it constructively.

The reason I am writing to you about all this just now has to do with individualism as a theme in a news story I saw on YouTube posted by conservative pundit Dave Rubin. Since you and I differ politically, I should mention that Rubin is a little more conservative than I am (though he shows libertarian inclinations as well). An especially pertinent detail about Rubin in the context of this conversation is his stance against identity politics. As you will already know from our various discussions, I could not agree with him more fully on that subject. In any event, something that might surprise you in light of what I have just said, is that if Dave Rubin wanted to, he could claim preferential status from links to no less than three kinds of minorities (gender-related, religious, and ethnic).

The news story itself addresses the removal of the statue of Thomas Jefferson from New York City Hall. People may say that actions such as tearing down statues do not correspond well to the intentions of mainstream liberalism because the militancy of Antifa and BLM are arguably “fringe.” Besides, no apparent violence ensued when the Jefferson statue was taken down, gently and professionally, then quietly moved to a reading room. At first glance, it hardly seems as if there could be an issue worthy of discussion here. But, as a wise professor of mine used to point out, America (alas) is a nation of non-readers. So, the statue has been moved at least one degree away from full public view. Perhaps the incident would qualify as a sort of “softcore” cancellation since it was not directly perpetrated by a physically violent mob. However, Jefferson’s statuary exile took place with the full collaboration of New York Democrat party leaders. So, it seems reasonable to interpret the municipal ejection of Jefferson as a sign of liberal agreement with, or at least appeasement of, Woke influences.

Here are my thoughts about individualism, in connection with the story:

When we elevate a symbol of heroism or other higher faculties, such as the eloquence and ultimate aspirations of the author of the Declaration of Independence, that exaltation is not motivated by some irrational belief that any person can be infallible. We do it because he or she represents some outstanding human potentiality, such as the intelligence and commitment behind the deathless statement that all human beings are born equal in dignity.

When we tear down (however gently or obliquely) an image representing the higher essence of an individual character, then we denigrate not only an individual, but in some sense the individual human soul. The elevation of a statue enjoins us, both literally and figuratively, to raise our sights upwards. By removing from view a personified quality worth emulating, we take away encouragement to living individuals to strive upwards, each in his or her own best fashion. Taking down icons pervasively suggests that we should not look up at all, but rather strive toward the most common level, so that everyone can be the same. Yet, what the symbolic lowering of human transcendence actually accomplishes is a perversion of equality as represented in the Declaration.

Robin, this dynamic is exactly the one we all lamented time and again at our college, where no matter how substantial our qualifications or experience we were never trusted to do what we were endlessly trained (and vetted) to do. Instead, we were regularly coerced to toe some politically correct line, often delivered by administrators who had never taught, and whose intentions were about deciding for us what content we professors would teach, uniformly, in our individual classrooms with the individual students under our care. You once remarked about all this that you were sick of being preached to, instead of encouraged, or at least left alone, to do your job well (and I would add, let alone recognized for moments of doing it particularly well).

Related to my own faculty experiences, three apparently inconsequential memories come to mind. During my first year I posted a calligraphed quotation on my door about striving for excellence in spite of any mediocrity around us. And I remember a subtle yet unmistakable sense that any animus against me in the department (and there was plenty from day one) could be linked to resentment about that small poster. At the time, I did not understand the political reasons for such ill will, and I knew that encouraging students toward excellence was a central aspect of our calling as teachers. So, I left the poster on the door and suffered the baffling consequences.

I also remember a difficult conversation with a professor you know all too well, who had been appointed as the head of my tenure review committee. Early interactions with her included being scolded for producing too much original scholarship. She said I needed to focus on the college as a teaching school. When I protested that my attempts to meet the tenure requirements for research should inherently feed excellence in teaching, and that both my scholarly and pedagogical profiles seemed to have been basic to my hiring in the first place, she snapped back, “Well I wouldn’t have hired you!” When I insisted that I was working as hard as possible in order to secure tenure and do credit to our department, she replied that she realized that. She then put her arm around me and said I needed to understand that I was working too hard. This puzzled me, so I wrote it off as a sign of some hidden purpose of hers. Back then, I thought anxiety about political forces bent on promoting mediocrity in education was based on exaggeration.

There’s a similar story I won’t go into, from my first year, this time involving a kinder colleague, our then Chair. The punchline to this untold story is how this well-meaning woman, who held a doctorate from Harvard, exclaimed to me in pure exasperation, “Can’t you do a mediocre job?!?” And yes, those were her precise words. It would be impossible to forget them.

Striving for excellence means focusing on what each individual can contribute. It also signifies the famous “pursuit of happiness” articulated by the classically educated Jefferson in the Declaration according to the Aristotelian sense of aiming toward the highest human fulfillment, that which is meaningful in and of itself. It does not imply putting others down or trying to make them feel inferior, any more than the revered statement that “all men are created equal” means that everyone is the same, except in terms of shared humanity.

Robin, I hope you will think of what I have written here as it relates to our national celebration of Thanksgiving, especially that one’s gratitude for ultimate blessings, such as talents and opportunities to do some good in the world, can be inspirations to look, and to aim, higher.