Education in an Age of Victimhood: A Review of Carl Trueman's Strange New World

January 2023

Carl R. Trueman, Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution, Crossway: Wheaton, Illinois, 2022, pp. 204.

One of the most far-reaching contemporary battles in higher education revolves around the notion of personhood and human identity. At the heart of every educational scheme lies an idea of human nature, what it is, and what conditions are necessary for its flourishing. What does it mean to be human? If, for example, we believe that we are the outcome of mindless material biological evolution, we will answer that question in a certain way. If, on the other hand, we believe that we are created by God, have souls, and will live on after death, then we will posit another kind of answer. There are, of course, many other ways to think about what it means to be human. It’s an open question. The point is that how we think of human nature will dramatically affect the broader culture and its institutions.

In Strange New World, Carl R. Trueman, a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College, argues that the west has experienced a sea-change in how we conceptualize the individual. The book at hand is a popularized account of his more scholarly The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, in which Trueman analyzes the multiple sources – philosophical, technological, cultural and sociological – from which have arisen modern notions of personhood.

According to Trueman, the normative form of modern selfhood – the “default setting” – is what he calls “expressive individualism.” This is a term he borrows from the American scholar Robert Bellah. He quotes Bellah:

“[The culture of authenticity is one where] each one of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity, and that it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside, by society, or the previous generation, or religious or political authority” (23).

Briefly, “the modern self is one where authenticity is achieved by acting outwardly in accordance with one’s inner feelings” (23), a thesis, the author notes, at the centre of Charles Taylor’s magisterial Sources of the Self.

Trueman quickly points out that expressive individualism is not an unmitigated bad thing. It has aspects that are good and commendable. His concern is how the triumph of this particular understanding of the self has led to many strange and unsettling aspects of the modern world. In particular, the author is interested in how expressive individualism is expressed in the idioms of the sexual revolution, which doesn’t simply represent a growth in the routine transgression of traditional sexual mores, but rather “the repudiation of the very idea of such codes in the entirety … [so that] a belief in … such views has come to be seen as ridiculous and even a sign of serious moral or mental deficiency” (25). Expressive individualism demands authenticity, which in turn requires that an individual’s inner identity be allowed to act on their sexual desire. For Trueman, the dramatic rise in interest in transgenderism, non-binary categories, and so forth can be accounted for by the triumph of expressive individualism. So how did this new understanding of the self emerge?

According to Trueman, modern notions of selfhood are rooted in romanticism’s celebration of nature and, in particular, the “natural self” of Rousseau. Rousseau’s celebration of the natural individual, along with the granting of decisive authority to one’s inner feelings, are now commonplace and deeply embedded in modern culture. They form a part of what Charles Taylor (whom the author quotes approvingly) calls the “social imaginary” – i.e., ideas and assumptions which have normative authority in how we think about ourselves and our relationship to the world. For example, while the Greek tragedies tell of an externally ordered moral world, one which even Zeus is careful not to transgress, the “expressive individualist” insists that their psychological convictions are a “non-negotiable reality” to which all other external realities must conform. For Trueman, Rousseau’s prioritizing of the inner life “represents a key development in Western culture, the significance of which still has a profound effect on how we think of our identities today” (37). For Rousseau, we are most authentic when our outward actions follow the “pristine voice of nature, uncorrupted by the demands of civilized society with its hypocrisies and its antitheses with outward behaviour and that inner voice of nature” (42).

The implications of the autonomous, expressive individual for education are profound. For example, child-centred education in k-12 schools emerges from the Rousseauian belief in the natural goodness of the child, who needs to be protected from the corrupting influences of society and its institutions.

Modern notions of the self – the expressivist individual – have even more profound and far-reaching implications for universities. The surrounding culture tells the university students – whatever their professors might say – that they are, first and foremost, psychological beings and that their sense of personal and psychological well-being is central. There is a new emphasis on the authority of our inner feelings. Anything that “obstructs our psychological happiness, our sense of self, is inevitably bad, oppressive, and something to be opposed” (166).

Such moth-eaten shibboleths as freedom of speech and academic freedom are mere “licences to oppress and marginalize the weak” (164). The author notes, “Victimhood has an intrinsic value to it; and anything that can lay claim to the victim’s vocabulary has unlocked a major, even irresistible, source of cultural power” (166). History becomes nothing but a tale of oppression and victimhood, “something that must be overcome, not something to embrace and build upon…. And the free exchange of ideas seems more like the legitimation of bigotry and ignorance than the foundation for good citizenship” (162).

The new emphasis on victimhood profoundly alters the liberal-arts curriculum and curricular cannons in the humanities. Traditionally, liberal learning was intended to shape a student’s understanding of what it meant to be human by exposing them to a broad range of ideas across multiple disciplines. But the question arises: what happens once society accepts the basic Rousseauian premise that it is culture writ large that makes us inauthentic by perverting the inner, pristine voice of the naturally good individual? The underlying logic of Rousseau’s theory of culture – that it is corrupting and oppressive – finds a “myriad of expressions in the modern classroom as traditional social mores are decried as colonialist, sexist, imperialist and racist” (107). Unsurprisingly, “The fields of politics, arts, education and corporate business are now all marked by an aggressive negativity to the past and its values and beliefs” (106).

Trueman is a Christian and notes that the world in which we now live is hostile to Christian beliefs: “expressive individualism … is problematic for the ways it places individuals and their desires at the centre of the moral universe” (180). Furthermore, “The truth is that the last vestiges of a social imaginary shaped by Christianity is rapidly vanishing” (169). Yet he is clear-sighted enough to mark the church’s complicity in allowing the therapeutic culture to seep into Christianity, helping bring about an ethos which has rendered Christians strangers in a strange new world.

The author has an easy and accessible style which makes this book suitable for undergraduates. Students will also benefit from his cogent accounts of such modern thinkers as Rousseau, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Phillip Reiff, Christopher Lasch, and Charles Taylor. Trueman provides a glossary as well as study questions at the end of each chapter.

The cultural horizon of any society is the result of many forces, of course. Yet Trueman is right, I think, to emphasize “expressivist individualism” as among the touchstones of our current age, one with protean implications for society. Strange New World succeeds admirably in its aim to provide a useful primer to understanding one of the obsessions of our current age, an obsession with dire consequences for education.