Learning and Belonging: Tradition and the Individual

January 25, 2021 Updated: February 1, 2021

Commentary

We belong to each other, and we learn everything worthwhile by submitting to the authority of a tradition we didn’t invent. We don’t make it up from scratch according to our feelings of the moment.

In an essay celebrating the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s death, David Goldman traces the line of piano teachers descending in a direct line from Beethoven himself down through the 19th and 20th centuries to his own teacher, the Italian pianist Carlo Levi Minzi.

Any serious students of piano submit to a tradition, whether or not they go on to become a concert pianist. They learn and develop the norms and the particular virtues that the practice—of piano, chess, baseball, law, or medicine—requires and builds. Virtues might include, among those particular to mastery of the skills and knowledge required, perseverance and self-discipline (practicing whether you feel like it or not), humility, and gratitude.

The ability to “express oneself” and innovate comes later, with long hours or years of practice and the disciplined development of knowledge and skill within the tradition.

Genealogies and Belonging

A line of teachers linking Goldman to Beethoven brings to mind the importance of family lists and genealogy in many cultures and religions. They’re a prominent feature of the Hebrew Bible, and the New Testament begins with an account of how Jesus was descended from Abraham and David. In many cultures, such as that of Maori and Native Hawaiians, speakers may introduce themselves to an audience, not with their academic credentials or professional achievements, but with their genealogy. It’s both a way of identifying oneself and of acknowledging one’s debt to those who went before. It’s an expression of gratitude for everything we’ve received.

In everything, we learn from those who gave us life, language, a shared way of understanding the world, and from those who taught us particular practices—such as piano (or baseball or medicine)—that require us to sit at the feet of teachers and submit to a tradition that long precedes us.

Expressive Individualism

In contrast, we tend to think of ourselves, as current law encourages us to, as autonomous selves, as wills pursuing our own ends as we define them. We think we shouldn’t be encumbered or bound by obligations to which we didn’t freely consent. We shouldn’t, in this view, be encumbered by obligations we didn’t choose.

One name for this ideology of the autonomous, unencumbered self is “expressive individualism.” As Carter Snead puts it in his new book, “What It Means to Be Human,” expressive individualism “equates being fully human with finding the unique truth within ourselves and freely constructing our individual lives to reflect it.”

That way of looking at life is an extreme version of the individualism that French observer Alexis de Tocqueville noted in early 19th-century America. In his travels in America, Tocqueville noted a declining sense of community, leading people into the view that they “owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anybody. They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine that their whole destiny is in their hands.”

Rugged Individualists and Modern Snowflakes

The self-sufficient, self-determining rugged individualist celebrated in Western film and frontier lore is one expression of this vision, one in which the hero has little connection to past or future, to family or community.

The student who expects “safe spaces,” who demands official protection from anything upsetting, the “snowflake,” seems like an altogether different character in the country’s drama today, though no less detached from family, tradition, and the community he or she grew up in.

The contrasts are obvious. The rugged individualist doesn’t demand to be kept safe from unpleasant feelings. If he didn’t read the great works of Western literature (though he may well have read the King James Version of the Bible or Bunyan’s classic of spiritual individualism, “Pilgrim’s Progress”), he at least didn’t demand the canon of great works be purged of anything today’s woke reader (or he himself) might consider offensive or politically incorrect.

What both kinds of individualism have in common is the focus on the self, the weak sense of obligations that were unchosen (like those to family or country), the idea that you were or could be what you determined was right for you. But the individualism of the woke, of identity politics, goes further.

The individualism of identity politics or wokeness also seeks a substitute for the sense of belonging that comes with birth into a family, a faith, a culture, and a community. As Mary Eberstadt shows, the pull of identity politics is that of a substitute for the loss or absence of those aspects of belonging. It’s an angry, quasi-religious impulse, one that seeks out a separate identity and community based on the desires of the individual.

But despite the protestations, those who embrace the politics of identity don’t just want to be left alone. Far from hardly expecting anything from anybody, like Tocqueville’s individualists of 19th-century America, the lifestyle identitarians of today assert hitherto unknown “rights” as claims on the state. They demand and depend on a repressive state that limits the authority and freedom of the family, the church, employer, and voluntary organization.

One paradoxical expression of this phenomenon was the sight of white women screaming racist epithets and insults at black police officers on duty at the supposedly anti-racist riots of Portland, Oregon, that went on for months. It was the only situation in which whites could scream racist abuse at blacks with impunity, knowing that the uniformed officers of the state were under strict orders not to respond.

We see loud yelling of students at Yale, as some of the most privileged young people in the world claim victimhood and tell conciliatory administrators to shut up and listen when they try to speak. There are frequent demands that faculty members be dismissed and speakers canceled if vocal students consider their views unacceptable.

The traditional and universal understanding of teaching and learning is that the teacher embodies mastery within a tradition. The authority as a teacher is granted by virtue of that tradition and his or her mastery within it. The student sits at the teacher’s feet, literally or figuratively, because both parties realize that the teacher has much to teach and the student much to learn.

Identity politics in educational settings often asserts the opposite. Those with higher victim status are at elite institutions to teach faculty, not to learn from them. Those seen as irredeemable, in particular heterosexual white males, must shut up and listen. These “oppressors” are overrepresented among faculty and administration.

Tradition and the Individual

The dominant ideology of wokeness or identity politics is then an inversion of the “best which has been thought and said in the world,” as Victorian poet Matthew Arnold put it. It reverses the natural position of teacher and learner. And in its individualism, putting will and power rather than dependence and relationships at the center of life, it distorts actual human experience.

A more accurate view of what it means to be human and of life as we actually experience it starts with the fact that we’re not free-floating wills or minds. We’re born as dependent rational animals, as philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre calls it, into “networks of uncalculated giving and gracious receiving.”

We’re born into complete dependence on others, more than other mammals and for longer. We lose all independence and autonomy as we approach death or suffer extreme disability. We’re always indebted to others, a debt of gratitude we’re obliged to pay or be guilty of being profoundly ungrateful. These aren’t for the most part contracts or debts we choose to incur.

As human beings, we can’t thrive, individually or in society, as autonomous, unencumbered individuals. We belong to each other. Society can’t be reduced to atomized individuals on one hand and the almighty state on the other, with everything between impoverished or destroyed.

Paul Adams writes on ethics, marriage and family, and social policy. He is professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawaii. He has also taught at Case Western University and the University of Texas.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.