Archive for February 2009

Role Playing or Recreating

February 3, 2009

In a recent Op-Ed (NYT, January 27), David Brooks asks us to address a fundamental dichotomy in how to think about life. His column led to a rash of good letters a few days later. Whatever one thinks of the issues and of how Brooks comes down on them, one cannot but respect a columnist who regularly leaves his political bailiwick to address more general moral and political issues.

Brooks contrasts a recent Harvard report on the purpose of education (evidently with emphasis on general humanistic education) with the thesis of a 2008 book “On Thinking Institutionally” by Hugh Heclo. The Harvard report emphasized the value of shaking up the assumptions of the young so that they might think for themselves and discover their own values. Its fundamental values seemed to be individualism and change. To Heclo, by contrast, we are defined by the institutions that we go through as we develop from a child into an adult, and as we grow through the responsibilities of new adult relationships and careers. We might say that Heclo asks us to accept and work within the roles which society foists upon us and Harvard wants us to redefine those roles or invent new ones.

Brooks notes that the people who he has admired the most have been those who took the institutional road, who asked what they could do for society and did their best to fulfill the request. They were not the people who concentrated their questioning on what society could do for them (which seems to miss the point of the Harvard report).

Yes, of course the person who finds himself a parent should try his best to fulfill that role as society expects. Lawyers should treat their clients in the ways that society and their colleagues judge is proper. Priests should serve the flock more than their inclinations. I would imagine that the wheels of society would not run very smoothly unless this were so for most people most of the time. Yet were this all there was to responsible living then human society would be little different from ant society. Roles evolve and should evolve. Parents do not treat their children today the way they did centuries ago, nor do husbands and wives regard their respective roles as the way they once did. This is change, and mostly “progress”.

We also have to deal with the fact that many institutional roles are defined quite differently by most of their current occupants as contrasted with the larger society around them. Policemen are famous for their unwillingness to testify against one another, even when flagrant crimes have been committed. One suspects that similar in-group role definitions infect many, if not most professions. When we ask what society expects of people in such roles are we talking about average behavior norms or theoretical societal norms?

I conclude that most societies honor the many who fit into their roles relatively smoothly, acting as responsibly as they can in terms of their own lights and the judgments of those around them. They move on through life from role to role to the muted cheers of their fellows. Yet I believe that we also need a creative minority within society that asks responsibly whether what has been done before is what they should do in the future, whether or not there is a societal duty to make some changes as they go along. We need institutional players most of the time. But we also need many to be educated as Harvard would have them, people who can reorient both themselves and the roles they find themselves playing, people who can perhaps create new roles and deinstitutionalize roles that have outlived their usefulness.