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Who am I? Expressive Individualism and Catholic Higher Education

“Who am I?”  At some point, every student (and every person) will ask this question.  How we answer that question will determine the course of our lives.  And if we have a role in helping our students answer that question, it would be difficult to exaggerate our responsibility.  We must do our best to get it right.

In a preceding essay, “What is Catholic education?,” I approached this question—the anthropological question—indirectly.  By sketching an outline of the nature of the human person we seek to educate (within the context of a larger description of Catholic education more generally), I made a first approach, focusing on the mind, the heart, and the hands.  Expressed more directly, this question, “What is a human person?” is simply one more way of asking, “Who am I?”  These are fundamentally two forms of the same anthropological enquiry.

Before turning to a more detailed description of the anthropology that undergirds a classic understanding of liberal learning, it will be fruitful to consider a view that some consider to be the prevailing answer embodied in most contemporary institutions of higher learning, though largely unarticulated by those who hold it.  What follows is an anthropological account of this view offered in a recent book by legal scholar O. Carter Snead, from his book entitled What It Means to Be Human.

Snead draws on a variety of sociologists and philosophers in his description of what is called “expressive individualism.”  If Snead and his sources are correct, this fundamental orientation is in the cultural air we breathe, unconsciously informing not only our personal and professional lives but our institutions, including our institutions of higher learning and those who inhabit them. 

Whatever the particular and original mission statement of a university might be, there is a high probability that it will be understood by its leaders, faculty, and staff, and expressed directly or indirectly with the accents and ethos of expressive individualism.  Without any ill intent, it will become central to the stories that institutions tell themselves and their public about who they are and it will become the central formative idea of its academic and co-curricular programs.

According to Snead and his sources, “Expressive Individualism” is a view in which, “[P]ersons are conceived merely as atomized individual wills whose highest flourishing consists in interrogating the interior depths of the self in order to express and freely follow the original truths undiscovered therein toward one’s self-invented destiny.  Expressive individualism, understood in this sense, equates being fully human with finding the unique truth within ourselves and freely constructing our individual lives to reflect it.”

Snead elaborates, suggesting several key consequences of this anthropology.

First, it gives primary place to the will and the cognition attending it.  We are what we want and what we desire animates the core of our sense of personal identity.  Other activities of the mind, the heart, and the body exist to support the will’s construction of its identity and pursuit of its chosen plans.

Second, it separates the will from the body, leading to a kind of dualism.  The body becomes a tool for pursuing one’s chosen goals or a canvas on which to express one’s will-determined identity. 

One consequence of this is that it leads to a transactional approach in relationships, making choice and consent preeminent in relation to our own physical reality, the physical realities of others, and the goodness of the material world.  Furthermore, unchosen obligations, in their often unyielding materiality, become constraints that disrupt identity and make both the obligations and one’s larger personal narrative unintelligible. 

These unchosen obligations can be, for example, those that arise when our parents, children, or spouses become ill.  Through the lens of expressive individualism, these unchosen developments (within the context of what may or may not have been previously chosen relationships), disrupt that which is paramount: my ability to carry out the plans through which my very identity and being have meaning.

Third, there is no purpose beyond what we chose for ourselves.  This view rejects “natural givens” as blueprints or maps for human action, understanding the world, and seeking the meaning and purpose of life.  Every role and purpose must be temporary, chosen, and self-determined by the will, growing from the discoveries made deep within the self.  There is no stable human nature, with limits or purpose. All such “natural” dimensions are cultural in origin and merely masquerading as “nature.” All such claims to nature must be overcome if I am to “be my true self.”

In sum, expressive individualism inculcates in the hearts of our students that their primary task consists of three activities:  self-discovery, self-definition, and self-expression.  And all of these should not be constrained by any unchosen material, cultural, or relational realities.

For many students, institutions of higher learning, and much of the broader society, the ages between 18 and 22 are the primary years in which these three activities emerge from any lingering familial restraints and have the chance to become fully actualized. And, so the story goes, it is at the university where students can finally become the person they choose to be. And it is the university’s task, not to introduce students to the wisdom of the ages so that they may flourish in accord with truth, but to fully support all acts of self-discovery, self-definition, and self-expression as long as they do not infringe on the basic rights of others.

In practice, as leaders and faculty of institutions of Catholic liberal learning, we may unwittingly find ourselves cooperating and strengthening this vision of the human person rather than offering a counter-witness.  Let us consider these questions:

Are we accenting self-discovery without emphasizing with equal strength that we have a God-given nature and purpose that takes precedence over the particularities we may discover deep within ourselves, emphasizing that these discoveries can only be fruitful if understood in light of the realities of nature and God’s revelation of who he is and who we are?

Are we emphasizing an orientation toward self-definition and self-expression that is not tethered to and animated by the givens of nature—including our deep integration of body and soul—and the givens that attend to our status as creatures, i.e., that we are ordered to God and communion with others? 

Have we lost the understanding that human freedom and human happiness can only come to be if they are shaped by the truths of things, truths that we don’t get to invent or define or create for ourselves?

And are we acknowledging–and proposing to our students–that the most important dimensions of our lives are not the things that we discover, define, and express about ourselves?  Are we prepared to acknowledge that these dimensions of human experience can be vitally important but must be understood within the larger context of things over which we have no control or choice, the givens of a larger reality?

A recent Pope, in addressing Catholic educators put it this way, “When nothing beyond the individual is recognized as definitive, the ultimate criterion of judgment becomes the self and the satisfaction of the individual’s immediate wishes.  The objectivity and perspective, which can only come through a recognition of the essential transcendent dimension of the human person, can be lost.” 

And unfortunately many, many of the students at our colleges and universities have become lost today.  But Catholic liberal education offers good news.  Our students don’t have to remain lost.

What is the very first response to this situation, the very first gift we can give to students who are trapped within the anthropology of expressive individualism?  Intellectual charity, i.e., the gift of truth.  By proposing a vision of the human person rooted in the truth of things, we can propose a path forward, out of the self-referential house of mirrors.  This is the path of true joy, true freedom, and true flourishing in this life and the next.

And isn’t this what Catholic liberal education should fundamentally be about?

About the Author — Dr. George Harne

Dr. George HarneAs Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, Harne brings a vision of Catholic education to his work that is animated by the thought of Plato, Cardinal Newman, Josef Pieper, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI. In his role as Dean, Harne cultivates the treasures of the School—its faculty, students, and programs—ensuring that it flourishes in light of the greater mission of the University and draws ever more deeply on the sources of that mission: particularly the great Catholic intellectual and spiritual traditions. He also champions the School within Houston, regionally, and in the nation at large.

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