Thursday, June 11, 2020
I've been thinking about Yuval Levin's most recent book, A Time to Build, during the last few weeks, especially as just (albeit very risky) protests too often have been hijacked by those who would not build but destroy.
Levin's book is a robust defense of institutions: "durable forms of our common life...frameworks and structures of what we do together." If it wasn't clear when the book was published just months ago, it is crystal clear today: American institutions at every level are crumbling.
His claim -- illustrated over chapters on Congress, journalism and the professions, academia, social media, and the family and church -- is that our formative institutions have been deformed into organizations used for individual performative self-expression. This wordplay repeated throughout the book makes for a memorable thesis and one that seems perfectly true to our time.
We trust institutions when they routinely perform certain social functions integral to their very purpose -- as when police protect lives rather than brutally take them. But we also rely on institutions to intentionally shape the people within them to live according that purpose. Institutions mold individuals -- or they fail to be what they are. But today we too often deny that individuals are even in need of such molding.
To see institutions as platforms for performance is to deny them their role as molds of character, and by extension to deny our very need for such formation. Our culture now often does deny that need. Both the libertarian and progressive ideals of freedom assume a human person already fully formed requiring only liberation from oppression of various sorts....
The vision of the human person underlying these assumptions is loaded with very high expectations of the individual, but it therefore makes only modest demands of institutions. Left to himself, the individual can exercise his capacities and pursue the good; our institutions need only to enable him -- if not, indeed, to display and promote him.
But this vision has always been opposed in our traditions by a far more skeptical view, which assumes that a person begins imperfect and unformed -- not to say fallen....It assumes that each of us is born deficient but capable of moral improvement, that such improvement happens soul by soul, and so cannot be circumvented by social or political transformation, and that this improvement -- the formation of character and virtue -- is the foremost work of our society in every generation. To fail to engage in it is to regress to pre-civilizational barbarism. This work is the essential, defining purpose of our institutions, which must therefore be fundamentally formative....
Many Americans are not lucky enough to have the benefit of a flourishing family or the opportunity for rewarding work or an uplifting education or a thriving community or a humbling faith, let alone all of these at once. But some combination of these soul-forming institutions is within the reach of most, and the work of reinforcing them, sustaining the space for them, and putting them within the reach of as many of our fellow citizens as possible is among our highest and most pressing civic callings.
Let's get to work.