Five Themes of American Conventional Wisdom

puritansIn the first section of his wonderful book, What Are Schools For?, (looking at the history of education in America and the possibilities for a more holistic educational view) author (and my friend) Ron Miller calls out five dominant cultural assumptions that he believes are at the root of conventional American thinking, particularly conventional American thinking about education.

The five are…

1. Puritan (Calvinist/Protestant) Theology
2. Scientific Reductionism (& the Cult of Professionalism)
3. Restrained Democratic Ideology
4. Capitalism & Free Enterprise
5. Self-Righteous Nationalism

In one of Ron’s classic paragraphs, chocked full of juicy ideas to digest, he argues that these five themes…

Are defining characteristics of the common, middle-class American worldview, the “consensus consciousness” through which most Americans interpret their experience of the world. If there is a common thread which ties these themes together, it is the need for social discipline. Despite the emphasis on “liberty”, “freedom”, independence”, and “individualism” in the American myth, the dominant worldview actually does not trust the spontaneity and self-expressive creativity of the individual. The proper beliefs and proper ways of acting which lead to social and economic success are predominantly moral, rational, entrepreneurial, and “professional”; in short, they impose rational discipline on the deeper, more impulsive, intuitive, mystical, and emotional aspects of human nature.

When I read these words and the rest of Ron’s work I am immediately drawn to its resonance with Riane Eisler’s thinking in her book, The Chalice and the Blade, positing that our contemporary Western culture is an unstable emulsion of sorts, combining seemingly incompatible partnership (egalitarian) and patriarchal (hierarchical) worldviews. Unleashed human passion and creativity kept in check by an imposed rational discipline. A belief in the worth, dignity and equal opportunity for all with an expectation that “the cream will rise to the top” and the best and brightest will instruct the rest of us on “best practices”. A strong principle of separation of Church and State and freedom of (and from?) religion, yet a pervasive moralism coming out of one religious (Protestant) tradition.

Ron sums up his presentation of the five themes as follows…

The issue here is American culture’s pervasive mistrust of the deeper subjective facets of human experience.

We somehow simultaneously celebrate and fear the power and potential of the individual human being and constantly wrestle with what to do about this quandary. When I manage to load that contradiction into my mind I can listen to a commentator like Rupert Murdoch’s guard dog Sean Hannity and at least begin to understand where he’s coming from.

We barrage ourselves, including our youth, with advertising messages to buy this or that clothing, car or even hamburger to express our individuality in those venues while expecting our youth to follow a strict social discipline of standardized education and adults to passively take orders from corporate bosses in the work world.

What the hell is going on? I’m still trying to sort it all out. Miller says that at the root of all this seeming meshugas is the first of his five themes…

1. Puritan (Calvinist Protestant) Theology

So how could a theological doctrine featuring innate human depravity and the profane insignificance of the material world become the foundation of a secular society that features materialism, commercialism, “one person one vote”, and the celebration of the individual’s liberty and pursuit of happiness? (For more an overview of Calvinism, you might want to check out my piece, “American Calvin”.)

Miller sees the Calvinist Protestant worldview as essential to the transition to the Modern from the world of Medieval Christianity which…

Represented an organic form of society, in which individuals’ lives were regulated by ritual, myth, and participation in communal enterprises such as guilds. Each person had a destined position in society, and humanity had a secure position in the Great Chain of Being.

Calvinist Protestantism facilitated the transition from this worldview to the Modern one…

The new capitalist, scientific worldview required liberation from such regularity. There were new worlds to explore, new resources and markets to exploit, new nations to build. Calvinist Protestantism accommodated these urges, but provided a rigorous moralism to keep humans’ unsavory impulses in check. The Puritan worldview was a particularly narrow and pessimistic view of nature and human nature; it allowed for personal ambition and enterprises so long as these were tempered by guilt, repentance, and pious recognition that worldly pursuits are ultimately worthless compared to the divine reality.

So the Medieval Christian religious hierarchy of Pope on down to priests complementing the secular hierarchy of kings and nobles, with the flock/peasants at the bottom was dismantled by these new ideas of the autonomous individual and maybe the bubbling up of a kindled (or perhaps rekindled) partnership ethos. Whether you see it in a context of economic or technological determinism or frame it otherwise as a step in the evolution of our species, most would agree it was a profound change in being human.

But in the continuing cultural dialectic between patriarchy and partnership, between external and internal authority, Calvinism offered a new flatter org chart of sorts with individuals given more autonomy in exchange for practicing much more self-control and answering directly to God (rather than through a priestly hierarchy). Mitigating this egalitarianism was another Calvinist idea that only a few were God’s “elect”, a reality that would be demonstrated by their combination of material success and moralistic piety.

This new theology also put forward a utopian vision (tapping into biblical millennialism) of God’s Commonwealth on Earth, (which conservatives love to riff on, Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill”) that was not seen as antithetical to the subjugation and exploitation of Mother Nature (the world and its indigenous people) and human nature (greed leveraged and harnessed by free enterprise and capitalism).

America, the crown jewel of the “New World”, became the perfect focal point for weaving together these threads and realizing the utopian vision of Calvinist ideology. As Miller says, the mainly Protestant European settlers…

Did not experience the frontier with innocent awe but through the filter of their Protestant worldview. In this view, the pioneers had to be even more vigilant than the settled kinsmen they left behind. Nature was a howling, Godless wilderness; and the community must be bound by a strict moral code or degenerate into lawlessness. Thus, while the frontier may have dissolved some of the pioneers’ previous class distinctions in an economic or social sense, it did not erase the moralistic Puritanism of their ancestors.

And critical to the impact of this ideology on today’s institutions and conventional wisdom…

American culture… has not encouraged true self-reliance in a moral or spiritual sense, because it disdains nature and so mistrusts an unconverted, uncontrolled, undisciplined human nature…

As America built its factories and “shining” cities, and the railways that connected them, the ideology of “taming” the frontier persisted in the popular stories of the West (starting with books and continuing with the new media of radio, film and television), and the moralistic view that justifies the means (even genocide) to achieve that taming.

And following a path of least resistance, as it began so it continues…

Believing that human beings are cut off from the divine, and are instead moved by innate evil impulses, American culture has become highly moralistic; it is commonly believed that a rigorous moral code, and vigilant enforcement of social mores, standards of behavior, and civil laws are all that stand in the way of social upheaval and anarchy.

Since the founding of America, European countries have gone through numerous political, economic and social cataclysms, starting with the French revolution and continuing with subsequent socialist, communist and fascist upheavals. A now more united Europe has worked through much of this and achieved a modicum of peace and integration as perhaps never before.

But according to Miller, in sharp contrast to Europe…

American politics and reform movements have traditionally defined social problems as problems of personal morality and discipline, and therefore have often failed to address the ideological or economic sources of the conflict. This moralistic approach has chronically prescribed religious authority and education rather than consider fundamental institutional change to remedy serious social problems.

To the extent that this conventional wisdom still holds sway; that is a heavy burden for our contemporary institutions, particularly our public school system to bear. Might not that system be paralyzed into a certain ever “reforming” inertia by that heavy weight?

So stick with this thread through my subsequent posts and see how the religious dogma of Colonial America’s Puritan immigrants played out in American scientific, political, economic and nationalistic thinking.

3 replies on “Five Themes of American Conventional Wisdom”

  1. Your analysis of the balance between collectivism and individuality seems to me to need some current cognitive science and evolutionary psychology and sociology, as well as a dip into Donald E Brown’s “Human Nature”

    Somehow, it doesn’t ring true to me. Yes, there are Christian overtones to everything (duh) but there are human nature governance undertones to all religions. Confucius seems more accurate, in his extrapolation of right thinking up and down the hierarchy, and he didn’t need appeal to supernatural authority.

    Perhaps the American character is based on faith, not evidence, and the American advances have been the extracurricular ones, poking out of the smothering blanket of ancient faith.

  2. My study of the “Modern Era” (1500-2000) has brought me to see Protestantism as a religious “innovation” of sorts that facilitated science, exploration and exploitation of the world, and the industrial revolution. In that context, I wouldn’t agree that it is a “smothering blanket” or even an “ancient faith”. I see it as the most effective and dynamic faith of that era, though one I argue has outlived its usefulness as we perhaps enter a new era. A new era catalyzed by the Internet as the Modern Era and Protestantism was catalyzed by the printing press and movable type.

    But I enjoy this dialog thread and do respond if you are willing and able!

    Thanks so much for your comment! I get so few on this version of my blog and more when I post these same pieces on DailyKOS.

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