David Brooks explores this question in his most recent column. It is worth a look. I laughed out loud when I read that 94% of college professors believe that they have above-average teaching skills!
If Americans do, indeed, have a different and larger conception of the self than they did a few decades ago, I wonder if this is connected to some of the social and political problems we have observed over the past few years.
I wonder if the rise of consumption and debt is in part influenced by people’s desire to adorn their lives with the things they feel befit their station. I wonder if the rise in partisanship is influenced in part by a narcissistic sense that, “I know how the country should be run and anybody who disagrees with me is just in the way.”
Most pervasively, I wonder if there is a link between a possible magnification of self and a declining saliency of the virtues associated with citizenship.
Citizenship, after all, is built on an awareness that we are not all that special but are, instead, enmeshed in a common enterprise. Our lives are given meaning by the service we supply to the nation. I wonder if Americans are unwilling to support the sacrifices that will be required to avert fiscal catastrophe in part because they are less conscious of themselves as components of a national project.
Perhaps the enlargement of the self has also attenuated the links between the generations. Every generation has an incentive to push costs of current spending onto future generations. But no generation has done it as freely as this one. Maybe people in the past had a visceral sense of themselves as a small piece of a larger chain across the centuries. As a result, it felt viscerally wrong to privilege the current generation over the future ones, in a way it no longer does.
It’s possible, in other words, that some of the current political problems are influenced by fundamental shifts in culture, involving things as fundamental as how we appraise ourselves. Addressing them would require a more comprehensive shift in values.
Tim Beirne says
Sounds a lot like Lasch describing a culture of narcissism.
John Fea says
Tim: Very Laschian indeed. Are you reading Lasch? I can't remember if I ever talked about him in class at Messiah.
Tim Beirne says
I'm a little bit fuzzy myself about whether you mentioned Lasch in class or just recommended him to me personally. Either way I have been paging through The Culture of Narcissism. I have to confess, though, I haven't dedicated my full attention to it with class readings and my brand new copy of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? to distract me!