Every child is a precious individual, not just a potential functionary of society. -- Michael Young
The New Framework
At the heart of the just society must be a public realm committed to the development of human capacity, those self-actualizing and democratic citizens society must have to thrive. True equality, sociologist Michael Young writes, means the full chance for all members of society to "develop the virtues and talents with which they are endowed, all their capacities for appreciating the beauty and depth of human experience, all their potential for living to the full." He continues, "The child, every child, is a precious individual, not just a potential functionary of society." That's progressive!
There can be no free and democratic society without a capable citizenry. There can be no capable citizenry without the early preparation in competence to develop a sense of personal facility. As David Waters and Edith Lawrence explain, "A competence approach is, at its core, about bringing out the best in people and helping them develop in ways that bring forth their deepest desires for mastery and belonging."
Only individuals raised to cultivate their own strengths -- their interests, priorities, and distinctive forms of expression and engagement -- will have the necessary internal security and sense of adequacy to encourage the strengths of others. Only they will be able to advocate both for their own goals and for the collective good. Such individuals are the best -- the sole -- guarantee of an open society committed to mutual fulfillment, empowering participation, and self-development.
A Psychology of Adequacy
The premise of a psychology of adequacy must not be reduced to an inventory of specific competences, another checklist and set of hoops to climb through. Provided with sufficient social resources, services, and access to enabling mentors and educational settings, individuals will gain confidence in their own abilities. They will learn how personal well-being is connected to the good of the community and the planet. Avoiding an early sense of self-deprivation, this great moral injury to developing identity that creates feelings of inadequacy, they will refuse to link personal success to the failure of others.
Unprecedented post-industrial productivity makes the shift from a psychology of deprivation to one of adequacy possible. A society that allows full human development will utilize the collective birthright to shape institutional settings that build an early foundation for self-actualization. As George Lakoff boldly asserted in the recent healthcare debate, "Health Means Life; Health Means Freedom." Adequate medical care is not collectivism, rather it alone makes freedom more than an empty shell. For a progressive society to flourish, every public issue must be similarly framed. We must support community experimentation and innovation to discover new educational and social forms that promote personal adequacy and social engagement.
At the same time, we must challenge social policies that undermine a sense of adequacy. Creating generations convinced they never perform up to expectations subverts the progressive will. Teachers and parents, armed with the latest self-help books, talk and worry incessantly about building early capacity and self-worth. But meanwhile the sense of inadequacy is mobilized at every turn. The mania to jam every measure of success into the testing of specific mental processes, the frenzy over honors programs, A.P. courses, and college status reinforced by tutoring, prep classes, and counseling leaves rich and poor children alike feeling diminished. Activating the fear of failure and doubts about one's ability to measure up are -- even for progressives and liberals -- the ultimate motivational strategy.
We once had a word for this travesty. We called individuals eager to jettison distractions like self-actualization and personal empowerment for corporate roles and success the 'organization man,' that is, until the organization men did away with it. David Brooks revived this discussion in his article "The Organization Kids," a report on the culture of over-achievement among Princeton undergraduates. These charter members of the "Future Workaholics of America" lacked time or energy for causes, commitments, or friendships, defining themselves as "just tools for processing information," although as ultimate overachievers they prefer the label "power tools."
The consumer culture, with its pressure for hyper-accumulation, is even more dehumanizing. The lifelong barrage of warnings and come-ons insisting we attend to new unrecognized needs and pervasive inadequacies promotes unrelieved status envy as well as uncertainty about our capacities and self-worth. The moral balance will not be righted while everyone on the income and status ladder feels deprived, demanding more in the endless cycle of consumption to feel whole.
The present situation is unsustainable. Pervasive feelings of inadequacy, (mis)treated with psychoactive drugs that further distort one's body chemistry, confirms a nation of identified patients. This overconsuming and dangerously overweight society of the psychologically inadequate will remain prey to every exclusivist and self-aggrandizing call that taps the spigot of self-flattery, leaving the rest of the world to fathom without success our cries of need.
American progressives are playing with fire, what Garry Wills in Bomb Power calls "constitutional diminishment [as] the settled order." At least the complacency of the past three decades is over. No one is now reassured that the angry and confused masses from Thomas Frank's Kansas will devour themselves is dim-lit efforts to reverse modernity while the rest of us avoid the fallout. The fallout now constitutes our daily diet.
Progressives must connect with the strengths of the American people and not their insecurities, their capacities for problem solving rather than finger pointing or evasion. The current movement on the streets building before our eyes, following the vast cohort of young people in the Obama campaign, tells us that the American dream perseveres. If without a vision the people perish, what cannot be achieved in its service?