Among the Reformed Evangelicals of our day, many have bought into the idea that the West is currently plagued by something called “expressive individualism.” According to Robert Bellah,
Expressive individualism holds that each person has a unique core of feeling and intuition that should unfold or be expressed if individuality is to be realized.1
This idea has been spread far and wide by parachurch organizations like The Gospel Coalition and 9Marks, and more recently by Carl R. Trueman in his book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. Ask the legions of popular Reformed Evangelicals why identity politics has seen such a dramatic rise in our day, and they will undoubtedly say that it is because our age is saturated with expressive individualists.
But what they mean is that individualism, derived ultimately from Biblical Christianity and further developed by Enlightenment philosophers (in some cases better than others), is bringing about the destruction of the West. Individualism destroys the nuclear family unit, separating it from the larger social organism, and fragmenting it into atomistic individuals in order to capitalize on the labor of each individual. Because of individualism, they argue, man is alienated from the labor of his own hands, driven to despair and meaninglessness, tradition is torn asunder, and thus the social fabric of society erodes.
Problematically, if Western civilization is collapsing because of individualism, and individualism is a core component of Western civilization, then would this not make the West not worth saving? Then why all the fuss? Some have, indeed, argued this, making the claim that Western civilization is fundamentally fraught with contradictions that show us the need for a new form of civilization that keeps the good elements (e.g. human rights) and negates the bad elements (e.g. individualism).
What is ironic, and deeply troubling, about those claims is that they are very close to the criticisms of Modernism that one finds in Hegel, Marx, and their successors. For these thinkers, Modernism is fraught with contradictions that need to be overcome by means of keeping what is good and negating what is bad. Individualism for these thinkers is the rotting fruit of the Enlightenment which has spread its spores on traditions, culture, the family, and the natural social organism — the collective body of humans comprising a single humanity in which all individuals are interdependent, not independent.
In order to remedy the problem (namely, individualism), both parties prescribe a return to collectivism. Collectivism undermines the individual’s ability to think for himself, and thus rationality and morality themselves, as it is no longer what can be epistemically justified which is taken to be true and, therefore, the ground upon which one does or does not take a certain course of action, but what has been collectively predetermined to be the common good which determines what can or cannot be thought and, therefore, what can or cannot be done. Education is not of primary importance in this scenario, but the method of education. Education is to be utilized as a tool for creating those who will reproduce the underlying ideology of both groups, not for training individuals in the basics of reading, writing, mathematics, logic, history, and so forth.
Although he does not deal specifically with Christian education, in The Marxification of Education James Lindsay explains why it is that government funded schools have gone in this direction, replacing actual teaching with ideological radicalization. He also explains why it is that identity politics is currently saturating the West. The reason is not expressive individualism, but the propagation of Marxist Paulo Freire’s “Critical Pedagogy” by Neo-Marxists in the American educational system.
Lindsay succinctly explains this in his closing chapter titled “The Short, Short, Short Version,” writing —
The Freirean approach to education is based off the work of the Brazilian Marxist Paulo Freire, who is most famous for his 1970 book Pedagogy of the Oppressed. This book is the third most-cited source in all of the social sciences and humanities and enjoys pride of place and curricular centrality in virtually every college of education in North America. The Freirean method, called “Critical Pedagogy” because it makes a Critical Theory (Neo-Marxist Theory) out of education itself, lies beneath, behind, or relevant to virtually every pedagogical trend in education over the last 20 to 30 years, including Social-Emotional Learning (SEL), Culturally Relevant Teaching, Comprehensive Sexuality Education, and project-based learning schemes. Culturally Relevant Teaching is unambiguously and unapologetically a direct repackaging of the Freirean approach into the context of “cultural competence” and American identity politics. Freire’s pedagogy is a disaster for education and our children and has no place in our schools.
What Freire did, in short, was to “Marxify” education and knowing. That is, he created a Marxist Theory in which being educated, literate, or considered someone who knows (thus also what is designated as knowledge) operates in perfect parallel to the “bourgeois” class scapegoated by Karl Marx. Those who are considered uneducated, illiterate, or ignorant represent a lower class that can be made “class conscious” of their circumstances so that they will seek to initiate and complete a cultural revolution that moves them from the margins of society to its center, from which they can transform it. True education, for Freire, is a process of gaining “political literacy” through a process he describes as “conscientization,” the gaining of critical (that is, Marxist) consciousness with activist commitments. Freire positions all genuine education as an imposition of the existing social and political order onto students so they will be “domesticated” by it and learn to reproduce and maintain it.
Freire’s pedagogical method firstly identifies “generative themes,” which “are usually negative and pick at points of potential political grievance that have been data-mined out of the students.” Secondly, it presents those “generative themes in ‘codified’ form—In this step, the contents of the generative themes are fed back to the students in an ‘abstract’ or ‘codified’ form” (e.g. pictures). This is done in order “to spur dialogue about the politically sensitive topics after presenting them in a way that might facilitate the goal of conscientization.” After this, the third step taken by Freire’s pedagogy is that of a Marxist analysis of the “codified” themes. Lindsay explains that
In this step, the codifications from the previous step are “problematized,” which means subjected to Marxist analysis in a dialogical format between learners and educators (acting as facilitators), and then made personal to the students. This process is done in a way that always tends toward conscientizing the students, which is to say teaching them to interpret their circumstances through a Marxist perspective, to apply them to their own lives, and to become activists to change those circumstances.
Underlying the identity politics movements, in other words, is collectivism, an identification of the individual with his group, wherein his individuality only exists insofar as he serves as the group’s representative, a flesh and blood symbol of the whole. The individual exists to serve the purpose of gaining “justice” for their “oppressed” group. This is a far cry from “expressive individualism.” Unlike Trueman and the others who see “expressive individualism” as the central philosophical mood driving identity politics, Lindsay accurately identifies the source: Marxist, collectivist, anti-individualist thinking that has saturated the West at the most foundational level, namely that of pedagogical methodology.
This is why I’ve been recommending this book to Christians who are interested in understanding what is taking place in the West. In America, Christians are being told by Trueman, his ilk, and many within the putatively Reformed evangelical world to aim their spiritual weapons at individualism, capitalism, and classical liberalism. We are being told that what Christians need is a new concept of the self that is not independent but interdependent. We are being told that Christians need to submit their intellect to the governing authorities, and stop being individualistic in our reasoning and decision making because that is what the world is promoting when it promotes identity politics. We are being told that it is the community which takes priority over the individual, who exists only to serve the needs of community, and for whom rational self interest is a vice. We are being told that the solution to the cultural, sociopolitical problems plaguing the West is a return to a more spiritual, kinder, and traditional collectivism following in the steps of the Romanist-influenced, spiritual compromiser Abraham Kuyper’s doctrine of “sphere sovereignty.” Therefore, we need to hear another perspective that is not already pre-committed to a Kuyperian/Neo-Kuyperian/Truemanian/Wilsonian sociopolitical agenda that is barely distinguishable from the technocratic agenda already underway at the command of the World Economic Forum, the Roman Catholic Church, and their respective and collective cohorts. That is what one finds in The Marxification of Education.
Lindsay’s commitment to the truth, the inestimable value of actual education, and his concern for what is happening to children in the West shows throughout the book, and given that it comes from a man who is, I believe, a hard agnostic/atheist, it puts the popular Reformed evangelicals promoting the myth of “expressive individualism” to shame. If you want to understand why it is that the LGBTQIA+ movement has gained in momentum, read Lindsay’s book. His argument is scholarly, substantial, and logically coherent. Not only this, but he offers a practical solution — resistance in the name of truth and concern for our well being and that of our children.