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After Institutions—What?


by N. W. - 1934

WE can never arrive, through education, at a level of popular seal and understanding necessary for creative social adjustment, until that education ceases to be merely a phase of institutional behavior, and becomes a process, superior to the institutional habits of the time." This statement not far from the middle of Allport's large, though easily readable book may be taken as symbolic of the central role he would give to teachers in bringing about a new and better world

Institutional Behavior by Floyd H. Allport, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1934.


WE can never arrive, through education, at a level of popular seal and understanding necessary for creative social adjustment, until that education ceases to be merely a phase of institutional behavior, and becomes a process, superior to the institutional habits of the time." This statement not far from the middle of Allport's large, though easily readable book may be taken as symbolic of the central role he would give to teachers in bringing about a new and better world. The treatise is primarily a psychologist's interpretation of our institutions, an analysis for the most part very keen and illuminating, but so fine-spun and protracted, that it stops just short of abolishing its own subject matter. In fact, the author's conclusion pleads the desirability of gradually achieving a "new individualism" in which all institutions shall have been abolished, because each individual will have sufficient altruism to seek his own self-realization without interfering with the same opportunity for his fellowmen.


To return to the beginning of Allport's argument, his main purpose is to reinterpret both institutions and society in terms of the behavior of individuals. As he sees institutions, their only and ultimate reality lies in the habits of individuals—"They (institutions) are a cross-section of the behaviors of many individuals, all directed, under leadership, toward some common end" (p. 472). The difficulty is that men have a universal failing for erecting institutions into powerful symbols, and then proceeding as though the symbols were entities possessing human qualities and causal potency. Gross abuses of institutional symbols in past history come easily to mind, and Allport justly points out that at the present time we make "dishonest" and "dangerous" uses of the institutional appeals. He says, "Are not the ideologies of today as full of illusory logic and superstition as those of yesterday? For they still abet, even while they conceal, the power and greed of men who would exploit their fellows; and they continue to exclude the masses of men and women from realizing their full capacities for living" (p. ix).


Allport's second major argument is that institutions are necessarily inclusive of only a portion of the activities of individuals and hence always tend to prevent the full realization of their potentialities. In his own words, "Individuals cannot realize their full potentialities when we deal with them in social categories and patterns. . . . . It is my thesis that an individual's personality can be fully expressed only when he is given freedom of choice and responsibility in an environment composed of other free and responsible individuals" (p. x).


There can be no quarrel with Allport's criticism of the abuses of modern institutional symbols. Such institutional habits as popular government, the public, justice, the nation, patriotism, "corporate agency" or the modern business corporation, the home, the Church, and others are each dissected in turn, and any liberal-minded person would agree with nearly all of Allport's diagnoses of the maladies revealed. The chapter on the Sacco and Vansetti case is particularly excellent, and one wishes that every American might read it. Furthermore, there are few who will question Allport's ultimate ideal of a society in which every personality will have full freedom of growth and development. But many of us must regret that the gap between the diagnosis and the ultimate prognosis seems so great; many also will disagree with the means by which a cure is to be affected. Allport firmly believes that the aim of cultivation of individual personalities as the highest good is forever irreconcilable with the possibility of a well coordinated institutionalized society. He writes, "As between the good life to be realized through society and the good life to be realized through individuals, we must therefore make our choice, .... We can set the stage for either scene, but we cannot set it for both" (p. 57). He admits that modern life would be impossible without the collective adjustments which institutions make possible, and he explains correctly that the societal view aims at a "society in which the creature wants of individuals are satisfied and life becomes stable and secure" (p. 59). Does he not by implication show his preference for a society, unstable, insecure, with basic human wants sometimes unsatisfied, if only every individual has freedom for "self-expression"? Can one believe that the latter type of society really gives complete scope for action of the full, biological organism, which constitutes each unique individual?


Allport has protected himself against the accusation that his treatise on institutional behavior lacks specific consideration of the actual trends and movements of contemporary life, by showing that he cares "nothing for the objectives toward which the habits of individuals are organized and directed, but only for an accurate account of those habits themselves as characteristic behavior of the individuals concerned" (p. 26). Surely he suffers here from the illusion that the social scientist (he would deny this appellation) should concern himself only with the realm of pure behavior. The pious hope that men will be increasingly more just and compassionate takes on an aspect of strange unreality when one observes and reflects on what is actually happening wherever the lines of national and individual self-interest are clearly drawn.


It may be that the fetish of institutionalism is to blame for all our present miseries, but are we really much better off for so stating the difficulty? Allport has unfortunately lifted himself above the battle of contemporary social forces. There need be no hesitation in admitting that in the volume under review he has composed much keen-edged and felicitous diction. In that sort of thing, however, Plato and Aristotle can hardly be improved upon.








Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 1 Number 2, 1934, p. 27-28
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12971, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 10:20:29 PM

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