“Pro Institutions” may count as the least sexy blog post header of all time. But (for today) it’s mine, and I’m sticking to it.
The other day I was going through books on my shelves with an eye toward weeding out some for the used book vendor. One that I initially culled was Yuval Levin’s 2020 volume, A Time to Build, with the sub-title, “From Family and Community To Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting To Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream.”
I repented on my initial decision and replaced it on the shelf. Why? Well, it’s an excellent book. And Levin’s call to rebuild our institutions strikes me as only more urgent today. So I want to hit a few of his high points.
There’s been a lot of anti-institutional blather for some time now. In my own sphere of interest, people complain about “organized” or “institutional” religion. It has become popular to say, “I am spiritual, not religious,” which is a way of saying, “I’m on my own personal spiritual journey — not part of any — horrors — ‘organized religion.'” That sounds good. Heck, it may be good as far as it goes. But what it doesn’t do is build community or provide anything for future generations. Both are things an institution does.
Levin notes three characteristics of institutions: they are durable, they are a form of association, and they are formative. “Durable” means they exist over time, even generations. “Form of association” means they bring people together in a shared venture. “Formative” means that they shape — form — people’s values, perceptions and lives. They engage, that is, in what psychologist Virginia Satir once called “people-making.”
Levin spends a lot of time describing how, lately, institutions have gone from “formative” to “performative.” “Performative” means individuals using institutions as platforms for self-promotion and building a brand. Alas, many institutions have cooperated in this by saying stupid things like, “We’re just here to help you express and fulfill yourself.”
Despite these trends, there are many folks doing the unglamorous work of caring for, building and rebuilding institutions, even today. So hats off to the parents running the PTSA, to the people serving on the community association board, to the pastors trying to form a congregation and the principals doing their darndest to guide a school. Hats off to the police chief working to reform a department and to the small business owner seeking to provide a quality and reliable service or product to her customers and community. Here’s to the mayors and town councilors, the people raising funds for relief organizations and those creating job training programs for youth and young adults. Hats off to parents, sometimes grandparents, who are building families or holding families together.
You matter. You make a difference. We see you. We appreciate you. Don’t give up.
“Where are all the adults?” is a frequent lament these days. That begs a question, namely, what is an adult? An adult is someone who instead of merely complaining on Twitter or other social media about what’s wrong or not working does something about it. So if you’re not in the roll call above consider stepping up, stepping in and getting engaged.
This epitaph etched in stone at a church in England, has been a word of encouragement for me:
“In the year 1653 when all things sacred were throughout ye Nation either demolished or profaned, Sir Robert Shirley Baronet, founded this church, whose singular praise it is to have done the best things in ye worst times and hoped them in the most callamitous.”
May this tribe increase!