When I asked John what he would recommend to read, he gave me the six titles in this list. These books all hail from the 1970s — a period in which social institutions in the U.S. were very much under fire. All of these writers are converging around the theme of the shadow side of modern life in the late ’60s and 1970s. They explore various forms of socialization through institutions, which limit individual and community autonomy, empowerment and self-reliance. These books are just as relevant today as when they were first published.
I bought most of these books used, on the web, at very low cost. Cheap — for a strong dose of critical thought on how our society has shaped us and our fellow citizens, in many cases without our conscious awareness. The reviews below are mine.
Scroll to the end of this post for a link to John’s book Building Communities from the Inside Out, which he wrote as a response to the problem of the negative effects of institutions on community.
Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich
Although this book was written in 1971, it is still a powerful warning against the potential negative influence of formal education in the form of school. Illich points out the role of school in conforming students to societal expectations, particularly in the interests of preserving the status quo. He explores and documents the shadow side of education and how it reduces our development and reliance on ourselves and our communities. Using education as a case in point, Illich illustrates the disabling and alienating effects of modern social institutions. He advocates for alternate approaches to learning. I wanted to pull my 16-year old out of his high school for a week after reading this. It made me realize how much we give up of ourselves when we interact with our educational institutions and how much we are creatures of these socialization engines. Another realization — Illich would have loved the web, for its individual empowerment, accessibility and creative elements.
The Limits to Satisfaction, William Leiss
Another sociological essay from the late 1970s — this one on the topic of the material needs of society, both real and false. Leiss takes apart our perceived needs — in highly material industrialized societies — and makes a strong argument for reorientation away from dependence on a high-consumption lifestyle. He was an early advocate of simplicity and sustainability.
“…accepting the limits to growth can be the catalyst for new forms of creativity and fulfillment in our culture. But we can do so only by recognizing the limits to satisfaction that we have imposed on ourselves, by restricting our search for well being so severely.” “ The possibilities for satisfaction that might be drawn from different forms of productive activity and of our relationship to non-human nature, and that are now so deeply suppressed, can minister to our needs far more effectively than can any new assortment of goods.”
Certainly still applies to personal satisfaction in 2010, doesn’t it?
The Making of Blind Men, Robert Scott
Published in 1969, this is the report of the results of a seminal study of the blind and of the social “helping” institutions that “serve” them. It’s a detailed exposure of how the institutions actually disempower their clients and self-perpetuate at client expense. This can be considered a parable of the subtle fostering of dependency that social institutions of all sorts often accomplish — by no means limited to those focused on the blind. Scott demonstrates that many of the limiting behaviors and attitudes blind people hold about their own capabilities are not based in physical limitation but rather on socialization — often through these “helping” agencies.
“The disability of blindness is a learned social role.” “Blind men are made, and by the same processes of socialization that have made us all.” “The beliefs and assumptions of blindness workers about blind people have a profound impact upon blind people’s experiences of their disability.”
Although this study is 40 years old, it’s still relevant to situations today in which “disadvantaged” or otherwise “limited” populations are set further back through interaction with helping institutions.
The Institutional Imperative, Robert Kharasch
Another vintage book (1973) with a still-timely message — which basically is, “Each of us has an inescapable human duty never to give our individual conscience to any institution.” By looking at the U.S. government, and through many examples derived from the actions of primarily federal agencies, the author lets his observations on the dangers of governmental institutions rip. It’s a fun read — very irreverent and very applicable to institutions and businesses.
Haven In a Heartless World, Christopher Lasch
Thoughtful, fairly dense and somewhat of a period piece – Lasch’s essay focuses on what’s happened to the modern family (circa 1975) and the importance of increasingly rare family ties. The book points out how the traditional role of the family (education, values establishment, discipline, character formation, socialization, preparation for work, etc.) has been taken on by modern institutions of the state. Lasch shows how much of our existence is managed by institutions of society — instead of mediated by the family — and how this ultimately undermines self-direction in individuals. He also indicts the “helping professions” as they have increasingly exerted control over our private lives. I found this book to be somewhat challenging and provocative — a very clear deconstruction of how we got here, from a sociological perspective.
No Contest, Alfie Kohn
A well-researched treatise on the deep, negative effects of assuming the necessity of competition — in life, in business and in our other western institutions. Kohn clearly points out what this myth costs us individually and as a society. Reading this book made me look at my own deep assumption that competition is a necessity. It opens the door to considering alternative ways of being.
After reading all of this, you will want to know what to do?! to counteract the effects of institutional damage on human effectiveness. Check out John’s book Building Communities From the Inside Out