Individualism and Connectedness
in American Society
By David Blankenhorn
American Society of Adlerian Psychology
Heinz L. and Rowena R. Ansbacher Lecture
June 16, 2005
I want to tell you a little story. In the summer of 1971, when
I was 16 years old, living in Jackson, Mississippi, I left the
South for the first time to go to the great city of Philadelphia,
where I worked as a tutor in a federally funded, church-run
summer school for children living in some very tough, low-income
neighborhoods in North Philadelphia. The program was called
SAIL — Summer Adventures in Learning. It was run by the
Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and specifically by a
Catholic youth organization called the Community Service Corps.
I was one of 12 Mississippi teenagers to participate in the
program, and the only Southern participant who was not a Catholic.
During the same weeks that we Mississippians were in Philadelphia,
teenage volunteers from the Philadelphia Archdiocese were in
Mississippi, working on voter registration drives and conducting
youth leadership training workshops.
That experience changed my
life. It’s probably the single most important thing that
ever happened to me. It turned me into a kid on fire. When I
got back to Jackson, I started a citywide organization called
the Mississippi Community Service Corps — an effort which
consumed me almost totally. When my family moved to Salem, Virginia
in 1972, the first thing I did, after unpacking, was to get
a phone book and start calling local pastors and church youth
leaders, telling them about a new organization to help disadvantaged
children that was going to be called the Virginia Community
What I remember most about
that whole experience is the rush, the exhilaration, the deep
and surprising sense of satisfaction and gratitude that I felt
as a result of being devoted to something larger than myself
that I hoped was helping to make the world a better place. It
was like breathing free for the first time, this integrated
feeling of connectedness and mission, this feeling that my life
had a purpose and that my own individual needs were now seamlessly
connected to a larger purpose and a larger social good. The
boundaries between selfishness and selflessness seemed almost
to disappear — what I loved doing most, what I selfishly
craved, was also what I felt was a sincere act of giving.
It was an amazing high. Psychologically
I think it may have been similar, at least in some respects,
to what many Christians call a born again experience. And what
you are hearing now is not just a middle-aged man being nostalgic.
I remember thinking often at the time, at age 16 or
17 or 18, life couldn’t possibly be any better or
more intense than it is now. There was a Carly Simon song
at the time called “These are the Good Old Days,”
and I remember telling myself at the time, yes, for
me these are surely the best days. In some ways the rest of
my life has been an attempt to sustain and keep faith with the
intense sense of purpose and connectedness that came to me,
like a great gift, during that special time in my life.
Cut to nearly 30 years later,
in the fall of the year 2000. An old friend and comrade from
those long-ago days in Philadelphia reappears in my life. She
is calling from Hanover, New Hampshire. She had read something
I’d written. She wants to talk. We meet in a café
in Manhattan. When I last knew and worked with her, she was
the 16-year-old president of the Philadelphia Community Service
Corps. Everyone knew she was leader. I wondered, what had she
done with her life since those days?
Dr. Kathleen Kovner Kline
is married and has four young children. She is a child psychiatrist.
She does clinical work with children and their families, and
she also teaches at Dartmouth Medical School. Along the way
she had picked up a degree in divinity, and her husband is an
Episcopalian priest. She wants to talk with me, she says, because
as a doctor, her waiting list is too long.
Her waiting list is too long.
Too many children — at least one in four, according to
the National Research Council in 2002  —
are at serious risk of not achieving a productive adulthood.
Doctors like Kathy are seeing high and rising rates of depression,
anxiety, attention deficit, conduct disorders, thoughts of suicide,
and others serious mental, emotional, and behavioral problems
among U.S. young people. In this fabulously rich nation, this
sweet land of liberty, the mental and behavioral health of U.S.
children and adolescents seems actually to be deteriorating.
In her practice, working with individual children, she can dispense
medications and try to help them on an individual basis. But
the numbers are growing. The waiting list is too long. As a
doctor, she can try to pull some of the drowning children out
of the river, but now she feels that she must ask, we all must
ask, the question: Why are so many of children in the river
in the first place?
She came to talk to me, she
said, because she wants to move, in her own work, from treatment
to treatment plus prevention. She wants to move away from a
narrowly disease-based model. She wants to think much more socially
and ecologically. She is less interested now in interventions
that are narrowly clinical, highly targeted, and oriented to
specific pathology, and much more interested in confronting
those aspects of the youth mental health crisis that are structural,
systemic, and social. From now on, in short, she wants to do
more than treat her own patients. She also wants to help shift
probabilities for all children — to focus much
more directly on what she calls “the health of the herd.”
That conversation in a New
York café led, in 2003, to a report called Hardwired
to Connect: The New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities.
The report was co-authored by 33 children’s doctors, research
scientists, and mental health and youth service professionals.
More specifically, for what we believe is the first time, the
study brought together prominent neuroscientists who study the
child’s developing brain with social scientists who study
civil society. Kathy was the principal scientific investigator.
I was one of the project’s cheerleaders and fundraisers,
and also, with Kathy, a wordsmith for the report.
The report’s main argument
is that too many U.S. children are suffering from a lack of
connectedness. The authors mean two kinds of connectedness —
close, enduring connections to other people, and deep connections
to moral and spiritual meaning. The report argues that the human
person is biologically primed — or “hardwired”
— for these two types of connectedness, and that the weakening
of both of these forms of relatedness in our society in recent
decades is a primary cause of today’s high and rising
rates of mental problems and emotional distress among U.S. children
and adolescents. Working with Kathy on this project was a terrific
experience for me, and I think for both of us. It both reminded
us of the commitments that first brought us together 30 years
ago and also helped us to re-appropriate and deepen those commitments,
while bringing to them this time, one hopes, the fuller capacities
Do the outlines of this little
story sound familiar to you? I suspect that they probably do.
A doctor who wants to help those suffering from mental and emotional
distress and who is especially interested in reaching out to
those among us who are least advantaged. A doctor with a commitment
to social medicine and the goals of prevention and of ecological
thinking about issues of mental health. A doctor who wants to
step outside the clinic and seek to be a leader of a social
change movement that will broaden and deepen our ways of thinking
about childhood mental health.
Do any of the underlying ideas
sound familiar to you? I suspect that they do. An effort at
collaborative research and public education rooted in the idea
that the human being is inextricably social. We are not isolated,
unencumbered individuals. We need other people; we humans can
only live in groups. We only smile because others smile at us.
Each of us is talked into talking and loved into loving. In
addition, an effort in public argument that insists that we
humans are by definition meaning-makers. We make choices about
what we value and love. We idealize. We are spiritually and
philosophically thirsty, and we have a deep need for moral purposes
larger than the self. Just as we need food and water, we need
in our lives to search for something that is true and strive
for something that is good.
Of course, none of these themes
or ideas belong to me or Kathy or our current colleagues. We
originated none of them. We borrowed all of them. Far from standing
on our own or by ourselves, we stand on the shoulders of others
who came before us, including a few giants who came before us.
One of those giants is Alfred Adler. And for this reason I am
particularly honored by your invitation to present this year’s
Heinz L. and Rowena R. Ansbacher lecture, and am deeply grateful
to you for your judgment that my work and the work of my colleagues
at the Institute for American Values may be a contribution to
society that is relevant to Adlerian theory in the context of
the larger field of psychology. It is a real privilege for me
to be with you this evening.
Now, here is a question for
us. What is the relationship between American values and Adlerian
theory? In reflecting on this question, particularly in light
of the work that we’ve done at the Institute for American
Values over the past 15 years, I am particularly drawn to the
theme of individualism. It is a great, rich American theme.
It is closely connected to America’s founding idea, which
According to Robert Bellah
and his colleagues in Habits of the Heart: “Freedom
is perhaps the most resonant, deeply held American value. In
some ways, it defines the good in both personal and political
life.”  The political scientist Gottfried
Dietze concurs: “The drive for freedom has been so strong
that it seems to be the destiny of American democracy.”
 Even the ideal of equality, that other
master value of American culture, is frequently construed as
what many observers have termed “equality of liberty.”
Moreover, freedom in North
America typically has a limited meaning, which in turn is rooted
in a specific conception of the person. That conception often
travels under the name, “individualism.” For example,
surveying the origins and content of core American values, Everett
C. Ladd describes “a uniquely insistent and far-reaching
individualism — a view of the individual person which
gives unprecedented weight to his or her choices, interests,
and claims.” Ladd concludes: “The American idea
of freedom is of the ‘leave me alone’ variety.”
Bellah and his colleagues
agree that freedom for most Americans “turns out to mean
being left alone by others, not having other people’s
values, ideas, or styles of life forced upon one, being free
of arbitrary authority in work, family, and political life.”
 This idea of freedom, in turn, is closely
linked to what the Habits of the Heart authors aptly
call “ontological individualism,” in which “the
individual is the only firm reality.” 
Similarly, for Dietze, the
United States is the world’s leading exemplar of what
he calls “pure liberalism,” a cultural ethos through
which, over time, “limited freedom” is increasingly
displaced by “unlimited freedom.” This is a pure
liberalism, then, “of which democracy and equality are
mere aspects and which, for better or worse, has tended toward
an ever greater purity and its concomitant value-freeness.”
This “pure” conception
of freedom is ubiquitous in U.S. popular culture. Perhaps its
most crystalline expression is in contemporary advertising,
arguably our most widely shared cultural grammar. Turn on the
television today and you will see any number of advertisements
philosophically identical to the car ad from El Dorado, with
the slogan of “Live Without Limits,” set to the
song, “Unchain My Heart.” Or to the car ad from
Toyota, with the slogan of “Make Your Own Rules.”
Or to the join-the-gym ad from Crunch, with the slogan of “I
do anything I want. I accept no judgments.”
This way of construing freedom
in America is not new. Listen to Whitman’s “Song
of the Open Road”:
From this hour I ordain
myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute.
Perhaps our nation’s
best poet of democracy, Whitman tells us:
Whimpering and truckling
fold with powders for invalids, conformity goes to the fourth-remov’d,
I wear my hat as I please indoors or out.
Why should I pray? why should I venerate and be ceremonious?
Having pried through the strata, analyzed to a hair, counsel’d
with doctors and calculated close,
I find no sweeter fat than sticks to my own bones. 
More than two centuries ago,
Crevecceur famously asked, “What then is the American,
this new man?” Much of the answer, coming from many of
our most admired observers, has been that the American is nothing
less than the new Adam, emerging from perfect Edenic freedom
onto American soil, the proper home of a radically new personality.
A half-century ago, the literary critic R.W.B. Lewis could describe
America as “the area of total possibility,” with
its new hero as the “individual emancipated from history,
happily bereft of ancestry, untouched and undefiled by the usual
inheritances of family and race; an individual standing alone,
self-reliant and self-propelling, ready to confront whatever
awaited him with the aid of his own unique and inherent resources.”
I think that this conception
of the American individual is evident in many of our most well-known
literary heroes, who so often follow their code and fulfill
their mission largely by standing apart from society,
in a sort of splendid isolation. I am thinking, for example,
of James Fennimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer, The
Pilgrim’s Progress, and more recently, the heroes
of cowboy and detective fiction, two distinctly American literary
Much of this prevailing cultural
ethos stems ultimately from what my friend and Institute colleague,
the University of Maryland political philosopher William Galston,
calls “regime effects”: the continuing and constantly
expanding effects on society of its founding principle. Although
any notion of “pure” liberalism — or “unlimited
freedom” — would have been abhorrent and even unrecognizable
to the American founders, the American Revolution was clearly,
as Lincoln was to put it, “conceived in liberty”
and aims almost continuously toward “a new birth of freedom.”
As Thomas S. Engeman puts it, “liberal natural right was
the chief end sought in the Revolution of 1776.” 
This “chief end” has powerfully endowed U.S. culture
with its primary logic: the continual injection, eventually
into all spheres of culture and into all relationships and social
institutions, of ontological individualism and of the related
principle of personal omnipotentiality, “the area of total
These themes of individuation
and omnipotentiality are clearly evident in U.S. family trend
and in U.S. family culture, areas in which we at the Institute
for American Values have focused much of our attention. Why
do we have one of the world’s highest divorce rates? Why
will more than half of all U.S. children today spend at least
a significant portion of their childhoods living apart from
their fathers? In this regard, it has always struck me as significant
that our nation’s founding document is a divorce document.
It is a declaration of independence: a list of reasons why people
may justifiably dissolve the bonds that have connected them
It also strikes me as significant
that arguably the great novel of the U.S. is Huckleberry
Finn. Effectively fatherless, with the runaway slave Jim
his only motherly influence, Huck embodies so much of the larger
American narrative: running away from the abusive Pap as well
as from women who want to “sivilize” him, lighting
out for the territory, Huck is ready to encounter life as an
unencumbered, good-hearted, untamed, grown up adolescent. Another
Huck Finn story from the 1950s, Jack Kerouac’s On
The Road, a celebration of hipsters who light out for new
places in search of American freedom, is again a story of fathers
not found and of discovering identity through separation. The
novel’s first sentence is: “I first met Dean not
long after my wife and I split up.”
Now, what do we make of this
free-standing, self-creating, rights-bearing, happiness-pursuing
American individual? Well, I for one like her quite a bit. She
is so over the top and so continually surprising. She has achieved
so many great things and is a source of so much of our society’s
energy and dynamism. Even when he is a rogue or is weak, for
most of us he is impossible not to love, precisely because he
tells us so much of how we came to be and who we are. In the
1950s, when conformism and groupism struck many observers as
growing problems in U.S. society, my former teacher and mentor
David Riesman wrote a book, Individualism Reconsidered,
eloquently defending what he viewed as important and vital in
American individualism. 
But this distinctively American
strength can also be a great American weakness. As is so often
the case, Tocqueville, in my view, gets it just right. Writing
in the 1830s, Tocqueville celebrates the dynamism and democracy
of American life, but he also recognizes that what he terms
“individualism” in America “disposes each
member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his
fellow creatures.” In its extreme form, individualism
degenerates into what Tocqueville calls “downright egotism.”
For Tocqueville, this American
brand of individualism, if unchecked, is finally a threat to
democracy itself, since it can lead people to imagine wrongly
that they “owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing
from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves
as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole
destiny is in their own hands.” Not only does this slanted
way of seeing life “make every man forget his ancestors,
but it hides his descendents, and separates his contemporaries,
from him; it throw him back forever upon himself alone, and
it threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude
of his own heart.” 
This is a problem. Democracy
is ultimately incompatible with this way of believing and acting.
What is the antidote to this tendency? Tocqueville famously
proposed voluntary civic and religious associations —
a robust civil society — as the main social glue that
would prevent Americans from drifting dangerously into isolated
In 1998, 24 public intellectuals
and civic leaders associated with the Institute for American
Values released a public appeal entitled, A
Call to Civil Society: Why Democracy Needs Moral Truths.
With Tocqueville, we argued against the idea that human beings,
even in America, are essentially self-owning, unencumbered,
and auto-teleological — what we called a kind of modern
equivalent of the old divine right of kings. With Tocqueville,
we urged a renewal of the voluntary associations of civil society.
Most of all, however, we urged a rediscovery and renewal of
what we called our public moral philosophy. We wrote that
… effective civic
engagement in a democracy presupposes, and depends on, a larger
set of shared ideas about human virtue and the common good
… What ails our democracy is not simply the loss of
certain organizational forms, but also the loss of certain
organizing ideals — moral ideals that authorize our
civic creed, but do not derive from it. [O]ur most important
challenge is to strengthen the moral habits and ways of living
that make democracy possible.
As Adlerian psychologists,
do these concerns strike you as relevant and possibly even familiar?
I hope that they do. Perhaps some of our language, in its overtly
moral and at times religious tone, would be uncongenial to you.
But I suspect and hope that our underlying premises and concerns,
particularly as regards the striving of the human person and
the social interest, are recognizable by you and can be appreciated
by you from the perspective of Adlerian theory. Perhaps we are
not kin. But I do think that we are friends who share some important
ideas and some goals for social change.
Over the past 15 years, the
most important focus of the Institute’s work has been
families and family life — always from the basic perspective
of what is most likely to produce good outcomes for children.
We have argued that the weakening of the family in recent decades
— in particular, the splitting up of the mother-father
nucleus of the nuclear family — has been harmful to child
well-being. We have argued that today’s U.S. divorce rates
are too high; that fathers are irreplaceable; and that marriage
is our society’s most pro-child social institution.
To some, these notions are
too “conservative.” Indeed, because of our focus
on family issues, and because of our name, we are frequently
called “conservative” — or worse! But to us,
these ideas seem reasonable, not necessarily or inevitably politically
partisan, backed up by a large and growing body of scientific
evidence, and consistent with and even supportive of liberal
moral thought. And of course, I’m hoping and suggesting
that they are also consistent with and supportive of the basic
principles of Adlerian psychology.
Earlier this month, I spoke
in Copenhagen, at the Danish Institute for Human Rights, on
the topic of the family from a human rights perspective. Drawing
on some of the great human rights documents, including the United
Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, I tried to argue
that each child has a birthright, insofar as possible, to know
and be raised by her own two natural parents, who are there
for the child and there for each other — except in those
cases when this family structure is not in the best interests
of the child. As a further elaboration of this right, particularly
in light of current scientific advances in assisted reproductive
technologies, and drawing on the work of the Canadian ethicist
Margaret Somerville, I also suggested that each child has a
right to a natural biological origin — that is, to be
born as a result of a mother’s egg united with a father’s
sperm — as well as a right to know his or her biological
Now, you may disagree with
some or even all of these ideas. The Danes were so polite and
civilized that I could not ultimately figure out what they thought!
But I do believe — and think that the Danes generally
agreed — that ideas such as these, while not quite (yet!)
mainstream, can enrich our conversation about human and family
rights, just as I believe — and am hoping you will agree
— that such ideas can enrich our conversation about civil
society as well as be supportive of some of the important work
that you do as psychologists and as citizens working for a more
communally oriented society.
For in assessing the pros
and cons of American individualism, surely the most obvious
problem — surely the greatest weakness — is the
corrosive effect of ontological individualism on American family
life and, in particular, on the well-being of children. I can’t
know for certain, but I would suspect that you see the results
of this trend all too often in your practice, and, in light
of Adlerian theory, can appreciate its distorting effects on
family and community life.
Finally, in addition to content,
there is also method and style. Here, too, I suspect that we
have much in common.
For example, our method at
the Institute for American Values, our style of working, strongly
emphasizes collaborative research and interdisciplinary deliberation.
We don’t put much stock in individualism. Most of our
work is done in groups, by teams of collaborating scholars.
As I mentioned, our Hardwired to Connect report had
33 co-authors. Our Call to Civil Society had 24.
Our work is also more public
than narrowly professional, more cultural than specifically
political, and much more a request for dialogue than an attempt
at top-down “education,” or instruction by experts.
We frequently view and describe our publications as “call”
or “appeals.” A “call” implies a response.
An “appeal” implies an answer. Fundamentally, we
view ourselves as citizen-scholars who are working together
to start conversations with our fellow citizens about important
issues of family life, civil society, and our public moral philosophy.
Relatedly, our method also
emphasizes the importance of moral reasoning and moral argument.
We also talk often enough about religion and God. We are not
a ministry, and many of our leaders and participants are not
publicly or conventionally religious. But we recognize and respect
the spiritual search as part of the human condition and recognize
the important role of religion, both for good and for ill, in
U.S. civil society. We would no more think of excluding theologians
and moral philosophers from our collaborating teams than we
would think of excluding economists … or psychologists.
Is this way of thinking familiar
to you? I can’t say for certain, but I suspect and hope
that it might be. I heard once about a doctor who liked to have
his meetings in cafes and who asked that patients not lie on
a couch but sit in a chair, looking the doctor in the eye. I
heard about a doctor committed to social medicine, to championing
the underdog, and to the ideal of the physician as educator
and agent of social change. This doctor knew and taught that
the isolated “self” is not the only or even main
reality in psychology … or in society. This doctor was
a man of science, essentially a secular man, but also a man
whose world view had a decidedly philosophical and (I would
hazard to say) even spiritual component — a man who viewed
the drive for self-perfection as the essence of the human project;
a man who found much of importance to discuss with pastors;
and a man who wrote sympathetically about religion, viewing
God as an idea about perfection and therefore arguably the highest
of all thinkable ideas.
I admire this doctor.
I believe that I and my colleagues stand in part on his shoulders.
And for that reason, I look to you as friends, and reach out
to you in respect and gratitude. Thank you.
Jacquelynne Eccles and Jennifer Appleton Goodman, National Research
Council and Institute of Medicine (eds.), Community Programs
to Promote Youth Development (Washington, D.C.: National
Academies Press, 2002).
N. Bellah, et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and
Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1985), 23.
Dietze, American Democracy: Aspects of Practical Liberalism
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 1.
4. John Harmon
McElroy, Finding Freedom: America’s Distinctive Cultural
Formation (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University
Press, 1989), 153. See also James Bryce, The American Commonwealth,
vol. II (New York: Commonwealth Publishing, 1908), 692.
5. Everett C. Ladd, “The American Ideology:
An Exploration and a Survey of the Origins, Meaning, and Role
of American Values” (Washington, D.C.: The American Enterprise
Institute, March 1992), 2, 9.
et al., 23. See also Ladd, “Thinking About America,”
The Public Perspective 4, no. 5 (July/August 1993),
et. al., 276.
9. Walt Whitman,
“Song of the Open Road,” in Leaves of Grass
(New York: New American Library, 1958), 138
“Song of Myself,” ibid., 94, 64.
Lewis, The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition
in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1955), 91, 5.
S. Engeman, book review (Locke in America), The
Review of Politics 58 (Spring 1996), 382.
Riesman, Individualism Reconsidered (Glencoe, IL: The
Free Press, 1954).
de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume II (New
York: Shocken Books, 1961; first published in English in 1935),