Individualism and Conformity in the American Character: Problems in American Civilization

Individualism and Conformity in the American Character: Problems in American Civilization

Individualism and Conformity in the American Character: Problems in American Civilization

Individualism and Conformity in the American Character: Problems in American Civilization

Excerpt

Americans have always craved self- definition. In fact, one of the chief justifications for the study of an exclusively American history rests on the assumption that Americans are different from the citizens of other nations. Such an assumption cannot be proven, but only a small number of scholars and average men question it very seriously. On the contrary, the American traveler on his way home from a trip to Europe or Asia, while recognizing qualities which are universal to all human beings, generally returns with a new sense of the ways in which Americans vary from the people among whom he has recently been visiting.

There has consequently been a persistent and irresistible effort on the part of all who would write about America to discover the key which might unlock the door to the American character. What is an American? What are his traits? How did he get to be the way he is? How does he differ from a Frenchman? from a Russian? from an Englishman? from a Chinese? Has the American character changed through time?

The answers to these questions have exhausted nearly every possibility; some have been illuminating, too many have been fanciful. Yet a strange sort of order underlies the apparent chaos. David Potter, one of the most perceptive students of the American character, has noted that despite the infinite possibilities opened up by these queries, "it is probably safe to say that at bottom there have been only two primary ways of explaining the American, and that almost all of the innumerable interpretations which have been formulated can be grouped around or at least oriented to these two basic explanations..."

The surprising element in this finding is that the "two primary ways of explaining the American" appear to stand in direct contradiction of one another for "one depicts the American primarily as an individualist and an idealist, while the other makes him out as a conformist and materialist." The readings in this volume undertake to recreate this continuing debate and to place the student in a position to line up along one of the two poles or else determine whether and under what conditions the two positions are reconcilable.

But before turning to these substantive issues, several methodological questions must be asked. Can we assume that there is such a thing as national character? What exactly is meant by the phrase? Where does one look to find this character? To behavior? institutions? history? values? environment? psyche? What molds it? How completely do a culture's "traits" condition the life of the individual member of the culture? Under what circumstances, if any, can a national character be altered?

Merely to ask these questions makes it immediately clear that neither the meaning nor the existence of national character is self-evident. While it is not within the scope of this introduction to settle these issues, a few points may be made.

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