A TIME TO BUILD: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream
by Yuval Levin
Basic Books, New York,
Hardcover: 256 pages
Reviewed by Michael Quinlan
Yuval Levin is the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a senior editor of The New Atlantis, the editor of National Affairs and a contributing editor to National Review and The Weekly Standard. He was a member of the White House domestic policy staff (under President George W. Bush), executive director of the President’s Council on Bioethics, and a congressional staffer.
His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal among other popular media. His latest book, A Time To Build is quite simply excellent.
Written before the covid19 epidemic and before the death of George Floyd inspired the “Black Lives Matters” protests, rioting and looting in many cities across the United States and elsewhere, this book is about the decline of American institutions. Needless to say, the events of this year can only have exacerbated the problem Levin identifies.
Institutions are broadly defined in this thesis and encompass the family, institutional religion, schools, the professions, the presidency, the courts, parliament and universities. Levin correctly sees the health of a society’s institutions as central to a society’s health.
He argues that “institutions are by their nature formative. They structure our perceptions and our interactions and as a result they structure us. They form our habits, our expectations and ultimately our character. By giving shape to our experience of life in society, institutions give shape to our place in the world and to our understanding of its contours.” (p20)
He considers that American society has lost its way because its institutions have lost their sense of purpose or, more particularly, their critical formative role. He argues that American institutions no longer see themselves as formative and their loss of a sense of this role has been accompanied by a loss of any loyalty or commitment from their members.
INSTITUTIONS FORM US
Levin claims: “There is … an important role for understanding ourselves as formed by institutions and acting accordingly – for asking ourselves, in little moments of decision, ‘What should I do here, given my role or my position?’ As a parent, a teacher, a police officer, a scientist, a senator, or a pastor [or, I would add, as an employee in any religious institution], what is my responsibility in this particular situation?” (p42).
However, this important role has been lost and replaced by naked self-interest and ambition. Members of institutions do not see their role as members of that institution to align themselves with the institutional mission, or consider their membership of the institution as an opportunity to learn and to contribute to the success of the institution itself. Rather, Levin argues, members of institutions increasingly see institutions as vehicles for their own self-aggrandisement, self-performance and fame.
I give an example not set out in Levin’s pages. In this world, teachers who publicly reject the moral position and mission of the religious tradition of the school which employs them, rather than resigning or aligning their behaviours to the mission of the school, expect the school to bend to their behaviour or face legal action for discrimination.
Although Levin does not describe this development as selfishness, in effect, he is identifying individual selfishness as the core of the problem. Institutions that have lost their way stand for nothing. By seeking to accommodate and appeal to everyone, they appeal to no one. They form no one in any tradition and provide no guidance or formation (properly understood) on how to live or for what purpose.
Levin includes a chapter on the professions, concentrating on journalism – which may or may not be a profession. It is an easy target given its widespread adoption of subjective partisanship and its rejection of any call to search for the objective truth.
Levin includes an interesting discussion on U.S. universities. He identifies three (at times and perhaps always) conflicting objectives of universities: providing skills for employment (training for work); developing consciousness of the moral demands of a just society (moral activism); and exposing students to the deepest and best wisdom of our civilisation to enable a search for truth (liberal education).
This chapter on universities rather cuts across Levin’s general thesis that society has lost its way because its institutions are no longer performing a formative role. While other American institutions may no longer see themselves as exercising a formative role, this is not the problem he sees so much with American universities. Perhaps some academics and universities do not see themselves as exercising a formative role. Nevertheless, they are forming their students, even though the students might not attend university seeking formation nor realise that they are in fact being formed.
Levin provides the statistical evidence to support the view that U.S. academics almost all inhabit a particular worldview and would describe themselves as “progressives” (a term which I avoid in favour of what I consider to be the more accurate term: revisionists). They are inherently moral activists in pursuit of radical egalitarianism and are embedded in a kind of (post-Christian) Puritan Calvinist view of education.
Whether they realise it or not, because academics almost exclusively embrace this worldview, the consequence is that universities provide an unquestioned formation in this worldview. As this has been going on for decades, it becomes self-perpetuating with the erstwhile students becoming the teachers and so on.
This worldview is deeply moralistic but its morals are completely dislodged from the natural law and from Judeo-Christian perspectives of the true, the good or the beautiful. In this worldview, people born with white skin must apologise for their blood guilt for every transgression ever perpetrated by anyone in any Western civilisation.
On this view, any positive attributes of that civilisation and of the Judeo-Christian traditions should be eradicated. This clears the way for “same-sex marriage”, unrestricted abortion, euthanasia, personal moral choices and other ambitions of the revisionist agenda. In more recent times, this includes the traditional upholders of the law, the police.
As Levin observes: “The rising generation is only starting out, and young people can receive their inheritance as either a burden or a resource. It can be a resource if it gives them the means to thrive, rather than just debts to pay. These means can be material like wealth and infrastructure. But they are above all moral and spiritual.” (p40)
Some members of institutions, though, while rejecting morality and the metaphysical, really do see their role as formative. But they are forming people to be unhappy victims with no sense of purpose. For those of us who can see the positives in Western civilisation and in a moral code founded upon the natural law and on Judeo-Christian religious traditions, there is deep sorrow in the loss of this legacy and its replacement with moral codes that burden young people with misplaced personal guilt or furious anger about their heritage and provide them with no path to happiness or contentment.
The formation of our elites in this way is really at the heart of the problem Levin identifies. It is the loss of any real formation in the virtues, in standards, perspective and rationality. And the pathway to a meaningful life with purpose leading to responsibility, devotion, service, belonging, integrity, loyalty and commitment is blocked.
Formation of this kind has been exchanged for vices, recklessness, self-indulgence, short-termism and recency bias, panic, complaint, identity politics, conceit, the cult of personality, fame and the hollowing out of institutions. Levin argues for a renewal and revitalisation of our institutions. In this he is plainly correct.
A book worth reading.
Professor Michael Quinlan is Dean of the School of Law, Sydney, at the University of Notre Dame Australia.