Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life was first published in 1985 and quickly became a classic on the meaning of private and public life in contemporary America. What was observed by Robert Bellah and his colleagues Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton is still relevant today. We encourage further discussion of this book by schools, universities, religious congregations, and community organizations. The following questions and supplementary resources are for the benefit of groups who choose to continue this dialogue. — Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat
QUESTIONS & EXERCISES
1. American culture is a repository of ideals, traditions, and imperatives for both individual well-being and the common good. The authors claim that our present-day culture has broken with the very worthwhile values of biblical and republican tradition practiced in the early days of the nation. What values do they want to bring to the fore?
2. What did Alexis de Tocqueville see as the possible nightmarish results of a society obsessed with individualism? With what aspects of the long and deep tradition of individualism in America do you most identify? Give an example.
3. The authors of Habits of the Heart come down very hard on the language of psychotherapy and condemn the idea of the "therapeutic self" as a dangerous cultural phenomenon. What do they find so morally bankrupt in this way of viewing the self and the world?
4. Anthony Lewis has written: "I have no doubt myself that one of the great unspoken forces in the life of Americans today is a longing for community, for human contact and human concern." How do you define community? What obstacles keep you from taking a larger role in strengthening the fabric of your community?
5. What do the authors think is the difference between community and a "lifestyle enclave"? What is the point they are making in this assessment of American culture?
6. Historian Christopher Lasch has written: "The culture of competitive individualism has carried the logic of individualism to the extreme of a war of all against all." What societal institutions must be on the cutting edge in order to temper the excesses of individualism?
7. The authors of Habits of the Heart write: "Family is no longer an integral part of a large moral ecology tying the individuals to community, church, and nation." What factors do you think make it difficult for families to serve the common good? Discuss strategies which can help families work in interdependently to rebuild neighborhood solidarity.
8. How do you respond to the chapter on religion? Which of the viewpoints offered is closest to yours? What contributions, in the eyes of the authors, can churches make to the growth of the "new social ecology"?
9. What does the dress-for-success ethic say about cultural attitudes towards work? The authors suggest that the ancient ideal of a vocational "calling" should be revived. What do they mean by this term? In your group, share various rationales for work.
10. "A sense of caring has been lost," notes are R. Sargent Shriver, who supervised the War on Poverty during President Johnson's Administration. "Nobody cares about anything anymore. Especially nobody cares about anybody who's a loser." Do you agree with this assessment? What responsibilities do corporations have toward communities in which they reside?
11. Some cultural critics point out that community and commitment are resurfacing in the 1980s. They point to the groundswell of support for American farmers and their traditional values; the "Pastoral Letter on the Economy" by the Catholic Bishops which called for a "true commonwealth"; and the protest music by Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson, and John Cougar Mellencamp in support of an unemployed blue-collar workers. How do you interpret these cultural developments? How important are they to you?
12. Which of the six images of the "public good" described in Habits of the Heart has the best chance of making citizens public-spirited in word and deed?
Barber, Benjamin R. Strong Democracy: Participating Democracy for a New Age. Berkeley, California: University of California press 1984.
Caplow, Theodore, et. at. Middletown Families: Fifty Years of Change in Continuity. New York: Bantam, 1983.
Conrad, Peter. Imagining America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Elgin, Duane. Voluntary Simplicity. New York: Bantam/New Age, 1983.
Hacker, Andrew. U/S: A Statistical Portrait of the American People. New York: Penguin, 1984.
Jones, Landon Y. America and the Baby Boom Generation. New York: Ballantine, 1982.
Kuralt, Charles. Dateline America. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/Harvest, 1982.
Mitchell, Arnold. The Nine American Lifestyles: Who We Are and Where We Are Going. New York: Macmillan, 1983.
Percy, Walker. Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. New York: Pocket Books/Washington Square Press, 1984.
Reeves, Richard. American Journey. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982.
Robertson, James, Oliver. American Myth: American Reality. New York: Hill & Wang, 1980.
Sale, Kirkpatrick. Human Scale. New York: Coward McCann, 1980.
Terkel, Studs. American Dreams: Lost and Found. New York: Ballantine, 1982.
Verhoff, Joseph, et. al. The Inner American: A Self-Portrait from 1957 to 1976. New York: Basic Books, 1981.
Wachtel, Paul L. The Poverty of Affluence: A Psychoanalysis of Life in a Consumer Society. New York: The Free Press, 1983.
White, Theodore H. America in Search of Itself. New York: Warner, 1983.
Yankelovich, Daniel. New Rules: Searching for Self-Fulfillment in a World Turned Upside Down. New York: Bantam/New Age, 1982.