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“A Nation of ‘Me’” – A Reprise of Sorts

7 September 2011

One of my very good friends in Bergen once asked me to write more about America – I already know what Norway is like!, she complained. So Anne, here is your post about America!

My recent “Nation of ‘We’” post generated some discussion on Facebook that I would like to share and expand upon here. A few of my Norwegian readers (and I am so very grateful for comments from “insiders”!) were surprised by the steadfast policy at my daughter’s kindergarten and shared their own experiences in which the kindergarten were willing to be more flexible. It never occurred to me to question the policy; as an immigrant, I feel it’s my job to watch and learn and not share my big American opinions on how to live life. But I also thought this idea of learning to be together was so unique and possibly wonderful that I didn’t want to question it.

One bi-cultural reader agreed that in Norway “there’s certainly a trend towards wanting people to be together, and the forced togetherness is interesting.” Forced togetherness is interesting, especially to me because it flies in the face of absolutely everything I learned as a child. From the overt notion of “individual rights” down to the nearly-invisible threads of capitalist ideology sewn into the fabric of American culture, individualism is taught, valued, and accepted as what makes us American.

So many Norwegian friends repeatedly ask me to explain why Americans do not want socialized medicine. I usually give a long answer involving all aspects of the debate from Benjamin Franklin’s “self-made man” to the rot that takes hold of most things run by the American government (“You wouldn’t want them runnin’ your healthcare like they ran that war in Iraq, now wouldja?”) But here’s the short version, and I think the real version: “Because it’s social.” Social means that I cannot have the best for me; I get the same treatment everyone else gets. (Politicians: if you call the plan “Individualized Medicine” I guarantee instant, widespread support for it.)

But back to my daughter’s Norwegian kindergarten for a moment: In “A Nation of ‘We’” I wanted to demonstrate the extreme and fundamental differences between a Norwegian mentality and a U.S. mentality. The difference I illustrated was not intended to suggest that all Norwegians force small, innocent children to live a communist lifestyle, but to express my bewilderment at a policy that I know could never be adapted by a kindergarten or school in the United States. Not only would it not be possible to have such a rule (an armchair-lawyer parent would undoubtedly jump to squash it), but it would simply never enter one’s mind to come up with such a rule.  – Why on earth would you want children to learn to be together when their very success in life is dependent upon their independence?

When we Americans hear the word “social” we immediately think of that terrible and threatening term “The Masses.” We are Bartleby the Scrivener and we resolutely and definitively “prefer not to.” If Togetherness were the title of a painting it would depict hoards of sheep following each other dumbly and blindly as they all tripped over the same tree root.

Togetherness holds us back from realizing our real and true potential, our chance to be famous and great. Even before we enter kindergarten we are taught to stand out, to be America’s next  best ____________ ? (Fill in the blank, but some hints are: pop star, reality show producer, inventor, genius, etc. Need I mention the Baby Einstein phenomena?)

If you are an American reader, you will understand my dismay when I learned that my son would not receive a single grade in school until the 7th grade. “How can I know what he’s good at?” I pleaded with his first grade teacher. “How will I know if he needs help with a subject?” She smiled and told me that he likes math. “But is he good at it?” I wanted to know. Of course I was secretly asking: “Is he the best in the class at it?” How would my son be able to stand out as the best and brightest and most wonderful student ever without grades? I was convinced that in this system I would lose him to THE MASSES. He would never strive to attend Harvard or Yale because he had been taught to believe that he was (gulp!) just like everyone else.

Try googling: individual vs. society American literature. It produces over 63 million results, many of which send you to literary analyses of works by the Transcendentalists, a group of 19th century writers praised for their truly American voices. Famous from this period is the Emersonian doctrine of “self-reliance,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s questioning of community, Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” which was intended as a proclamation of the all in one but is more often interpreted as worshipping the artist as an individual. When Henry David Thoreau ventured into the woods, it was to remove himself from society, to learn to depend upon himself and himself only. He explained this with a notorious amount of “I”s for one sentence: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

To express oneself as an American is to express oneself as an individual, as an “I” devoted to shunning the communal. I must cultivate the “I” to succeed in life, and in doing so I proclaim that I do not need anyone else. “I did this on my own,” is the proudest phrase an American can utter, never mind that the center we call “nation” cannot hold.

To close this “Intro to American Individualism” I offer an excerpt from a book that is frequently given to American students when they graduate: Oh! The Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss. As I read it now I am struck, and struck harshly by its overt insistence on the importance of “I” (or the reader that is “you”), which now seems so discordant precisely because of my experience at the Norwegian kindergarten. Wait, Dr. Suess, I want to tell him. You had that wrong! … We Americans have this wrong.

Congratulations!

Today is your day.

You’re off to Great Places!

You’re off and away!

You have brains in your head.

You have feet in your shoes.

You can steer yourself any direction you choose.

You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

[…]

Out there things can happen and frequently do to people as brainy and footsy as you.

[…]

You won’t lag behind, because you’ll have the speed. You’ll pass the whole gang and you’ll soon take the lead. Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best. Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.

Except when you don’t.

Because, sometimes, you won’t.

I’m sorry to say so but, sadly, it’s true that Bang-ups and Hang-ups can happen to you.

You can get all hung up in a prickle-ly perch. And your gang will fly on. You’ll be left in a Lurch.

[Here Dr. Suess continues with many more stanzas of things that could possibly go wrong, and will go wrong, but the up-beat conclusion is indicative of that wonderful American optimism, coupled, of course, with a belief in the greatness of YOU.]

And will you succeed?

Yes! You will, indeed!

(98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)

Kid, you’ll move mountains!

So … be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray or Mordecai Ale Van Allen O’Shea, you’re off to Great Places!

Today is your day!

Your mountain is waiting.

So … get on your way!

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. brelle permalink
    7 September 2011 15:19

    Thank you for another long and well written post. I wanted to write some comments about your post entitled “A Nation of “We”, but I figured I would just comment on a few things here instead.

    I must admit that I’ve never really understood the fear that the word “social-” can bring to Americans. It seems to come down to the word rather than the meaning of it in many cases. Take socialized medicine for example: I know the healthcare system in Norway is far from perfect, but I’ve also experienced the healthcare in the US. Even tho alot of Americans seem to be thinking, as you write it, that “Social means that I cannot have the best for me”, I just am so puzzled by this. Is socialized medicine inferior to private? If you look at the numbers that The World Health Organization produced in 2000, then no. It doesn’t look like socialized medicine make you miss out anything. In fact, if you compare Norway and The US, you’ll find that our healthcare system both gives better life expectancy at a lower cost. But it is socialized and socialized is bad to many Americans because they seem to link it straight to communism and that is the “worst evil” out there.

    It is also interesting that The US now has a mixed market health care system where government sources will account for about 43% of U.S. health care expenditures. Meaning that despite everything being said, programs such as Medicaid or Medicare (to mention two there are more), pays for alot of treatments out there. This is a subject of much discussion, I know.

    Now kindergarten. It’s been a while since I was in kindergarten, but I suspect it really has not changed all that much. If it has, I haven’t heard about it. Yes, the kindergartens here in Norway has a focus on kids playing together, being social with each other and achieve things together. Does it make Norwegians less individual? No, I’m sorry for those who might say so, but I don’t belive that it does. I drew my pictures with crayons of whatever I wished for (it was mostly lightning themed), I built towers out of wooden bricks in rooms, both with other kids and by myself. I think kindergarten helps you prepare for the rest of life. You’ll spend a majority of time with other people where you’ll be working on projects, teams, studying and so on. It goes from kindergarten through the schools and up to the point where you start working. You might just as well get used to it. It doesn’t mean that you’ll make a lousy pop singer, a lousy cheer leader or a less valued co-worker or that high income boss. Between having my children included or not with other kids, I’d chose inclusion in a heartbeat. Not because I’d expect my kid to grow up and become less of an induvidual because of it or part of a society that is all alike, but because I honestly think that would be the best choice.

    Grades will not, in my opinon, make a child stay longer in school, nor will it aspire much greatness in itself before the 7th grade or 10th grade for that matter. I think I got my first grade at 10th grade, but I know they have changed the school system alot since then. Parents are usually informed about where a student’s strong and weak points are at school in a parent teacher conference. This would be the same as in the US I believe, although you’d also have a piece of papers with letters on them that might or might not be accurate to describe your kid’s abilities. The whole grade system has its faults.

    I apologize for the length of this comment and if I offended someone. I merely offer my views based upon personal experience and a tiny bit of reading.

    • 7 September 2011 15:45

      You certainly haven’t offended me! 🙂 Thanks for your comments — all of which I agree with. I’m happy to have a reader and commenter who can give exact figures on these things! I have grown to like many of the things about Norway that I balked at 6-7 years ago (like the grading system), and although, as you say, many things are far from perfect in Norway, there are many things that Norway gets right (at least IMHO) and I wonder how bad things need to get in America before people are willing to look at the benefits of anything considered or termed as “social.”

  2. 7 September 2011 16:50

    As always, a very interesting post that’s really got me thinking.

    I feel it’s important to point out that there is a large percentage of American people who are very willing to embrace a more “socialized” society. For 20 years, I lived in San Francisco, an immensely liberal city that, among other excellent qualities, created and finances “Healthy San Francisco,” a popular public program that offers access to healthcare to individuals and families who do not have health insurance. San Francisco also mandated a “living wage” (higher than the federal minimum wage) years ago, and has several other programs to help poor families and homeless people.

    Millions of Americans wanted President Obama to demand some sort of universal coverage during the not-so-great healthcare debate of 2010. He never even brought the conversation to the table. Just one in a growing string of utter disappointments in his administration.

    While bragging about San Francisco, I must add that the city works hard to offer an extensive and quality (but sadly underfunded) public transportation system that includes buses, a subway, connections to BART and the railway, as well as prioritizing pedestrian and bicycle traffic. Public transportation of this sort is a great example of a socialized system that many Americans cherish and desire, and is, I must say, an example of one area where Norway has failed at an epic level. Norway is as much a “car first” society as America has ever been, and there is nothing less social than a national transportation system based on cars and roads.

    I love Norway. I love living here and don’t ever think about moving back to the US. But I do worry that as Norwegians prosper, their commitment to community is diminishing. I hope I’m wrong, but I see signs. Just go to any vinmonopol on a busy day and watch what happens when a new cash register opens—the chaotic stampede is dangerous!

    • 16 September 2011 11:42

      Hi Michele! You, like my husband, always remind me that Indiana (where I am from) does not = ALL of America. (I tend to generalize). Thanks for bringing in San Francisco!

      Totally agree with you about cars in Norway and I really do fear the same — that as individuals prosper they need “community” less. Look at what has happened to the UK and US, Norway! Turn back while you still have a chance!

      LOL about stampede at the Pol! 🙂

  3. 7 September 2011 18:31

    In response to “Brelle”s first paragraph, about why Americans don’t want socialized medicine, despite evidence that it is better: (I write this as another American in Norway): I will generalize and say that many Americans don’t like statistics. They don’t trust them, and above all, they feel that they are one of the few that are not counted in the statistics, or are somehow better than the statistics, or would be in the minority who would not benefit from such and such, despite the statistics saying otherwise.

    One thing I am realizing about the US, after living in Norway, is how complicated and nearly impossible it is to do things on a grand scale, such as the US. It just seems so much more possible to pass legislation and have buy-in on a small scale (such as Norway), but in the US–how do you ensure that everyone is adequately educated and making informed decisions about legislation, new laws, etc. The US sometimes is simply too big to actually make effective change. I am appreciating more and more the role of state government in the US vs. national government.

    And on an entirely different note, as a mother of a 3-year-old, I am already bemoaning the lack of “enrichment” programs in the Norwegian school system, so certain am I that my precocious child will be unchallenged and bored in Norwegian schools! 😉

    • 16 September 2011 11:47

      Hi Emily! This is the conversation I’ve had with my Dad over and over — how does one manage anything well at the national level with the population is in the billions instead of the nice and neat 4.8 million of Norway? I vote for breaking every one up according to cultural and voting practices: The South can be it’s own country, the Northeast can have another, the Midwest another, Texas probably should be its own country … 🙂

      As for the Norwegian school system – do brace yourself for a hundred things you won’t be able to change about the way it is BUT … and this is a big BUT … despite all of my hand-wringing over not being taught to read and write until age 7, my son (now almost 10) is the reading star of his class and eats threw books in English and Norwegian. I really have to say that what everyone told me was right — it didn’t matter whether he learned at age 4 or age 7. And I am so happy he has had the opportunity to learn things those in the US don’t — like being responsible the well-being of others. And which mushrooms are poisonous! 🙂

  4. 7 September 2011 18:32

    I was born in the U.S. to a Norwegian father and a British mother. This gave me both individual and social perspectives. I think my tendencies are toward social, especially now that I am aging. While self-reliance is a good thing, so is wanting the best for everyone. As long as you are healthy, the U.S. (spells “us”, isn’t that ironic) is a great place to achieve personal comfort, but 95% of personal bankruptcies are from health care expenses. A former boss ridiculed Hillary Clinton’s statement that it takes a village to raise a child because he could personally do so much better as the child’s parent. His son attempted suicide one evening when his father was not even aware that the kid was out of the house. Other folks knew the kid had issues, but it was none of their business. So sad. I know this is disjointed as I am not a very eloquent writer, but suffice it to say that I plan on spending a good part of my later years in Norway (most of my family is there). I hope I will have something to offer their society.

    • 16 September 2011 11:52

      Hi Jon! Thanks so much for your bi-cultural perspective on this. I think quite a lot of people are choosing to live in Norway when their children are young (because it is a safe and family-oriented place), to move away to develop themselves personally or financially, and then to move back for retirement. Sounds good!

      But the story about the former boss was interesting, as well as very sad. I don’t understand why people ridicule that kind of “community” mentality — its something I wanted to pursue in this particular post, but feel like I only danced around it. Going back to the whole idea of the “self-made man” and the Protestant work ethic, we have this idea that communal is negative and asking for help from the community is only something the poor and / or lazy do. And we fail to see the benefits of community.

  5. Teresa Owens permalink
    8 September 2011 05:36

    So many good comments. And such a worthy post, Jena. As election season is heating up here, I find myself counting the days until I get on that plane (in January) to Bergen, although my first foray will be just that – recon. Everytime I begin to doubt or think that I may be making a sorry decision, I hear the rhetoric spouting forth from all sides, all the while missing the issues at such a fundamental level, it is almost sickening, and then I come to the easy conclusion that I am, like Kurt Vonnegut, a “man without a country” (ok…I’m a wo-man, but not splitting hairs…). The craziness and desparation that is a result of a populace that no longer appears able to reason or to even remember what exactly Adam Smith was talking about is enough to strike fear in all of my friends and acquaintances and those of us with the means are all looking to depart….and then there’s the guilt: shouldn’t we stay and fight for our country? To get it back? But then, we are faced with trying to have a logical discussion about such important topics with folks with whom we cannot even agree with facts! Anyway, the irony that our constitution begins with the word “We” is certainly not lost on me, and this is just plain sad. Americans are actually convinced that socialism is good, believe it or not. Just not socialism for people. Only for corporations. For big corporations. And for the military, which is the most perfect socialist organization in America. And see how well it works? It works perfectly. If only the country could get that! (google a recent article by Nikolas Kristoff…excellent read). Collaboration is what makes a people succeed….And what we have in power in America right now is the exact opposite. Would that it were not so, but alas….I cannot even see how I belong here anymore!

    • 16 September 2011 11:57

      Hi Teresa. Thanks for this really thought-provoking comment! I have never thought of it before, but you are exactly right — Americans DO have socialism that is not for people! And I have to laugh when people say they don’t want to government to regulate or meddle in their health care, because that is exactly what the insurance companies do! *sigh*

      But thanks for the Kristoff article recommendation. I’ll look it up!

  6. 8 September 2011 09:14

    Poignantly thought provoking post Jena.

    I have found myself placed on a soap box numerous times, and asked for my opinions, reasonings, excuses, etc. as to the pros and cons of the differences on both sides of the pond re. school, medicine, and life in general.

    Relocating from the states to Norway was a rude awakening. I fretted constantly over the school system, medical policies, and overall behaviors of teachers, doctors, neighbors, and strangers. After seven years, I have come to understand there is some reason to the madness, but it is not that simple.

    We are not comparing apples to apples. There are obvious positives and negatives in both countries. I am thankful for the opportunities both countries offer, but I thank God I have the sense to seek better help (educational or medical) for myself and my family when the need for individual choice and help arises. Freedom and choice are blessings, but they sure require a lot of extra work sometimes.
    Kimberly (Lillehammer)

  7. 16 September 2011 11:59

    A very appropriate last comment to this post. And you are right, it is never that simple. I suppose part of me just wants to say, America: if you could just do THIS you would be the perfect place to live! (And then I say to Norway: If you could just …. then I would LOVE living here!)

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