David Kolb

My YouTube on Our American Identity

Sometime ago I started a YouTube channel and posted a number of videos. I have not posted much there since 2020 because Parkinson’s disease has made it more difficult for me both to appear in and edit videos. But there are two items on the channel I hope people might watch. This post highlights the first item.

The first item is a set of five lectures filmed when they were being presented in 2019. They concern a topic which is even more relevant today: What does it mean to be a modern American? Just how different is American from other cultural identities? We have thought of ourselves as the specially modern nation, spreading the revolutionary gospel of freedom from traditional restrictions. Some condemn this American exceptionalism, while others celebrate it. Don’t take sides too quickly, there are deep issues here, about what makes us different from our traditional ancestors.

The first lecture poses the question whether American identity is a rigid given set of traditional substantive values (individualism, apple pie, honesty a la George Washington and the cherry tree, Protestant work ethic, and so on), or a free floating modern identity with no specific content other than formally described procedures for efficiently reaching whatever goals we choose (free markets, democratic voting, and so on). The two options follow Max Weber’s ideas about modern rationality, which I question in the next lectures.

The second and third lectures dismantle these options, the second arguing that any substantive identity must include areas of inner freedom and mobility, and the third arguing that any formal procedural identity needs substantive style and content in order to exist at all. Personal and social identities are always two level, with given values and inherited projects plus inner self-reflection and space for revision. We are not “in” our cultures and identities the way weight “in” a stone.

The fourth lecture argues that what makes American identity special is neither its substantive values nor its modern formalism, which are shared with other modern nations, but rather the particular slant of our second level attitudes and practices towards first level substance.

The fifth lecture applies these ideas about identity to our increasingly multicultural world and asks what America can learn and teach in a world that is struggling to retain and to surpass modern (Westphalian) nation-state identities.

The five lectures are each over an hour long. For a shorter access to my questions and arguments. I have arranged slides and visuals from the lectures into a file that surveys the arguments in the whole set of lectures. That file can be downloaded on its own separate from the videos.