On Thinking Institutionally. Hugh Heclo. Oxford University Press.

On Thinking Institutionally Book Cover On Thinking Institutionally
Hugh Heclo
Oxford University Press
September 30, 2011

The messages of the popular culture tell us one thing. The lessons from ordinary life – if we take the time to think about them – tell us something else. And it turns out that the lessons from what we see in daily life have a commonsense wisdom that rings true. Striving to make yourself the celebrity star in your own life leaves you striving in an empty house of mirrors. Has the satisfaction proven to be just out of reach? Like the Great Gatsby, has the dream eluded us so far? That’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.… And one fine morning…

The wisdom of daily experience tells us something different. The deeper satisfactions we crave come from strong bonds of mutual attachment to other people and larger causes outside ourselves. Then the mirrors become windows and doors into a wider world of loyalties. In that world a sense of well-being and happiness finds us rather than our frantically chasing it down. It is a place where a person has a chance to find the simple satisfaction that comes from doing a job the way it is supposed to be done. It is a place where enduring relationships can liberate us from self-preoccupation, where we gain by giving of ourselves. It is here, not in the glare of celebrity, that life gains an authentic sparkle and while the popular culture might not notice or reward these larger loyalties, they are the kinds of things you and I are likely to cherish when, from some terminus, we look back on the course our lives have taken.

Something deep inside us seems to recognize the dysfunctional, unsatisfactory quality of an anti-institutional way of living. Inwardly we know that institutional values and commitments are important. But in contemporary society it is difficult to find a vocabulary and grammar for even beginning to talk about such an old-fashioned subject. When it comes to the idea of thinking institutionally, we as modern people have reached a befogged impasse, and our public and private lives show it. This book is an effort at recovery and articulation on behalf of that unfashionable idea.

Hugh Heclo is Clarence J. Robinson Professor of Public Affairs at George Mason University, a former Professor of Government at Harvard University, and prior to that a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. His latest book, Christianity and American Democracy, was published by Harvard University Press in 2007.