What would you list as institutions in our country? Around the world? Throughout history? Can you define what an “institution” is? These are some of the things I have been thinking about as I have heard various institutions referred to, sometimes in reverence, sometimes in disdain, and sometimes in disregard.
According to my thick, college dictionary (Webster’s 4th ed.), an institution is basically a habit followed by so many people that it is thought of as established practice. In other words, it is not questioned by most people and it is the path of action or belief that most people expect. It is generally assumed to be of an officious nature, meaning that it affects law and what is considered acceptable behavior.
It is important to understand that something is not inherently good or bad just because it is an institution. It should also be understood that many institutions are not static throughout time. Quite a few institutions are ideas that have just become entrenched in the current culture. There may have been an exact starting point or intention, or there may have been a gradual evolution of ideas.
For instance, we could say that the institution of the current public school system was set in place by distinct legislation, while the institution of the current celebration of Christmas has taken shape from a myriad of cultural choices. Some people believe that marriage of a man and a woman is an institution that was set in place from the beginning of time, when the first man and woman can into being. In contrast, it is easy to explain that the current institutional hospital system is relatively new on the scene.
Depending on which institution is being spoken of, and by whom, the designation may be imbued with a sense of the sacred or a sense of sterile impersonalization. Almost anyone would agree that the idea of putting someone in an institution such as a mental hospital is a highly unpleasant one. The images of loneliness, helplessness, and abuse in such places are well documented. However, when marriage is spoken of, one’s viewpoint depends more on experience and priorities. To some, the institution of marriage is a beautiful phenomena, full of life and love. To others, it is a trap leading to misery, where sense of self is sacrificed.
Most people think of government as an institution. Upon historical examination, it can be found that the current governmental institutions were not always around. To say that some people have always tried to use force to control others is a far cry from saying that the wall-to-wall borders on the map today have historical legitimacy or are a pure evolution of proper order. That is rather like claiming that because a drunk man has been drinking for years that it is the right thing to do.
I will say it again. Institutions may be good or bad. It may depend on the core principles to some extent, but it has to also depend on the application. The principles of law, treating each other honestly and not taking each other’s stuff, are good core principles. Using those ideas to establish a violent system of overlordship is going to lead to corruption.
To say that institutions must be good because so many people have validated them is to say that any large group of people must be right. I’m sure that your mother spoke to you about that. A lot of people repetitively engaging in a behavior, be it institutional schools or wars, does not make it right or good.
Unfortunately, questioning institutions usually threatens people. Jobs or status are often threatened. Those who have personally identified with an institution will view it as a personal attack if that institution is openly examined and/or exposed. A good institution has nothing to fear from such examination.
Much of the time, to institutionalize something is to bureaucratize it. There is the presumption that the more authority there is over the choices of the masses, or the more uniformity in the application, then the results will be safer and better. Such organization is for control rather than cooperation. It discounts the individual and his creativity or desires.
Some people assume that to de-institutionalize something is to do away with it all together. Suggest to some people that government schools be done away with and they assume you mean to deprive children of education. They also often assume that mass production works just as well for human social interactions as it seems to for the manufacture of some goods. Ironically, it is common for people to want to impose their own ideas of what is best on everyone else, and call it the newest institution.
Discussion of institutions often refer to society as if it is an entity, capable of feeling and action. This is to confuse mob behavior with the fact that every single person in said mob must make a choice to engage in any action. The majority of people in the mob may try to persuade or threaten dissenters to go along with them, but each individual has a choice.
So it is with institutions. Each person must decide which institutions to approve of and take part in. And while there may appear to be solid institutions in a given region, it would be unlikely that any one person is part of all of them. There are even institutions that are at odds with each other. Does that negate or confirm any of the institutions, or relegate an individual who is not part of each one to a lesser status?
Some institutions seem to be more organic, such as the family. The basic structure of the family cannot be gotten away from if humanity is to remain on the earth. Some institutions are more idea based, growing from attempts to deal with concerns or problems or desires, like universities.
In the final analysis, institutions are individuals agreeing to or being forced to deal with issues of life a certain way, and thus being thought of as a group. The majority of the institutions are variable over time and by region. Because of this, it is usually not helpful to use the existence of an institution in an argument about why or why not something should be done a certain way. To put it another way, the fact of something being an institution is not what gives it value. The choices or actions associated with an institution are good, bad, or indifferent regardless of how culturally codified they are.