What is the purpose of an institution? What is the purpose of a college, of a church, of a business, of a government, of a family, of a community organization? Why do institutions exist?
Like most things, it depends on who you ask. Some would say that institutions exist to affect or preserve the common good. Healthy institutions like churches or schools or businesses produce healthy citizens and communities. In the absence of these healthy institutions, communities begin to fray and individuals begin to feel adrift. According to this definition, institutions are a transformative force. Individuals submit themselves to institutions in order to bring about positive change in themselves and their communities. The motto that perhaps captured this sentiment best was JFK’s famous line: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
In the transformative model, the institution is bigger than the individual. The individual’s identity is wrapped up in the institutions that she’s a part of. They help to define her. She can’t talk about herself without mentioning her family, church, school, or community. Because of this, there is a big part of her that is fiercely protective of those institutions.
But of course there is another way. I know that “platformative” is not technically a word, but it describes well this second definition of institutions. According to this definition, an institution doesn’t exist to transform individuals or communities. Instead, institutions exist as a platform for the ambitions of the individual. According to this model, institutions must become smaller than the individual.
A college exists not to transform and instruct students to be “citizens of the world.” Instead it exists to provide a platform for the students. Instructors don’t instruct. They only provide the space for a student’s self-expression. A student operating with a platformative model marches on to campus and declares “Listen to me! I’ve got something to say.” This platformative model is so ingrained in many students that they have a hard time imagining that a college could ever exist for any other reason than to serve them.
In the platformative model, individuals don’t submit themselves to a church or a tradition. Churches and traditions are only useful so long as they can be put to use in serving the desires and ambitions of the individual. The platformative church tends to avoid archaic ideas like sin and judgment because they are bad for the brand.
The platformative model sees no necessity or permanence in institutions. In the platformative model, individuals see institutions as stepping stones, and, like stepping stones, they may be left behind without a thought once they have served their purpose.
The motto that captures the sentiment of the platformative model best is YouTube’s old company slogan: “Broadcast Yourself.” Social media sites like YouTube and Facebook exist only as platforms. Their whole reason for being is to provide a platform for the user to promote himself. There is nothing transformative about Facebook. There is a proverb that says, “When you’re a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.” Well it shouldn’t surprise us that to a generation raised on Facebook and who grew up fantasizing about becoming famous “YouTubers” everything is starting to look like a platform. “Your job is to provide me a platform for my agenda, my self-expression, and the promotion of my own personal brand.”
The problem with the platformative model is that the absence of transformation will ultimately lead to degeneration. Institutions will crumble either from neglect or from the weight of trying to live up to the expectations of every individual standing on them as a platform. And as institutions crumble so do the ties that bind a community together. And eventually even personal identity and “locatedness” will crumble as well. The platform disintegrates from underneath us, and we are left tumbling through the air.