Date of Award

Spring 5-11-2018

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Educational Policy Studies

First Advisor

Deron Boyles

Second Advisor

Chara Bohan

Third Advisor

Kristen Buras

Fourth Advisor

Judith Suissa

Fifth Advisor

Michael Bruner


"Individualism" is a term that evokes a wide range of responses, particularly when deployed in the context of American history and society, with its supposed (and purportedly objectionable) tradition of so-called "rugged individualism." The images of the cowboy, frontiersman, and lone entrepreneur spring readily to mind, along with a long list of virtues embodied in these figures: self-sufficiency, drive, courage, gumption, and the like. It is the project of this dissertation to rehabilitate the concept of individualism as tool of the Left for resisting the ongoing assault of neoliberalism, particularly with respect to our educational institutions. I argue that the various problematic associations commonly made between individualism and various forms of right-wing political and moral commitments, such as free-market capitalism, materialism, self-interest, and the like are historical mutations of an individualist tradition that is both fundamentally incompatible with those ideals, but which can also serve as a powerful tool for critiquing them. More specifically, I argue for an individualism that fuses the ontological commitments of the historical individualists with the left-individualist tradition in anarchist political theory. Individualism along the lines argued here is neither an enemy of democracy, communal identity, or group resistance, but serves as a complement to and ally of those forms of leftist commitment. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly given the urgency of our current moment, individualism provides a powerful basis for critiquing the forces that genuinely oppose left movements. Ultimately I will argue not only that individualism is a much richer, more varied, and more philosophically tenable position than has been commonly assumed, but also that some form of individualist commitment is, rather than being incompatible with truly democratic commitment, actually a fundamental prerequisite thereof. In this, I hope to lend some support to Emerson's famous and cryptic contention that "individualism has never been tried."