Public Affairs Theme 2024

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Between the One and the Many: Considering Community and Individualism 

The 2024 Public Affairs theme explores the ways that Americans engage the one and the many, as we consider the role of community and individualism in American life.  

The tension between the individual and the community is a recurring theme in American culture. Over the course of our history, Americans have carried out a lively debate about the relationship between individual rights and communal responsibilities.  

In recent years, this has manifested itself in debates over public health, as communities struggle to balance personal freedoms with the obligation to save lives. It can be seen in competing responses to poverty and inequality, ecology and environmental degradation, public problems and private interests, reflecting longstanding disagreements about the role of the state and the market, collective responsibility and individual choice. 

The struggle between the individual and the community can also be seen in the creative arts, where individual storytellers aspire to speak for entire groups, and in the world of business, where mom and pop stores cross paths with multinational corporations. It can be found in American religion, where congregations compete for the hearts of spiritual seekers, and in the public schools, where community standards can conflict with academic freedom.   

Three decades ago, sociologist Robert Bellah helped inaugurate our university's public affairs mission with a lecture on community and individualism. The questions he raised remain no less relevant today.   

How can we balance individualism with our shared commitments? How can the individual and the group come together in the dance of democracy? How can we address societal problems in ways that acknowledge both the agency of the individual and the systems and structures which constrain us all? 

These questions and more will be addressed in the Public Affairs Conference on Sept. 24-26, 2024. We invite you to join the conversation. 

Dr. John Schmalzbauer
Public Affairs Fellow 2024-25