As graduation approaches, it’s time we talked about people, not just institutions. If we want to make a difference in the world, we’d better understand how everything — from schools to states to corporations — is organized. But remember: they don’t organize themselves. People have priority. You can live without the University — it can’t live without you and tens of thousands of other individuals. That means that whatever institutions throw at us — finals, for instance — we need to take care of each other as people, first.

I confess, I haven’t always excelled at this. I’m coming off almost two straight decades of formal schooling, which I’ve mostly loved, but sometimes to the point of abuse. Binging on course overloads never seemed to end well, and lately I’ve benefited from spending more time with living people in addition to the folks in my books.

My addiction to institutional structures may have been more extreme than most, but it’s not unique. Our culture of global competition and technological miracles is great at plenty of things, but teaching us to take care of each other isn’t one of them. Our generation, most of all, bears witness to the crowding out of the human connections that are our species’ greatest need.

Over the past 25 years, U.S. students’ emotional health has steadily declined even as campus counseling services and administered “student life” programs have expanded. As sociologist Robert N. Bellah writes, “therapy was probably more a support for those placed under unprecedented psychic demands than a cure for new mental ills.” In the same way, the development of such programming can offer vital aid, but it’s a symptom of a troubled society that pits us against each other while doing less and less to prepare us for what matters most.

It’s no surprise that America’s top-grossing movie imagines a future nation whose youth are forced to fight to the death. In 1993, when the USSR was still within recent memory, Lois Lowry’s “The Giver” could still warn of a vaguely socialist dystopia where apparent harmony masked underlying tyranny. “The Hunger Games” series may be the young-adult nightmare more suited to a time when open, cutthroat competition is the global norm.

I’m careful to say “taking care of each other,” not just ourselves, because while we need to do both, proposed solutions to the latter can reinforce the radical individualism that created the problem in the first place. Therapeutic calls to “self-care,” and more New Agey advice to simply “be,” may be helpful more often than not. But neither usually offers more than personalized remedies to societal discontents.

The most fulfilling action we can take may involve joining commitments to particular people with a broader social purpose. Last weekend, other students and I met with longtime area residents who grew up in the place we now call Kerrytown, but which used to be Ann Arbor’s black neighborhood before gentrification in the 1980s. I’ve studied segregation and metropolitan inequality for a few years now, but hearing these ladies’ stories, and considering my own part in that history, gave more meaning to things I’ve known mostly as abstractions. For all the talk about people as rational actors, we remain creatures of feeling as well as reason. This is why people-scaled institutions, such as Ann Arbor’s student housing co-ops, hold so much promise, and why those of us attached to particular communities can often make more change than those who mostly stay within the Beltway, or, for that matter, Ann Arbor’s own little freeway loop.

It’s not always easy to toe the line between public and strictly personal interests, or what one of former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young’s left-leaning mentors termed “the class struggle” and “the ass struggle.” Yet, we owe it to ourselves to take care of each other on scales both large and small, whether it’s with a friend over coffee or with crowds on the Capitol steps. To have hope of transforming our institutions, we first need to sustain ourselves as people against all the pressures they place on our souls. Our age needs more of the “creatively maladjusted,” in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and we also need each other for the strength to take on the world as it is.

Joel Batterman can be reached at jomba@umich.edu

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