Conformity and Education

I have written before about the drive for conformity in education. Given the massification of education which has led to huge classrooms with, literally, hundreds of students being taught, conformity is essential. It has become, unabashedly, one of the central and core tenants of education. When I wrote about conformity three years ago, I focussed on the loss of creativity in the learning process. However, I now believe that there is a much greater cost to our society than the simple loss of creativity. I now believe that the greatest cost that society bears as a result of the enforced conformity from the youngest to the oldest students in education is a personal tragedy borne by, literally, millions of students and former students.

That students of all shapes and sizes are forced into a mold by the educational “system” is without disagreement. Students, at least for a significant portion of their studies, are forced by law to submit to education. Bells, rows, uniforms (often), silence, a learned horror of mistakes – all of these things (and more) make up the experience of the majority of learners throughout school, primary, secondary, and to some degree, tertiary. In the world we live in, the non-educational option has been all but closed off. There is no longer any choice – everyone must get an education, and the more the better.

What is the personal cost of this kind of enforced conformity? The only other societal institution that compares is the prison system. We force all of our children and a large proportion of our youths and young adults to endure between 12 and16 or even 20 years of absolute conformity. What is the cost to individuals of such a prolonged, legally enforced conformity?

I asked a colleague who is a clinical psychology researcher what he thought the cost of prolonged, enforced conformity would be to an individual. He thought that the first thing to suffer would be a person’s sense of self – it would be seriously diminished if the period of time were long enough. He then said the, if the person had a genetic predisposition for serious mental health problems (anxiety, depression etc.) that prolonged conformity would likely be a good environmental trigger to bring on these serious mental health problems.

I checked into the literature on prisons, and there are many mental health researchers who believe that the conformity and loss of freedom that occurs with a prison sentence is more than enough to bring on mental health problems if a person is susceptible to them. I now believe this is the greatest cost our society must carry because of the drive for ever more conformity in education.

Martin Seligman, while president of the American Psychological Association made this observation. “We discovered two astonishing things about the rate of depression across the century. The first was there is now between ten and twenty times as much of it as there was fifty years ago. And the second is that it has become a young person’s problem. When I first started working in depression thirty years ago… the average age at which the first onset of depression occurred was 29.5… Now the average age is between 14 and 15. (1998)”

First onset of depression between 14 and 15! What are we doing to our children. Anyone who knows someone with a serious mental health issue knows of the pain and suffering that accompany these problems.

The idea that the education system is somehow responsible for causing real pain and suffering in our society is horrible. However, the pain and suffering of the individuals concerned is many times more horrifying. And the cost of such suffering to our society is beyond imagination.

It doesn’t have to be this way. As a society, we are richer and more prosperous than ever before in history. We can come up with better solutions for educating our people. We just have to decide that we must, and then make it happen. I have written more about this in my book if you want to read about it there.

To quote and paraphrase Stephen Jay Gould – I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died unable to escape the confinement of their education.


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