Individualism over collectivism

Opinion

Famed transcendentalist and individualist Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure. And therefore a man must know how to estimate a sour face.”

While these words hold credence in many facets of modern society, nowhere are they more relevant than the current American education system. Growing up, we are constantly reminded of how lucky we are to “be American,” and more specifically, to be a part of the American education system.

But are we really so lucky? A recent Lancet poll ranked the United States 27th in the world in education, placing us just around the 50th percentile.

While there are a plethora of factors contributing to this less than stellar ranking, primarily a declining allocation of funds reserved for education since the mid-1980’s, I firmly believe that standardization and a deep rooted sense of collectivism is the disease that threatens to kill the freedom, individuality and passion for knowledge America claims to hold as its most sacred tenets. Even in its most basic form — kindergarten through elementary school — it is evident that the education system caters not to the development of an individual, but rather to the creation of a collective. Instead of teaching children how to think critically and independently at a young age, the emphasis is placed on the memorization and regurgitation of material.

This creates a dangerous dynamic wherein children grow up without the necessary skills to view information, process it, and make a judgement on the material based on personal experience and knowledge. This divide between critical thought and memorization becomes even more apparent the higher up the educational ladder you climb. Standardized tests such as the SSAT, SAT and ACT, the results of which often determine the future of the person taking them, are just as their name implies: standardized. The tests are designed to assess the prowess of students in a variety of broad topics such as basic math, English and reading, and rank the test takers by giving them scores, usually out of 36 or 1600.

While mastery of these fields may have its merits, alebit niche, these sorts of tests do nothing to assess skills more important in higher education and in the “real world.” There is no test for critical thinking, open mindedness, or the ability to converse productively and respectfully with those whose views differ from your own. In fact, a student’s entire academic career has been a test on how not to do these very things. Information is presented not to be analyzed, constructively criticized and discussed; it is presented to be memorized and regurgitated, with no chance to debate its potential validity or lack thereof.

The result is a group of individuals who act as a collective, merely accepting material as it is presented to them, and in the same manner. It is practices such as this, along with propagandistic rituals like the pledge of allegiance which are the beginnings of despotism and lay the foundations for dictatorship. Without the ability to come to a conclusion on the merits of  information independently, we risk indoctrination as a society. And the only means we have of fighting such indoctrination is education, proper education.