The Crippling of Students’ Individuality in America’s Schools
Albert Einstein wrote, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
Unfortunately, our system of education values and validates only the most narrow of abilities and talents, in essence judging every student by its “ability to climb a tree.” If a child happens to be a gifted cook, artist, or handyperson, for example, but doesn’t do particularly well on tests requiring memorization, that child may well grow up believing she or he is stupid. Einstein himself, as we’ve all heard, didn’t do particularly well in school, as it failed to ignite his imagination and cultivate his genius.
We say we value creativity, innovation, and individuality in this country; but our schools do everything possible to suppress them all. To fit everybody into a mold — and a very stifling mold at that.
Below is an excerpt from a new book by Dr. Thomas Armstrong, who graciously allowed me to publish it here. The book is called If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education.
In 1934, Albert Einstein, responding to a young girl’s letter about how she’d been having difficulties at school with her teachers, wrote, “I suffered at the hands of my teachers a similar treatment; they disliked me for my independence and passed me over when they wanted assistants.” Depending on the source, Einstein was either thrown out of the Luitpold Gymnasium (high school) in Munich, Germany, or was encouraged to leave on his own. One teacher in particular seemed to have it in for him. When Einstein defended himself by saying that he had committed no offense, the teacher replied, “Yes, that is true, but you sit there in the back row and smile; and your mere presence here spoils the respect of the class for me.”
If Einstein ran the schools, he almost certainly would have never created a school system based on uniform standards. In an essay entitled “On Education,” he wrote: “A community of standardized individuals without personal originality and personal aims would be a poor community without possibilities for development. On the contrary, the aim must be the training of independently acting and thinking individuals, who, however, see in the service of the community their highest life problem.” Elsewhere, Einstein stated, “Only the individual can think, and thereby create new values for society—nay, even set up new moral standards to which the life of the community conforms. Without creative, independently thinking and judging personalities the upward development of society is as unthinkable as the development of the individual personality without the nourishing soil of the community.”
Each one of us, all seven and a half billion of us, is a unique and unrepeatable miracle. Even identical twins do not have the same genes. Moreover, we are much more than our genes. We know now that the environment has a powerful impact upon how the genes we are given at conception are expressed, whether they are turned on or off (a process referred to as epigenetics). And each person has a unique history with variable parenting, exposure to or protection from disease, presence or absence of trauma or other adverse childhood experiences, access to or isolation from rich cultural resources, few or manifold relationships with siblings and/or peers, and vibrant or dispirited community involvement.
Each individual is also situated somewhere on a spectrum with respect to a wide range of traits, including cognitive flexibility, attention, working memory, resilience to adversity, self-regulation, language development, creative expression, sociability, and a hundred other factors. Probably this amazing singularity that is each one of us is what prompted Spanish musician Pablo Casals to write, “Each second we live is a new and unique moment of the universe, a moment that will never be again. And what do we teach our children? We teach them that two and two make four, and that Paris is the capital of France. When will we also teach them what they are? We should say to each of them: Do you know what you are? You are a marvel. You are unique. In all the years that have passed, there has never been another child like you. Your legs, your arms, your clever fingers, the way you move. You may become a Shakespeare, a Michelangelo, a Beethoven. You have the capacity for anything. Yes, you are a marvel.”
As Casals intimates, this view of each child as a unique, unrepeatable marvel contrasts sharply with the instrumental values inherent in conventional schooling. Nobel Prize–winning author Doris Lessing offers a blunt characterization of how this regimentation occurs from the very start of a child’s school experience: It starts when the child is as young as five or six, when he arrives at school. It starts with marks, rewards, “places,” “streams”, stars—and still in many places, stripes. . . . From the very beginning the child is trained to think in this way: always in terms of comparison, of success, and of failure. It is a weeding-out system; the weaker get discouraged and fall out; a system designed to produce a few winners who are always in competition with each other. It is my belief—though this is not the place to develop this—that the talents every child has, regardless of his official “I.Q.”, could stay with him through life, to enrich him and everybody else, if these talents were not regarded as commodities with a value in the success-stakes. . . . The other thing taught from the start is to distrust one’s own judgement. Children are taught submission to authority, how to search for other people’s opinions and decisions, and how to quote and comply.’’
The irony is that this indoctrination is happening in a nation that is proud of its rugged individualism. We have plenty of American heroes who have proclaimed nonconformity as one of our highest ideals. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his essay “Self-Reliance,” “Insist on yourself, never imitate. Your own gift you can offer with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation, but of the adopted talent of another, you have only an extemporaneous, half possession.” Henry David Thoreau said, “I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest.” However, our schools appeared to have lost touch with this ideal beginning in the early part of the twentieth century, when the assembly line ideas of efficiency expert Frederick Winslow Taylor were transplanted from the industrial world into the American classroom. Now, in the twenty-first century, it seems our values have shifted from the factory model of learning to a more contemporary corporate perspective; we’ve traded in the assembly line for the cube farm. However, in both cases, there’s an emphasis on conformity (in the meeting room corporate atmosphere of today, this is referred to as “collaboration”). “What we’re teaching today is obedience, conformity, following orders,” says education historian Diane Ravitch, author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System. In such a system, the development of each unique individual and their special potentials have little hope of being realized.
Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. is the author of 19 books including the book from which this excerpt was taken: If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education (Praeger). Visit his website: www.institute4learning.com and follow him on Twitter: @Dr_Armstrong.
Oh my. This topic breaks my heart. I have seen time and time again 3 and 4 year old children get “expelled” from their preschools simply because they do not conform to the exact standards, or box, that they are expected to. (I’ll leave my rant about how detrimental that is to social and emotional development for another day). Many childcares in my state are currently looking to raise their QRIS level and while that is great, they are using it incorrectly. They are using it as a tool to limit children in what they can do rather than use it to provide a meaningful learning experience. I have had two childcare centers tell me in the past week that they plan on kicking children out of their programs when they turn 3 because the child, “can’t handle school”. I LOVED the part of this excerpt where Armstrong mentioned, “When will we also teach them what they are? We should say to each of them: Do you know what you are? You are a marvel. You are unique.”. Expelling young children from school tells them that they aren’t good enough. It tells them that they are not cared for. It tells them that they were not wanted. I find it ironic that these children are getting kicked out of school for not being given a chance to learn a skill from the exact place that is supposed to teach them. I am trying to pinpoint where the problem lies. Is is lack of teacher training? Is it lack of qualifications for teachers? Is it just “how things have been done” and if you don’t fit the cookie-cutter mold then you’re out? It’s so refreshing to see quality programs but it breaks my heart to see these other ones. I cannot wait to further my career to provide the support that many schools need.
Meredith, thank you for your passionate response! What you’re seeing in these “other” centers is absolutely heartbreaking. And it is ludicrous that children who “can’t handle school” aren’t being shown how to handle it. I often wonder, if a child was having trouble reading, would we take away all his books? You go get ’em, Meredith! The world needs you!
Meredith, your comments are all the more poignant in that you are talking about childcare centers and preschools where all the learning should be experiential, playful, creative, experimental. Children should be free to engage in a wide range of activities. The idea that these places should instead be regimented at all is, in my opinion, an example of institutional child abuse. There’s been a creeping de-legitimization of appropriate early childhood measures where play is the focus, and their substitution with activities supposedly designed ”to get them ready” for preschool/kindergarten/elementary school/middle school/high school/college/high paying job. Teachers are always passing the buck, saying ”I don’t want to teach like this, but it gets really rough next year and I have to prepare them for this.” It’s this evasion of responsibility, and also the lack of basic understanding of child development principles that irks me so. Thanks for sharing your own perspectives Meredith – they really got me going!
I, too, consider it child abuse, Thomas. Really appreciate that you didn’t hold back in your comments!