"Conform or Be Cast Out"

I love June. June is the month when the morning fog finally begins to lift here in San Diego, when the Stanley Cup is finally awarded, and when Lego Land finally starts their Saturday night fireworks display that we can see from our porch. But there is another thing I like about June; the morning commute to work is a bit shorter because there are fewer cars on the road. Why? Because school is out.

Growing up, I distinctly remember the deep and thorough excitement I felt each year as the end of the school year approached. Summers were never really all that big a deal for me - no major vacations or plans - but I was always excited nonetheless. In retrospect, I think I was excited less about what the summer was than about what it wasn't - that is, it wasn't a time for school. No more alarms, buses, classes, homework, tests, dress codes, or school books. Summer was a time to be free, to do what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it, when I had the time and energy to pursue my own passions. School, on the other hand, was all about putting my own wants and needs aside so I could conform to what my education system demanded of me. Sometimes I did, and sometimes I made a choice that worked better for my heart.

A few weeks ago, I had a friend on Facebook who shared a photo of his son, who is perhaps in sixth grade. The son had a new mohawk hairstyle, and the dad's caption indicated that the school allowed his son to wear a mohawk for the last few days of school because he had achieved good grades. Predictably, all of the comments posted to the photo were supportive of the boy's achievement, but I could not help but be sad. In my mind, one of two scenarios were possible here: either the boy had always wanted a mohawk but was prevented by the school from having one because it would be "disruptive" or non-conformist, or he never really wanted one at all but needed some way of expressing his freedom from a system that has the power to "allow" someone to make a personal choice about their hairstyle. In fact, this concept of personal choice being a right of all students has taken a back seat in many American classrooms.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post on the banning of Silly Bandz bracelets in a Carolina school district. The general point behind my post was that school districts claim to be interested in conformity to ensure education, while I believe that most school districts are choosing conformity instead of education. Now, proponents of public education will tell you that running a school district is hard, and I believe that. But consider this:

There are state and federal curriculum requirements; there are only so many teachers and hours in the day; there are a variety of student abilities and learning styles to attempt to account for. Any system that attempts to offer the same, or even similar solutions for all of this complexity is already behind the 8-ball.

In order to do this with any degree of effectiveness, these proponents will tell you, there needs to be some measure of control.

And where there is control in an effort to achieve a specific result for the most amount of people, there will always be conformity.

And where there is conformity, there will be a requisite subjugation of personal preference and freedom.

And where personal freedom is subjugated, learning is inhibited. In fact, it doesn't become learning at all; it becomes indoctrination. The students have no choice in what they learn, when they learn it, how they are taught it, or by whom. That, my friends, is indoctrination.

Think for a second about all the controls that public schools set up so that they can cycle through the maximum number of students, but which actually inhibit learning. Here are just a few.

They must come to school and leave school at the same time as everyone else, regardless of whether or not they learn better by at different times of the day. Personally, I learn better after I've been awake for a few hours; when school starts at 7:30am, that's nearly impossible.

They have to learn seven separate subjects during the day. Simply put, kids and adults do not learn this way. If you subscribe to the theory (universally accepted, by the way, although apparently not by public school districts) that 90% of the knowledge we use is acquired through practice and only 10% through study, this model makes no sense whatsoever. The whole point of education is to impart knowledge which can be applied to some practical use; therefore, learning something the way you might use it is a good first step. We do not, in the main, learn well when specific parameters ("this is science time, this is math time") are erected around that learning. As unschoolers, our kids often learn about more than seven subjects a day, but generally the subjects are woven together intricately just like they are in life.

They must attend each class is for an equal amount of time, with specific starts and ends. To see how unnatural this is, conduct a simple experiment at home. At 8:00am, tell your kids to start learning. At 8:45, tell them to stop. Of course that would not work; kids who are open to learn on their own schedules can neither start nor stop on command. Now, I know that plenty of learning, even about a specific subject, can be done outside of the classroom; in other words, just because class is over at 8:45 doesn't mean that learning needs to stop then. And I would even agree with that - if the students did not have to rush off to a separate, non-integrated subject and learn THAT one five minutes later, followed by another and another. When do they actually get to apply what they have learned, to practice it and make it their own?

They have to do homework. At its most benign, homework is given to students so that they can practice applying whatever concepts they were introduced to during the day. Again, this may work for some kids, but the majority of people require more teacher-student interaction time in the application stage of learning rather than in the introduction stage. Don't believe me? Let's say you were learning how to drive a car, and I sat with you for 50 minutes during the day and lectured you about the driver's manual, and then told you to go home that night and drive 100 miles and then come back with questions the next day. Would that work? Of course not; you need the instructor, someone with practical experience, sitting next to you while you apply what you have learned, because that's when the curiosity is piqued and when the questions are raised, not during the introduction stage. In short, the application s where the learning occurs; and that's where we leave the students to their own devices. If they're lucky, they have parents who want to help and are capable of doing so.

There are many other examples of how schools require students to conform in order to preserve order, but to the detriment of learning. Dress and hairstyles are certainly an easy one to pick on, because they are obvious and visible examples of individual expression that some school districts deem as being dangerous to the order "required" to maintain a good learning environment. But in their attempt to maintain an environment of order, they are disregarding personal expression, learning styles and preferences, interwoven subjects, interests, passions, and the application of knowledge. And what do school districts get in return from the majority of parents? Acceptance, or at least apathetic acquiescence. And they may get acceptance from the students as well, because the punishment for non-conformance can be severe.

But oh, how short-sighted. By ensuring conformity and disregarding choice and preference, they are inhibiting learning and the pursuit of passions. Sure, kids will conform just to get by. And then they will become adults who will either strongly rebel as they break the shackles of their education system, or, sadly, remain conformists and grow in sheeple because the very concept of non-conformity has become unthinkable to them. And conformists make good bureaucrats, but they do not catalyze change. I sometimes wonder how many more generations like this our culture can tolerate.

As I was writing this, the song Subdivisions by Rush came to mind:

Growing up it all seems so one-sided
Opinions all provided
The future pre-decided
Detached and subdivided
In the mass production zone
Nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone. . .
Conform or be cast out

Those are the obvious options. In a future post, I'll write about some others.


  1. Well written and thought provoking.

    It also implies that if the boy didn't conform to meet the school's requirements he would not have been allowed a specific hairstyle. We say as a culture we are parents yet we abdicate the responsibility to schools and allow them to make non-educational desicions for our children. We are quickly becoming a parent state.

  2. homework has always seemed so inherently evil to me - to have to spend all day in school just to bring it home as well - just wrong!

  3. I wrote a whole diatribe - ahem - TERM PAPER for my very structured college class about this very subject!

    Not only does the current public school model teach conformity - it also teaches racism, classism, gender bias and homophobia. These are NOT the principles I was them socialized into!

    Great blog!


  4. Yowsa! And added to all that authoritarian pressure is peer pressure because the kids who are beaten into Stepford compliance then turn and assist in imposing conformance on the kids who are still resisting subjugation.

  5. It is so aggravating when parents complain to me about what they "have" to do because the school "said so". I don't understand how people can give up their parental rights and freedom so willingly, not to mention the sacrificing of their children at the altar of conformity!

  6. There's a horrific hypocrisy surrounding conformity with school children; on one hand they're told "this is how WE behave" and they're compared to one another, "Bobby! Is that how Susan stands in line?" while simultaneously being held arbitrarily responsible for *unpopular* behaviors with "and if your friends jumped off a bridge..."
    If that's not enough, once hormones take hold and everyone is surely a freak of nature (in their own judgment), seeking some semblance of conformity and comfort, the tables are suddenly turned and they're told to "resist peer pressure" while still receiving "need to conform" messages from school society.
    No wonder we need 25 years to "find ourselves" after 12+ years of such mind numbing conflict.
    No wonder our children's clear thoughts intimidate us sometimes! We certainly didn't get to be children who *think* (at least not in public or without consequence!) <3

  7. You know, this is the very being of my Chamille! She will NOT conform. She sees the world and all its hypocrisy and refuses to conform to it. I remember feeling that way too, so strongly and being told over and over again how I was too idealistic and not very realistic, or that I lived in my own reality and that one day I'd need to accept the world and conform to it.

    It's one of many reasons why unschooling makes so much sense to me!

  8. Nice, Brother.

    Bike commutes is the morning are safer in June, too.

  9. Kimberly Sharpe-SlageJune 10, 2010 at 6:02 PM

    One of my favorites! Thanks!

  10. When I was reading this it reminded me of the movie Stepford wives. Our world is full of robots just trying to get through the system. We jump through hoops, lye, steal, and cheat just to get to the top or be better then our neighbor. What a sad way to live. Most of these people are not truly happy and I know lots of them. They have lost the true meaning of life. My girls will never conform to the school systems agenda. They are the future change this world needs. I love reading your posts Jeff they always speak truth in my eyes. Keep it up because your words are making people think.

  11. Great post, Jeff.

    I had a thought midway through reading it... about that dreaded "socialization" question. I wonder if, when folks ask home learning families about socialization, they really mean conformity... how will your child learn to fit in?

    Dewey wrote: "Beliefs and aspirations cannot be physically extracted and inserted... our problem is to discover the method by which the young assimilate the point of view of the old, or the older bring the young into like-mindedness with themselves. The answer, in general formulation, is: By means of the action of the environment in calling out certain responses. The required beliefs cannot be hammered in... but the particular medium in which an individual exists leads him to see and feel one thing rather than another;... it strengthens some beliefs and weakens others as a condition of winning the approval of others. Thus it gradually produces in him a certain system of behavior, a certain disposition of action." p. 8, Introduction of the Philosophy of Education by John Dewey.

  12. forwarding this to my daughter /5 grandkids

  13. Just found your blog and have been enjoying your posts. I'm reading Gatto right now and he says a lot of what you are saying (though frankly, you are saying it more clearly!). Really enjoying the blog!