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What Are Students Thinking? Part V: Highly Conformist

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Part V in a series. Read parts I, II, III and IV.

Another prominent theme when it comes to student thinking is that they are on the whole highly conformist.

This is something that is true of pretty much any age at any time in history, but certain things in our own day make this an especially acute problem now that hits our young especially hard. For example, screen technology exacerbates the volume and reverb of the echo in the echo chamber.

Whenever I have class discussions, no matter the topic, what astonishes me is the amount of agreement in the room. The most frequently uttered phrase in discussions is “I agree.” The first person to speak up sets the tone, and then all the heads nod along...Unless I’m pushing back about what they say, of course. When students are responding to what their peers are saying, it’s agreement 95%+ of the time. For example, in a recent discussion in my philosophy class, the subject of preferred pronouns came up. Every single student confidently declared that automatically accepting a person’s preferred pronouns was simply a matter of “respect,” and there simply was no debate possible. A few students hedged that we shouldn’t hold it against someone if a person makes an honest mistake, but all agreed: once someone is informed, respect demands that you go along with the person’s stated gender identity. To be skeptical of this is tantamount to bigotry. This is a popular view. But what is notable from conversations like this is that it is pert’neer ubiquitous, and virtually no students question it. The trans line on identity is as close to self evident as it gets for these students. No one paused to acknowledge that such a demand might be a big ask for some people, due to the ideology it stands on and what this ideology declares about identity, personhood, and human nature, not to mention the consequences it leads to in sports, scholarships, and women’s only spaces. When I pointed out that their thinking on sexuality and identity is rather new, that no one was thinking it 5 minutes ago (this is hyperbole, but not far from the actual truth), they didn’t balk a bit. The response was, well, “older people don’t get how gender works.” We, the young, “don’t have the hangups they do.” Heads nodded, again. This is what C.S Lewis calls “chronological snobbery,” but they labeled it with words like “compassion” and “science.”

This is just one of many stories that demonstrate a consistent trend: students are highly conformist in their thinking *and* highly individualistic, at the same time. And no, this is not a contradiction in terms.

How does it work out that they are both hyper individualistic and conformist at the same time? Well, think about it: they seek to avoid being tied down by limits, tradition, or commitment--this is the individualism--but that’s precisely how they’ve been raised, formed and educated, so they conform to that. It’s a kind of “why do all the non-conformists dress alike?” type thing. Expressive Individualism is the cultural zeitgeist, and they get a steady diet of it from their schools, social media, commercials, tv shows, movies (Disney, anyone?), and from their parents, so they parrot it back. Hard not to. We really can’t blame them, because they are simply reacting to the environment they find themselves in. Everyone drinks from the same fountain and therefore gets the same water. Their conformist tendencies explains how it is that they can sound like Rousseau, Marcuse, Freud, and other influential thinkers of the last few hundred years, but never have read their work. The ideology of these thinkers is in that aforementioned water fountain everyone drinks from. The conformity is inevitable.

There are orthodoxies of the day, that secular high culture preaches. We all know what these dogmas are, and most kids, Non-Christian and Christian alike, give their pinches of incense to these orthodoxies. The real interesting question is “why”? Why are so many students so utterly conformist, despite being taught the virtues of individualism, with its mantra of “stand up for what you believe in, don’t let anyone tell you what you can and can’t do,” from birth? I could write a whole book delving into this question, and in the end, I really can’t read their minds, so who knows whether these utterances are sincere, or well thought out. Some kids are, no doubt, sincere, but it seems to me that there’s a decent amount of performance. There’s a lot of Kabuki Theater going on. C.S Lewis wrote a very insightful essay titled “The Inner Ring.” In the essay, he points out that everyone has an “inner ring”-- a group that we desperately want to belong to and want approval from. We are willing to go to great lengths to gain this group’s approval. Even the most strident outsiders have some sort of “inner ring.” He is not just talking about our social nature, nor is he saying that the mere existence of in groups and out groups is a bad thing. It is what it is. He is making a point about how our strident desire to be “in the know” often drives us to weird and dark places, small step by small step. I’d quote it for you, but whenever I try to quote C.S Lewis, I inevitably leave a necessary part out. He’s hard to quote succinctly. Seriously, the whole essay is incredibly insightful. Go and read it, then come back here and continue….. What he says in that essay describes my students to a T. They have a sense that there’s a social game afoot, it’s a game they all want to win, and the way to win is to use their affirmations and agreement as bargaining chips to gain stature or “points” in the game. I’ll agree to your comments if you agree to mine. That way, we both get in. They don’t want to be on the outside looking in, despite the individualistic pablum they utter in the next moment. You’ll see this in some of the stories of conversations I’ve had...their articulations sound pretty confusing when you ask basic questions and really listen to what they say. There’s a part of J.D Vance’s (he of Hillbilly Elegy fame) testimony that bears this out nicely. Speaking of the time in college when he left faith and the church behind (he eventually found his way back), he says: “ abandonment of religion was more cultural than intellectual....the truth is that I discarded it for the simplest of reasons: the madness of crowds. Much of my new atheism came down to a desire for social acceptance among American elites. I spent so much of my time around a different type of people with a different set of priorities that I couldn’t help but absorb some of their preferences. I became interested in secularism just as my attention turned to my separation from the Marines and my impending transition to college. I knew how the educated tended to feel about religion: at best, provincial and stupid; at worst, evil. Echoing Hitchens, I began to think and then eventually to say things like: ‘The Christian cosmos is more like North Korea than America, and I know where I’d like to live.’ I was fitting in to my new caste, in deed and emotion. I am embarrassed to admit this, but the truth often reflects poorly on its subject.

And if I can say something in my defense: it wasn’t exactly conscious. I didn’t think to myself, ‘I am not going to be a Christian because Christians are rubes and I want to plant myself firmly in the meritocratic master class.’ Socialization operates in more subtle, but more powerful ways. My son is two, and he has in the last six months—just as his social intelligence has skyrocketed—transitioned from ripping our German Shepherd’s fur out to hugging and kissing him gleefully. Part of that comes from the joy of giving and receiving affections from man’s best friend. But part of it comes from the fact that my wife and I grimace and complain when he tortures the dog but coo and laugh when he loves on it. He responds to us much as I responded to the educated caste to which I slowly gained exposure. In college, very few of my friends and even fewer of my professors had any sort of religious faith. Secularism may not have been a prerequisite to join the elites, but it sure made things easier.”

Not all students are as secularly minded as Vance was, yet the same social phenomena in operation in his elite college environment are likewise in operation in a public school classroom, in the middle of red-state Texas suburbia. This explains a decent amount of why even Christian students utter the same shibboleths as the secular students. There is simply this tacit understanding that “this is what the smart people think, and if you want to be ‘in the know’ like these smart people, you need to go along to get along.” And most do, uttering the necessary performances. They want the respect of their peers. Practically everyone has a group that they want esteem from, and for most, they let that group set what they say. In American youth circles, the groups that have the most social cache’ pretty much all say the same things, and worldview wise, the social power skews left and secular. The thing is, this performance is not a mere performance, a small and inconsequent blip on the radar, to be discarded in more honest moments….you are what you repeatedly do, and your thinking becomes what you repeatedly say. Students perform, and the performance for social approval ends up influencing their thinking, feeling, and identities in the end. The tail wags the dog. Does this describe everyone? No. But its pretty common. On the surface it appears like these two things--a high degree of individualism and conformist thinking--don’t really go together, but when you pause to really dig in, you’ll see they actually complement each other quite nicely.

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