Bad education worsens government

Have you ever wondered when or how individuals become political group thinkers? Regardless of affiliation, politicians seldom muster the courage to make independent decisions based on verifiable facts, if those facts run contrary to the party line.

An example occurred with the vote on the recent health care legislation. Think of it: Our congresswoman, Elise Stefanik, could have cast the one vote that would have delayed the legislation until it could be adequately vetted by agencies of government dedicated to that task. She could have become a hero, but instead she voted the party line to pass the bill to save the party and please the bosses.

She rationalized her vote by claiming the bill had been on their website for several weeks. However, the amendments that were added in the last days before the vote changed the bill in significant ways, and this information could not have been published prior to its creation. Clearly, group thinking took precedence over critical thinking.

If this were just an isolated incident, we might write it off as relatively unimportant, but it is not an isolated incident. It permeates both major parties and indeed much of the general population. What do all these individuals have in common that might account for this state of affairs?

Most went to conventional elementary, secondary and many to higher education institutions. It matters little if people have an Ivy League pedigree or a junior college degree; much of their experience in education was geared to a standardized curriculum composed of the generalizations others created and found important.

Somewhere it was decided that selected conclusions should become the subjects of the school curriculum to be consumed by students in each grade, regardless of individual developmental differences. Standardized tests were created to determine what conclusions were recalled as measured by a pencil-and-paper exercise.

How does this experience in education contribute to group thinking? The underlying assumption is that all individuals must study the same content and those who remember enough to excel on the standardized exams will receive the extra rewards, those who are average are passed from one grade to the next, and those who have trouble for a variety of reasons will be faced with remediation or penalties for their unimpressive work. Conformity is the result of this routine. Individuality is seldom accommodated in this conventional system of education.

Not only does this process reward conformity; it develops an unhealthy dependency on so-called experts or those who are in charge of the system. As a result it is often assumed that others know best and our independent thoughts must be suspect and troublesome so we better keep them under wraps.

Not only is the subject matter in schools and colleges mostly pre-defined, and this encourages conformity, but the earlier grade levels are established assuming an age-related commonality that does not exist. Students at each grade level can be functioning intellectually at several different levels of capability at the same age. For those who are developmentally less mature, attempting to study the standard curriculum will result in furthering the feeling of dependency that results in diminished self-worth.

If that doesn’t convince you that conventional schooling is contributing to group thinking, consider this: Even in so-called self-contained classrooms, there is departmentalization based on subject content, including skill subjects. This is driven by a need to “cover” the content.

Departmentalization limits the amount of time spent on any given topic. This encourages a superficial exposure to the meaning that must be developed to gain full understanding. Having limited understanding can add to a feeling of inferiority that leads to self-denial. Being pressured to produce the prescribed learning outcomes, the need to go along often results.

Research has shown that small groups will reach a level of maturity, a level when communication is most rewarding, by passing through stages. The initial stage is called dependency. When individuals are discouraged from voicing their own ideas, they become accustomed to answering to a higher authority. This is where group thinking begins. Teachers can and do maintain the state of dependency by arbitrarily controlling discussion and maintaining a reward and punishment relationship with the students.

The second stage is called independency. If the students are not allowed to voice their aspirations and concerns, they will remain at the dependency stage. If allowed to voice their own thoughts in a civil manner, they plant the seeds that develop into the most mature level of group functioning, called consensual validation.

Moving successfully through the stage of independency can develop an appreciation for the diversity of viewpoints and personal values represented on the part of each individual. This lays the foundation for sharing information freely and constructively at the consensual validation stage. Were the students encouraged to create knowledge rather than just consume the conclusions of others, they would learn to trust their own judgments and critical skills.

Most educational experiences within a departmentalized setting fail to develop group maturity. Students seldom even experience what it feels like to be heard and appreciated for their unique points of view. This process develops partial understandings as a matter of routine; it cannot help but discount independent thinking and encourage group thinking.

Many of our representatives in government appear to exhibit the results of an educational process that fails to develop maturity in group decision making. Their education has developed a feeling of dependency that emerges during consideration of complicated matters of legislation. They exhibit few problem-solving skills and appear to have not developed critical thinking skills, nor the ego strength to act on the results of skills they have developed. Unlike the process of reaching a consensus through honest and open dialogue, group thinkers accept that which identifies the group and conforms their world to fit with it, even if it means “stretching” the truth.

Let’s hope we will bring up a new generation of independent and inter-dependent thinkers who have matured as individuals and group decision makers before our participative form of governance is replaced by an authoritarian philosophy and structure. The schools must play a key role in that preservation. To do so, systemic change is required.

Robert L. Arnold lives in Willsboro and is a professor emeritus of education at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh.