I sat in a meeting recently when they promoted the idea of social skills, or cooperative learning, as the main purpose and vehicle in creating a truly engaging and successful educational environment. It is sound educational theory that has been developed in the last thirty years and so it is not ground breaking, nor does it need any explanation with jargon or data. What has disturbed my sleep and led me deep into the realm of humanist philosophy is the idea that humans are in fact social creatures. For just a little while, I would like to ponder this notion and see if the idea of promoting a social agenda is truly an American ideal or a way to prevent the masses from exerting their energies to reach individual achievement.
There was a fear that computers would break up the social atmosphere in America. People would be on their computers with simulated worlds and all real interaction would cease. I see some evidence of this for example in silent coffee shops where people read their computer at tables by themselves. I walk in lunch places where people eat alone with their computers with perfectly content countenances and even at times evoking a curious laugh at the screen. At the bus stop and train, the silence of the passengers is deafening with the only sound coming from the ringers of tones or punching of keys on blackberries. Even with my strong empirical evidence, the advent of computers has promoted more interaction with people and you only have to look at the popularity of Facebook and other social sites that constantly connect people . The danger of this constant social atmosphere is the wasting of time better spent engaging in activities that would make us prosper as individuals and reach our goals. If our educational systems are teaching students that it is more important to be socially acceptable than being competitive, is our capitalistic system and American dream heading in two different directions?
The idea of the competition inherent in our capitalistic system is being thwarted by educational theories such as cooperative learning. By teaching our children that success lies in collaborative entities, we are installing values of dependency, and suggesting collective understanding is preferable to individual accomplishment and striving. We are taking out the idea that the learning in higher levels is in preparing the student to one day be expected to further the subject area where their skills and intelligence best suits them for economic success. In a cooperative structure, the team is recognized and successful if all the members work together, reaching their goal at the same time, with equal participation and engagement. It does not take a behavioral psychologist to realize that even in the most ideal setting, where all the participants are equal, the group dynamics will result in a leader, followers, and at least one slacker. The motivation to learn is often the important ingredient in success, but even in our most successful sports teams, there are the stars that allow the group to be moved forward to places when they are allowed to display their superior talent. In a cooperative setting, talent and individualism is suppressed so everyone can acquire self worth, when self worth should stem from determination, achievement, and desire.
The ideals are good when set in an elementary subject or setting because common achievement creates a humane atmosphere. But when the goals of collaboration extend into the higher levels of learning, they can actually stunt the individual’s talent for growing and displaying their differences. This is where the social pressure forces the individual to relinquish their acumen for social acceptance. This is as dangerous as someone talking about their great lives instead of taking real steps to achieve their dreams. We run the danger of extracting competition from our educational system and alienating innate or learned talents from exploring and reaching their full potential. It is this classroom that considers the middle and lower motivated or talented students to be as important and awarded as the highest achiever.
So what are the implications for our society?
The most obvious lesson is that being in the middle allows success. It will promote the idea that the group is where all success lies. It will not motivate people to suggest new ideas or integrate unconventional means to accomplish a problem if those suggestions create disruptions in social networks. This can only mean less creativity because it will violate the norm of social control over the individual. This will lead to a society that will lead the individual to give up their identity.
Learning will be about fun social interactions instead of the individual struggle to acquire what has been learned and change it. Schools and Universities will be stuck in circular logic instead of the Western concept of linear time progression based on previous ideas. The best ideas will only be something the group will understand when we all understand, instead of the individual pioneer pursuing the frontier of thought or product to improve his society as well as reaching his full intellectual potential.
Finally, this is a way for people in power to disable the majority from threatening their standard of living. By teaching the majority of people that social networks are more important than challenging why social networks exist and the framework their were created in, we are giving a parochial vision of understanding that happiness is not in change but in making others feel good with the group they were created in or given. The individual aspiration that strives only for full potential is dangerous to the minority that holds the majority of the power and wealth in this nation. It is the individual who is gifted with vision to notice the inequities and the courage to challenge them that has provided the call for change for the masses to realize they are being manipulated.
So be careful when you update your Facebook today. Ask yourself: Are you pleasing the group at the risk of your own individual truth and denying yourself the action of reaching your own potential?