Nobody wants too be seen as anything different than completely normal – even if normal means being rather stupid.
Its five minutes to ten on Tuesday morning. The O’Flaherty theatre is as full as it gets; 300 first-year students talk, chatter, gossip, laugh – there’s rarely a quiet individual to be seen.
Smartphones all around the large hall are going at full power; Facebook, Snapchat, and Yik-Yak all approach saturation levels of usage as we furiously ‘connect’ with each other. Eventually the maths lecturer appears and the class begins; eventually, in most cases at least, silence descends on the auditorium. The audible conversations cease and order is restored.
Approaching a simple maths calculation, the lecturer looks up and asks for someone to plug 50.75 + 20.18 into their calculator and tell him the answer.
From a group of young people who love to socialise, love to chat and love to be just noisy in general, one would expect a chorus of answers; from offspring of this modern, progressive 21st century society in which we live, we would expect an eagerness to actively participate in lectures and classes.
So, in the first 10 seconds, how many of us give an answer? None. Five seconds later the lecturer repeats his request in a slightly more exasperated tone of voice. How many replies does he receive out of 300 students? Thirty? Ten? Five? No, just one. On a very good day, maybe two.
Lest we think that none of the students know the answer, 50.75 + 20.18 is pretty simple. Most of us have a calculator. Plug the figures in and the answer is there; simple as that. Therefore, if no one wants to speak up, there must be another problem.
Picture in your mind’s eye another scene; its fifteen years earlier; twenty of the afore-mentioned students are in Junior Infants class. The teacher is explaining the concept of different colours to the small children. When she asks what their favourite colour is, the classroom erupts into excited responses. No inhibitions, no fears; the students are excited about learning and eager to participate.
The teacher and the children have a lively discussion, with each child candidly stating their own opinions and preferences. Fear of speaking up is foreign – the children are confident in themselves.
The contrast between the two classroom scenes could not be more marked. In one we see individuality and uninhibited discussion; in the other we have self-consciousness, fear and silence. As third level students, we should love to discuss, explore, participate; as young adults we should be delighted to give our opinion on any given subject; as future business leaders, doctors, politicians, we should be brimming with ideas and suggestions; but this is not the case.
When asked a simple question in our maths lecture, we draw back from answering; when the lecturer asks for opinions, our one remains unspoken; when volunteers are called for, we hide in the comfort and safety of conformity, hoping he doesn’t ask us.
Recently in a Business Informations Systems class, our lecturer informed us that one of the main reasons social media sites like Facebook have exploded in popularity can be abbreviated as FOMO – fear of missing out.
I believe that the main reason no one speaks up in class could be abbreviated FOSO – fear of standing out. We’re absolutely terrified of standing out; we don’t want to be seen as anything different than completely normal – even if normal means being rather stupid and unintelligent.
Yes, we’ve heard all the motivational talk about being yourself, and not being afraid to be different, etc., but when it boils down to speaking up in class when no one else will, for us it’s far too costly.
Society seems to have ruled in favour of going with the flow; somehow ingrained in our DNA is the cursed plague of conformity – a plague that cripples our individuality and effectively makes us apathetic wind-vanes – blown around with every new ‘in-thing’; we’d almost rather die than stand out from the crowd, even if it means intellectual poverty and moral bankruptcy for the rest of our days.
Something terrible must have happened in those fifteen years in-between; some deadly process must have taken place during our schooling years that transformed us from vibrant, opinionated, out-going children into vacillating, compromising young adults, too afraid to answer a simple question in class, too cool to express our opinion, too busy keeping up with the latest trends to be interested in anything serious.
A poisonous culture of conformity is threatening to suffocate our society, our university, and make many of us little more than the ‘useful idiots’ Lenin spoke of; people who are easily led, easily manipulated, those who become pawns in the hand of higher powers, and eventually, victims of their own gullibility.
Pádraig Pearse, the Irish revolutionary, called the schools of his day ‘murder machines’; had he been speaking of today, I think I’d be inclined to agree.
By Josiah Burke