By Zandi Eberstadt '20
Groupthink. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines this word as “a psychological phenomenon whereby pressure within a group to agree results in failures to think critically.” This idea of psychological “pressure” and conformity evokes eerie dystopian images, yet groupthink is a very real phenomenon that harms the development of numerous teenagers each year. Examples of this trend can be observed on the Close, where widespread intolerance for open conversation persists, despite countless studies showing that students who hear numerous viewpoints demonstrate higher degrees of empathy and intellectual maturity. With this in mind, I believe that NCS and St. Albans have a moral obligation to expose students to a variety of viewpoints in the classroom. This change would foster critical thinking and genuine empathy for others, two essential skills for a future in our diversifying world.
Young people crave acceptance and fear rejection. This notion is often known by the name “peer pressure,” a phrase many invoke to explain, for example, the fact that 70 percent of teens who smoke started smoking because of their friends’ habits, or that adolescents are more prone to behave recklessly when classmates are present. However, contrary to what the phrase emphasizes, teenagers are not only influenced by their peers, but by adults, as well. Speaking from personal experience, young people seek to emulate the behavior of grown-ups whom they admire.
So, how does this psychological phenomenon play out in the classroom, where teachers and fellow students alike shape teenagers’ developments? On the Close, just as in many environments, the result is often a sense of ideological conformity and a resistance against diverse perspectives, on issues both “trivial” and “significant.” According to a survey conducted at NCS in 2016, over 88% of the student body shared the same perspective on several hot-button issues. Perhaps this statistic is unsurprising, given the school’s demographic makeup (roughly 80% of students receive no financial aid, representing a highly uniform socioeconomic background), or considering the lack of variation in most students’ accents, music tastes, fashion styles, and go-to conversation topics (*cough* “stress-culture.” I overhead upwards of 100 conversations yesterday in which students complained about schoolwork—that is not an exaggeration.)
Needless to say, some adults in the Close community encourage this conformity in the student body’s thinking. NCS hosts school-wide and class-wide discussions on numerous subjects, from political debate to data analysis to causes of various historical events—and I can’t underscore enough that establishing honest dialogue is a wonderful first step in obtaining knowledge and developing compassion. However, these conversations themselves are often stifled with homogeneity in thought. On several occasions, I’ve seen teachers insert themselves into conversations to agree unequivocally with the dominant viewpoint presented. In that specific setting, this behavior from influential adults 1) reinforces students’ conceptions that they need not defend their opinion when those in authority agree with them, and 2) manipulates pre-existing power balances to shut down any potential opposition from students, thus thwarting the possibility of an open dialogue. I’ve also witnessed multiple teachers not only share their personal ideological views with the entire high school, but make efforts to suppress possible counterarguments. This habit, albeit tempting, is a disservice to all students who attend school to exercise their intellectual capacities rather than to regurgitate their teachers’ talking points in exchange for higher grades.
Let me be very clear: most teachers I’ve encountered are superheroes. Selfless in their work, they seek to change lives for the best. The amount of effort, patience, and talent they put into their jobs is truly remarkable. I mention certain adults’ promotion of groupthink not to criticize all teachers, but instead to point to an obvious lapse in my NCS education. In every environment, especially a more uniform one like the Close, being exposed to diverse viewpoints is necessary to develop sharp mental abilities. Every time students grapple with an opposing viewpoint, they learn about both the workings of the world and their own values. Likewise, when students rarely engage with differing perspectives, they defeat the purpose of their education by being neither well-informed nor experienced in evaluating arguments. Thus, shutting down the possibility of honest dialogue is an act that ceases an ever-important quest for knowledge. Considering both this truth and the fact that my classmates and I will enter adulthood in a world of artificial intelligence, internet trolling, and fake news (take it from yours truly, a Reddit aficionado), NCS and St. Albans have pressing obligations to foster free thinking and a longing for truth in their students.
Given the explosion of social media and internet use in the past decade, my classmates and I are also likely to interact with people of many backgrounds and creeds in our futures. Plus, the demographic makeup of our planet is becoming more and more diverse due in part to mass migration and to exponential population growth. When students don’t understand the viewpoints of their fellow citizens (both global and domestic), their empathy weakens. After all, ignorance easily results in hurtful caricatures of “the other side;” all too often, we respond to the unknown with fear and hatred, an atavistic defense mechanism. Thus, to cultivate a more peaceful and kindhearted world, I urge the Close schools to prepare their students to wrestle with diverse ideas by incorporating conflicting viewpoints into the academic curriculum. This change is painfully needed and relevant to my classmates’ and my futures, projected to take place in the context of a country that’s more divided along partisan lines than ever.
I’m not necessarily calling out any particular ideology in this piece: groupthink affects people of all beliefs. Everyone, especially malleable youth, has an obligation to seek out his or her adversaries’ views. And though not specific to one sect of the population, groupthink is detrimental under any circumstances, no matter one’s creed, race, background, or worldview. Combatting this epidemic by diversifying the perspectives that students hear in the classroom is not only admirable in principle, but crucial in practice. A future led by free-thinking peacemakers depends on it.