Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Extracurriculars: School’s Many Hidden Lessons

I’ve recently started substitute teaching, which is a fascinating vantage point from which to conduct all manner of ethnography. Having previously tutored at an assortment of after-school programs targeted specifically towards assisting students who struggle in school, I have long been aware of how much academic success is connected to the mastery of specific behavioral patterns. For instance, the abilities to sit still and quietly for long periods of time, to process information delivered orally and received aurally, and to adhere strictly to deadlines and time schedules, are, I would propose, more closely correlated to success in school than is intelligence.

I was recently linked to an article entitled The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher, which pretty clearly delineates a number of the implicit cultural lessons which the structure of the American public school system tends to promote. It’s not too long, so I highly recommend you pop over and give it a read, but to summarize, the six lessons he highlights are (1) stay wherever you are told you belong, (2) learn to awaken and dismiss interest in a topic on command, (3) surrender your will to arbitrary authority, (4) ignore your own interests and focus on what you are told to engage with, (5) depend on the assessments of others for your own sense of self-worth, and (6) expect constant surveillance, giving up all claims to privacy.

I have certainly seen each of these lessons in action in schools scattered across the country (and, during the past several days of substituting, have been expected to advance them myself), and would guess they are pretty universal, at least among American public schools. And yet I don’t think most teachers sit down and consciously decide that these lessons are particularly valuable, and then contemplate how best to reinforce them in the classroom. Rather, I suspect that they organize their classrooms in the ways that they do because (1) that is how their classrooms were organized when they were students, (2) their teaching instructors have taught them specific mechanisms of classroom management, and (3) they have found that the type of teaching they are expected to do tends to be easier under the conditions these organizational structures and classroom management mechanisms foster. They most likely don’t stop to wonder what more global behavioral lessons are being taught, and how these might affect the expectations, inclinations, and abilities of their students in other circumstances.

I’m not arguing that these lessons are inherently evil or terrible (as with regard to fashion, that might be an argument I would make if asked, but it isn’t the one I’m making here). I’m merely noting that these are lessons that are being taught, even though the people who are teaching them did not intentionally set out to do so, and might or might not agree that they should be taught if they were asked overtly.

I suspect that the extent to which schools teach all manner of cultural lessons beyond those explicitly listed in the curriculum is markedly underestimated, by teachers and students alike. I will present one example of this. Today, I administered a writing prompt which asked students to take a position on the question of whether or not schools should stop selling soda pop and other unhealthy snacks in vending machines and cafeterias in response to rising obesity levels and other health problems among adolescents. Afterwards, I snuck a peek at the responses. I was impressed by the variety of points which the students (most of whom argued against the change) raised to support their position—it might decrease school concession revenues, students could procure unhealthy foods elsewhere, health-conscious students who wanted an occasional snack should not be penalized for the lack of self-control of unhealthy students, and even (my personal favorite for cultural insight) that it might lead to targeting and bullying of overweight students perceived to be the cause of the change.

Students arguing in favor of the change had little to support their argument beyond repeating the claims made in the prompt about rising levels of adolescent obesity. They pointed out that limiting the availability of snack foods would force students to eat more healthily while in school, though many lamented that this would probably not do much good overall, since unhealthy foods would still be available elsewhere. Interestingly, nobody mentioned the observation I personally considered most compelling—that the structural set-up of schools teaches all manner of implicit lessons, and that the presence or absence of junk food amongst school fare offerings is likely to shape students’ perceptions of typical, appropriate, or desirable meals and snacks.

If students walk into the school cafeteria every day to a salad bar, whole-grain-bread sandwiches, and fruit, as opposed to a smorgasbord of greasy pizza, french fries, and donuts, this will contribute to their image of what a good meal should look like, whether or not there is somebody standing there lecturing about proper dietary habits. (Indeed, as I have mentioned several times already, I personally believe that such implicit messages can be even more influential than ones overt enough to alert us to the fact that somebody is trying to persuade us of something.)

This is especially true at school, since it provides a pervasive (students are there five days a week, nine months a year, for 12+ years of their life) model which on many other levels is presented as a place of preparation for appropriate behavior “out in the real world.” So I propose that even though unhealthy foods would still be available in other places, such as at home or at stores and fast food restaurants, students would be less likely to think of purchasing these things when they were in these places if such foods fell outside of those students’ mental image of a typical thing to consume.

(If you don’t believe this, think about your own shopping habits. Daily, weekly, or monthly, you walk into a grocery store that I am guessing is filled with hundreds if not thousands of products that you have never purchased and would never think of purchasing. The things you do purchase probably fall within a specific and fairly consistent subset shaped by the sorts of things your parents would buy, as well as by various other regular food-providing places in your past.)

I found it interesting that not a single student mentioned the particularly formative role that schools play in providing a model of desirable behavior—even though they are currently personally immersed in precisely that process. I take it as an indication of precisely how unconscious we all may be of the strongest sources of cultural influence in our day-to-day lives.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Lure of the Shortcut

Assuming that my claim that controlling culture just might be the most effective route to world domination is true, what is it that gives culture this degree of power? Why are we so likely to be led to do things we would not otherwise prefer simply because someone else has told us, overtly or implicitly, that it’s how we should behave? Aren’t we smart enough to notice when we’re being tricked in this way, and to overcome any pernicious influence that cultural beliefs, inclinations, and habits might otherwise have on us?

I have a couple of different explanations for why this is often more difficult than it seems like it should be, but for today’s article I would like to restrict my focus to one of these: the lure of the shortcut. Shortcuts are appealing in most contexts, from cooking to computing to commuting—especially among people who perceive more demands on their time, energy, and attention than they feel capable of satisfying.

And culture nearly always functions as some sort of shortcut. We save time by learning the best way to build a house or solve a calculus problem from other people rather than figuring it out on our own. We don’t have to spend years pondering the most effective way to raise our children if we pretty much echo what our parents did with us. And we can conserve all manner of mental energy by assuming that people will behave predictably on the basis of a few easy-to-identify characteristics such as age, gender, and skin color, rather than attempting to dig down to assess deeper but more situationally salient traits.

It is our capacity for culture that has allowed humans to achieve much of what we have accomplished. I very much doubt any person could have made it to the moon without taking on faith a whole host of previous discoveries and basic beliefs. There’s not much one can do if one has to start totally from scratch at birth. If we didn’t follow certain expected social patterns, we would have to renegotiate each new relationship, and cordial exchanges with strangers (for instance, a visit to a restaurant) would be unthinkable.

There are thus many convincing arguments for the benefit of taking cultural shortcuts, and I am not saying we should never resort to them. My main point here, and a process I am hoping through writing these articles to facilitate both for myself and for any interested readers, is that it behooves us to consciously recognize the fact that we are taking shortcuts, and to acknowledge that those shortcuts are liable, at least on occasion, to fall, well, short.

If we mistakenly believe that our culturally-shaped perceptions fully reflect the underlying reality of the world, we will fail to second-guess them in those moments when the time or energy saved by the shortcut is not worth the cost of operating under false pretenses. Let me use an example which is perhaps more of a metaphor than anything else, but will I think at least begin to make my point. In day-to-day life it is harmless to operate under the mistaken but visually and culturally reinforced perception that the sun goes around the earth once each day. But when calculating certain weather patterns, it is necessary to recognize the fallacy of that assumption in order to predict and account for the effects of the earth’s rotation.

In the same way, many other cultural shortcuts suffice, under most circumstances, to lead us through life without much derailment, but if we don’t acknowledge that they are, in fact, mere shortcuts, then we may fail to discount them under the few circumstances in which they are apt to lead us far astray. And that’s not to mention the cultural shortcuts that frequently or almost always lead us astray, but have become so deeply entrenched in our society that we continue to follow them at our own unwitting expense.

Want examples? Stay tuned.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Environmentalism and World Domination

I wrote in my last article about one way that culture can have (what I believe are) negative effects on those under its influence, particularly when it is perceived as reflecting the underlying nature of reality rather than being recognized as something both imposed and imitated. But culture can also have (what I at least believe to be) positive effects, and so today I’d like to briefly discuss one of those.

Consider the phenomenon of environmentalism. This is a movement that seems to have gained enormous momentum over the course of the past several decades. (I say “seems to have” rather than “has,” because (1) I haven’t done the research to assess this and (2) informal perception about cultural changes over time is something I am generally inclined to distrust, mainly because a significant proportion of cultural belief systems include a whole segment describing “how things used to be and how the way things are now is different”—so that perceptions of the cultural system of the past are themselves shaped by the cultural system of the present, rather than being pure, unadulterated, comparative memories.)

In any event, I would argue that whatever rise in environmentalist behaviors (recycling, reduced consumption, green building practices, etc.) may have occurred over the past half-century, has done so as a direct result of developments in the cultural belief systems of the individuals engaging in these behaviors. Specifically, beliefs such as “the health of the planet, the happiness of future generations, and the survival of the human race depend on exercising greater care in our use of environmental resources,” or “if I don’t toss this can in the recycling bin, everyone who sees me is going to think badly of me,” are the most effective mechanisms to motivate environmentalist activities.

Where do these beliefs come from? Some have been instilled through overt cultural campaigns carefully constructed by people already convinced of their importance. For instance, as a child I remember attending mandatory school-wide assemblies, complete with catchy songs and animated cartoons, encouraging me to “Recycle, Reduce, Re-use, and Close the Loop!” and recommending five fun crafts I could try at home that would make use of my six-pack soda-rings so they didn’t end up around the neck of some poor seagull or cute little fishie.

But there are also subtler mechanisms with similar effects. The proliferation of recycling bins next to trash cans in places like the Seattle airport not only makes recycling easier—it also sends an implicit message that recycling is something everyone should be sure to do, wherever they find themselves. And I don’t know about Macs, but on my PC where there once upon a time was a trash can to which I could drag unwanted files, there is now a “Recycle Bin.” Does dragging my files to a Recycle Bin rather than a Trash Can ensure that the bits and pixels of which it was composed will be processed for re-use rather than sent to languish in a landfill? No, but it does get me in the habit of looking first for a recycle bin when I want to get rid of something cluttering up my desktop, which is likely to influence my behavior in the three-dimensional realm, as well.

Because this second category often has just as much impact on our beliefs and behaviors as the first (indeed, sometimes even more of an impact—since, as I pointed out with respect to the innocent questions we ask our children, the subtlest messages are often the hardest ones to resist), and because many of us live in societies which are responsive, both politically and commercially, to popular expectations, a feedback cycle develops wherein beliefs in the importance of environmentalism foster more beliefs in the importance of environmentalism.

That is, because politicians are out to please voters (in order to get re-elected), and because producers are out to please consumers (in order to sell more of their products), it is in their interests to respond to any preferences that a significant portion of the general population holds. If enough people consider it important to prevent dolphins from being killed when tuna fish is caught for consumption, then companies will respond by making their tuna fish “dolphin-safe” and then advertising it as such, and governments may even make laws prohibiting dolphin-killing by tuna-catchers. But also, the advertisements for dolphin-safe tuna are likely to awaken people who otherwise wouldn’t have thought to care about the impact of their tuna consumption on dolphin populations to the notion that maybe this is something about which they should be concerned, thereby increasing the number of people who make dolphin safety a priority in their tuna-purchasing decisions.

The proliferation of cultural beliefs and expectations can thus significantly impact the state of reality—and sometimes this can be for the better. Indeed, I would argue that if one wants to improve the world, it is far more effective to work to change prevailing cultural value systems in such a way that people are convinced of the importance of a given change (trusting that the people best positioned to make that change will then find it in their best interests to do so) than to attempt to enact restrictions or regulations enforcing a change which most people consider unimportant or even undesirable.

In other words, if you really want to take over the world, you may not need infinite wealth or superior military force. A convincing cultural construction might just do the trick.