The Hobgoblin of Public Education and Conformity

“brown arch interior pathway near trees” by Aman Bhargava on Unsplash

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…” Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance 1841.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was an American Transcendentalist Philosopher and Essayist. In this quote from his 1841 Essay entitled “Self-Reliance,” Emerson is highlighting the need for each individual to avoid conformity and false consistency. Emerson advocates for each individual to gain a reliance on self- perception and insight and avoid conforming to the status quo and standards set out by those in power.

The current educational trend in the public system is aimed at each student meeting a set of prescribed standards that are used to indicate academic potential, achievement and mastery. Repetition and rote memorization are used as a bench-mark for academic advancement and highlighted as a gold standard for what is considered, in modern terms, “learning.” Conformity to behavioral standards are also prescribed in the public system based on outdated behaviorist principles, namely Skinnerian thought, that are translated in to a fear-inducing, consequence-based set of criteria used to foster compliance and conformity. Skinnerian behaviorist principles were used to train animals. Skinner himself did not advocate the use of his methods, as administered in the laboratory, for use in the education system to train children. Let’s examine the role of conformity in the educational environment and the prospective outcome of this type of “standard” for the “big-picture,” insight-based learner.

“silhouette of personr” by Miguel Bruna on Unsplash

There is a type of learning style known as Learning by Insight. According to Aman Sharm at, this type of learning was developed by psychologist Wolfgang Kohler, from the Gestalt School of Psychology. Kohler asserted that learning proceeds in a greatly more efficient manner when methods that seem to have a relationship to the solution are tried. This is different than trial and error, which is a much more random process. Learning by perceiving the relationship in the scene and understanding the situation is insightful learning. According to Gestalt Theory, perception of a situation as a “whole” will elucidate better understanding than a sum of its parts. In this understanding of the learning, access to the “whole” will elucidate greater understanding than breaking an idea down to individual parts. (An example in education is the whole language learner, who learns the whole word more efficiently, than breaking the word down in to its phonetic parts).

Kohler conducted an experiment on a chimpanzee named Sultan. A banana was placed outside of a cage, just beyond Sultan’s reach. After several attempts to reach the banana, Sultan became frustrated and abandoned the task. Inside Sultan’s cage were two sticks which, when put together, would create a stick long enough to reach the banana. Given the time to explore and play, Sultan put together the sticks to create one long stick. Examining the length of the stick, Sultan realized that the long stick he just made would in fact reach the banana. Sultan had an “Aha” moment…an insight. Greek philosopher Archimedes referred to this as the Eureka Effect.

“water ripple” by Linus Nylund on Unsplash

Sultan was given the time to play and experiment with the tools that would help him gain mastery over his surroundings. The effort Sultan exerted through play helped him to derive the solution needed to attain his goal and learn how to use materials in his environment to solve a problem. The current educational climate is constructed on standards that are delivered in the form of disengaged parts. Little time is given for exploration and inquiry. Information is transmitted in small parts with the end goal being a regurgitation of the information on binary questions, namely, standardized tests. For those children with a tendency to need a “whole” in order to disseminate the meaning of the parts, the system fails. That is, in relation to academic knowledge. Conformity to the standards, in children like these, is actually inhibitory to learning. It creates anxiety, frustration, and eventually, disengagement, or worse, acquiescence.

“grayscale photography of monkey sitting on grass” by Dominik Scythe on Unsplash

In 1951, Polish Gestalt Psychologist Solomon Asch conducted an experiment on social conformity. In his conformity experiments, Asch demonstrated the influence of group opinion on performance. A single individual will deny what they know to be “right,” deny their own perceptions, and vote for a “wrong” answer, simply because the majority voted for the “wrong” answer. In post experiment interviews, it was determined that the anxiety inside the individual was so high, that conformity was a better option than public dissonance, even when the individual denied his own “knowing.” For the sensitive child, who takes in all aspects of a learning situation, and is naturally faced with a neurological predisposition to sensitive reception of environmental cues, situations that prescribe conformity, whether overtly or covertly, leave this child at a disadvantage (more on Neural Integration and the emotional processing learner later). As Asch stated, “the nature of the whole fundamentally alters the parts.” Can we as a culture afford to alienate part of the learning population in the name of conformity?

Is there a better way to educate the insight-based learner? The first step is to reduce the importance of standardized tests within the public system, particularly in primary education and institute exploratory academics that permit access to a whole picture in language arts, math, and writing. While fundamental skills need repetition to become permanent knowledge, this does not necessitate repetitive tasks to fulfill this requirement. Children can build fine motor skills with playdough, legos, and clay, which will aid in writing. Reading can be advanced with a focus on fluency, and children being “read to” rather than a belaboring of phonetic awareness. Spelling can be advanced with exposure to literature and more complex dialogue. And mathematics can be advanced with tactile, inquiry-based methodologies, like Montessori games, that foster depth and breath of knowledge, not memorization of facts.

“person standing and looking at moon” by Tony Detroit on Unsplash

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood” (Self-Reliance, 1841).

Writer, Licensed Psychotherapist, Clinical & Medical Hypnotherapist, Adjunct Psychology Professor, Masters work in Communication Theory, Change Advocate

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