Sssshhh...Someone's Thinking (Part 1)

culture education family Oct 17, 2021

"Today, students, we’re going to begin with a quiz.”

(Sounds of groans.)

“However, the good news is there’s only going to be one question!”

“What?! You mean if I miss it, I fail?” exclaims one.

Another begs, “Can we at least get partial credit…pleeeaaase!?”

From the back of the room, "Do we get a re-take opportunity?"

“We’ll see. Ready? Here’s the question: What do these things have in common: The theory of gravity, Peter Pan, Animal Farm, Charlie Brown, the theory of relativity, E.T., and Harry Potter? You have three minutes to answer.”

In classrooms all over the United States, from preschool through graduate school, teachers labor to educate, engage, excite, and even entertain students. Educators’ diversity of styles is matched only by the variety of color cards in a paint store. Their efforts are often herculean, coupled with a determination to drive a point home that would awe Odysseus. Yet, like Achilles, there’s a vulnerability which can undermine the most well-intentioned instructors.

It’s not a lack of technology, funding, or support. It’s a viewpoint. One which has grown into our national consciousness over the last several decades like an invisible, deadly mold, poisoning our perceptions and choking the lungs of opportunity for countless numbers of students. What is this? An inherited, imperceptible, injurious attitude about introversion.

“Introversion – along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness – is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology.”

Susan Cain, in her New York Times bestseller, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, launched a long-overdue discussion about the impact on individuals and institutions our cultural glorification of extroversion has wrought. From classrooms to boardrooms, church sanctuaries to congressional halls, and dinner tables to conference centers, we act in alignment with an idea we’ve likely never considered, much less questioned or examined – either for its truth or impact.

Cain continues, “We live with a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal – the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight. The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt. We like to think that we value individuality, but all too often we admire one type of individual – the kind who’s comfortable ‘putting himself out there.’ Sure, we allow technologically gifted loners who launch companies in garages to have any personality they please, but they are the exceptions, not the rule, and our tolerance extends mainly to those who get fabulously wealthy or hold the promise of doing so.”

How did this value system invade our thinking?

Cain details this history beautifully. America once prized the “Culture of Character” where the “ideal self was serious, disciplined, and honorable. What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as how one behaved in private.” A change occurred with the “Culture of Personality.” “Americans started to focus on how others perceived them. They became captivated by people who were bold and entertaining.” Think Dale Carnegie and his still-popular book, How to Win Friends and Influence PeopleWould it still be in print if it’d been How to Serve Others and Govern Yourself? Self-help had been a long part of American tradition, “but by 1920, popular self-help guides had changed their focus from inner virtue to outer charm.”

Our buy-in to revering this singular trait of personality – extroversion -- has cost us dearly.

Anxiety, one of Google’s hottest searches in 2020, didn’t begin with Covid. In the 1950’s Miltown, an anti-anxiety drug primarily marketed to men, “became the fast-selling pharmaceutical in American history, according to the social historian Andrea Tone. By 1950 one of every twenty Americans had tried it.” An ad campaign for a different anti-anxiety drug in the 1960’s promised “For the anxiety that comes from not fitting in.” For every person who turns to a substance for relief or aid, how many others adopt behaviors which diminish or destroy their unique richness and cultural contributions?

When was the last time you saw an ad campaign for a conference, course, or book on “Unleash Your Inner Introvert!”? Or “Learn How to Be Quiet in Ten Easy Steps?” Or “Shush Your Way to Success?” “Extroverts Only” signs may not adorn company walls, but the reality of this practice leads institutions and individuals to dead-ends or plunging off emotional or economic cliffs.

The 2008 financial melt down had numerous causes. One factor not highlighted in the news media was the institutional cultural bias which had been silencing or even emptying businesses of introverts: people who tend to favor cautiousness. Many spied rocky shoals ahead and rang warning bells only to be tossed overboard or shuttled below deck. “Go big or go home” was the catchphrase and millions of people paid for it – many by losing their home. Failure tends to make introverts increase their vigilance while having the opposite effect on extroverts.

Not only are introverted persons often excluded outright, but the pervasive practice of “Teamwork!” produces the same effect. Businesses aren’t pouring resources into employees learning “How to Work Effectively Alone” but “Designing Great Teams,” with all of its accompanying paraphernalia, vacuums up entire development budgets. Don’t get me wrong. Teamwork is vital. However, “Studies have shown that performance gets worse as group size increases: groups of nine generate fewer and poorer ideas compared to groups of six, which do worse than groups of four.” Schools, in their efforts to prepare students for the “real world” have adopted this mentality without necessarily learning whether it’s as beneficial as touted.

Just because something is customary doesn’t make it conclusive. Ubiquitous isn’t synonymous with valuable.

Entire curriculums are now designed to be completed in teams. Pity the introvert! But this bias isn’t new.

Next week we’ll look at how this mindset has and is impacting our schools and how educators can address this hidden inequity.

Oh, and the quiz? You’ll score a 100% with this answer: “These were all the brainchildren of introverts!”


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