Here’s a little analogy I use to describe the basic social psychology of human beings. At the start of my Social Studies 9 course I sometimes describe the basic distinction between lions and tigers. Lions, I say, are social creatures. They are born, live, and die in a group (which we call the “pride”). A lion on its own will either find a new pride or die; it cannot, in most cases, survive in isolation. Tigers, on the other hand, are loners. They will find another tiger to mate, but even that is something of a necessary evil. They are single and solitary, and thrive in isolation.
Human beings are lions, not tigers.
Now technically, of course, we are neither lions nor tigers but primates, of the taxonomic family hominidae, which also includes chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas. It is a well-known fact that human beings are almost identical to chimpanzees on a genetic level; we share 98.8% of our DNA with chimps, with a mere 1.2% variation in the genetic codes between the two species. Yet what a striking difference that 1.2% makes: human beings write operas, fall in love, design nuclear reactors, make digital 3D action movies, vote in federal elections, and contemplate their own mortality. Beautiful and intelligent though they are, chimpanzees are, well, chimpanzees.
But aside from the power of the 1.2% difference, we share at least one significant trait with chimpanzees: far more than lions–or any other mammal–both humans and chimps desperately need social belonging for psychological health. It is woven into the fabric of our DNA to thrive in community and wither in isolation.
The New Republic recently published an incredible essay by Judith Shulevitz called “The Lethality of Loneliness.” It’s an example of journalism approaching an art form and I highly recommend anyone read it just for the quality of the prose alone (if you are interested, you can download a copy in PDF form from the “Texts (Downloads)” page of my website, under the “Student Resources” menu). It’s sobering reading.
See, the thing is, we always want kids to be individuals. Isn’t that the whole point of the “be yourself” cliché? We want kids to stand up, stand out, be strong, be counted, etc. etc. These are, of course, western values–teenagers in China, India, and Japan are far less concerned with being individuals. But regardless of where these values come from, there is a long and proud tradition of nonconformity in education. Think of Socrates, the original nonconformist, who paid the ultimate price for standing up against the ignorance and stupidity of his society. We rightly admire him as one of the greatest human beings who ever lived, and it is proper to pay great honor to his memory. And of course, we don’t have to look back 2500 years to find great examples of the importance of nonconformity.
I recently saw an outstanding documentary film about Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei (the film is called Never Sorry and I highly recommend it). Here is a contemporary Socrates, a brilliant man who boldly speaks truth to power and gladly accepts his status as an outsider. We need Socrates and Ai Weiwei and millions more like them.
On the other hand, I worry about teenagers who are poorly socialized, who sit alone, lost in their own creative endeavors or, more depressingly, their digital devices. Socrates was many things, but lonely was not one of them. He was a bold nonconformist but he attracted others who followed him bravely and proudly. Ai Weiwei is a living legend both in his native China and worldwide. He is commonly addressed as “teacher” by his adoring fans. When he eats a meal in a simple restaurant in Beijing he is joined by dozens of people who hang on his every word. My fear is that teachers in the west have spent too much time extolling the virtues of nonconformity but not enough on the necessity of integrating into society, of finding a healthy, loving, nurturing community. One that consists of real people, not digital ghosts on the internet. Socrates had a community, and does Ai Weiwei. But do lonely, alienated teenagers have a community that embraces them?
Perhaps as teachers our goal should be not to teach our students to never conform so much as to teach them how and when to conform, to teach them that even the strongest nonconformist needs friends and companions.
If only Confucius, the greatest philosopher in the east, could have met Socrates, his counterpart in the west. Knowing the work of Confucius as I do, I suspect he would have suggested that Socrates spend less time criticising his society, and more time trying to find his place in it.
I’m not suggesting that Confucius would be correct in saying this; rather, I suspect the truth lies somewhere between these two great men.