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Why Questioning 'The System' Should Be The New Social Norm

10/11/2016 16:21

Albert Einstein once said "The important thing is to not stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing."

So many of us are depressed, distressed and distraught at the social crisis that seems to have crept up on the UK. We, as a nation, seem to be anti-everything and everybody right now.

And to make matters much much worse, amongst the sea of negative, battling voices arguing about everything from how many asylum seeking children we should take, whether they really are children and who's going to take them, to whether there's a legal case to challenge the Brexit vote, I can hear no strong voice to counter the mayhem - where is the literal voice of reason?

Staggeringly, in the US Donald Trump has filled that vacuum, whether good or bad remains to be seen. And in the UK it's been filled by infighting and territorial land grabs (naming no names, Nicola Sturgeon).

But underlying the chaos and seemingly "left field" decisions being taken in the recent months there is an undeniable groundswell of dissatisfaction coming from the West which cannot now be ignored.

And if we look for clues as to the deep rooted predisposing factors contributing to our current social crisis we need to take a look at our children and schools and the prevailing social norms that mean rational, caring parents abandon instinct and rely on the authority of "the establishment" to shape our children's sense of self - and therefore self-worth.

We teach children to conform, to adhere to a desired set of behaviours and attainment within a narrow spectrum defined by a non-divergent establishment narrowly focused on academic development and performance.

And as parents, we accept - mostly without question - and reinforce this outmoded uniform view of the world ("do your homework, "don't answer back") and of people (identifying "head" girls and boys)... there is a right way and a wrong way, an in or out approach.

This to my mind, is a predisposing factor to the intolerance of difference - of drawing a line around our "tribe" and identifying others as outsiders. Where do we teach and reinforce the value of difference, of divergent thinking?

My daughter was recently chastised for questioning a teacher - a trait I encourage and applaud but it's winning her no friends. And it's that fearless curiosity and interest in difference that builds creative thinking and innovation. In a world that's changing at a pace and in directions no one can accurately predict surely these are the skills of the future?

So we need a movement of agitators, change agents and rebel parents everywhere to fill the void and articulate a different, divergent view of the world. To set a different example, to question and reject the social norms when they feel wrong and counter to our own values.

There's a very famous experiment first carried out in the 1960s that illustrated the power of peer pressure (or social norms). The Smoke Filled Room experiment involved students being brought into a waiting room - unaware of the true nature of the experiment - and with a number of "plants" also in the room who were in on the experiment.

As everyone waited, smoke began to fill the room but because the "plants" remained seated and unbothered by the seemingly dangerous situation unfolding almost everyone else followed suit. Amazingly, only 1 in 10 of the students waiting got up to investigate or call for help... the power of peer pressure is strong enough to suspend rationale thought and restrain our basic instinct to run from danger.

These are powerful forces at work so to buck the trend, speak up, put our heads above the parapet is asking a lot.

I know myself how easy it is to chastise my children because I've been embarrassed about something they've said or done in front of a teacher or group of parents - not something I'm proud of but I do at least recognise it in hindsight.

Children don't develop the social awareness and self-consciousness that fuel peer pressure until middle school years so they have a fantastic period of freedom to enquire, speak up and challenge unfettered by social norms.

Imagine how hard we have to work to preserve that instinct in children and moreover how much they could achieve if they retained and applied the skill into adolescence and beyond. Gang culture could be a thing of the past; bullying would have no place to fester and grow; instead self-assured openness to new experience, to new ideas and to new people would prevail. Now wouldn't that be better ?

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