On Conformity

Horace MannOn Conformity: Emerson and Thoreau Respond to Mann? (Comments prompted by Horace Mann’s On the Art of Teaching)

Born within a generation, living and working within 30 miles of each other, and publishing seminal works within a six-year period, Horace Mann, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau articulated viewpoints about a contentious American ideal that still, after 170 years, stokes and stimulates ongoing tensions. The conflict I’m referring to is that between the professed American celebration of individuality and the far more prevalent behaviors, whether dictated or chosen, associated with conformity.

I first became aware of conformity in high school. After surviving a car accident, I had a “born again” Christian experience and became active in an inter-denominational youth group in my small home town. Within months after my “re-birth” the talented members of the group performed a Christian musical, “Tell It Like It Is.” One of the more emotionally engaging numbers began with a robotic, yet melodic, refrain: Conform. Conform. I simply must conform! The scripture referenced in the song was Romans 12:2 which advised to “be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewal of you mind.”

I took that message to heart. Even though I chose to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy to play football, I didn’t necessarily see a conflict between my individuality on one hand, and the military regimentation and authoritative conditioning to follow orders, do your duty, and conform to the program.

However, by my junior year I began considering this conflict again, prompted by reading Emerson and Thoreau in an American Literature class. Subsequently, I tried to summarize my thoughts in a one-act play titled “The Unveiling of Ourselves.” Set as a Greek morality play, my hero (“YOU”) struggles to find himself and his own identity as he is pulled by the demands of his peers (“THE GROUP”) and the temptations of an attractive seductress (“WAYS OF THE WORLD”, or “WOW”). After surviving a literal tug-of-war between the two, YOU rejects both and, through the course of the play, is determined to exercise his own will and know himself. In the end, he “unveils” himself to the audience by stripping down to a large diaper, labeled “ME”.

What did Emerson and Thoreau have to say about this subject that prompted such introspection by a college junior? The two essays that most influenced me were Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” (1841) and Thoreau’s “Walden” (1846).

I found in Emerson a persuasive advocacy for what I would call responsible individualism. His self-reliance opposed conformity. He rejected the idea of accepting any law unless that law was in accordance to his own constitution. He warned about others who seemed to think they knew better for him than he himself. Despising consistency as a near-cousin to conformity, he observed that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” He warned that others will come to expect out of you only what your past has indicated, but you are under no obligation to appease their expectations.

Thoreau likewise advocated against conformity and the status quo of public thought. But the statements from “Walden” that especially resonated with me were those that celebrated the first person “I” and that person’s abilities, if exercised, to experience life fresh and new, without respect to others’ dictates or expectations. He forthrightly proclaimed within the first few paragraphs that he would, against convention, use the first person “I” liberally, reminding the reader that, after all, it’s always the first person speaking. And he acknowledged that all he can really know is himself through his own experiences, therefore his observations would be so limited. He decried the prejudices of the old and appealed to the young to forego them based on their own actual life experiences; “old deeds for old people, new deeds for new.” He advocated that individuals embrace life in all its aspects, to take on what he called the “experiment of living.” And he recognized the consequences of not following such an individually-adopted course in his oft-quoted observation that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Clearly, both Emerson (born in 1803) and Thoreau (born in 1817) were motivated by some urgent passion to advocate a new orientation for living, or world view, that seemingly was a radical departure from the then-current conventional ways of thinking. What type of public mindsets or worldviews were they reacting so strongly against?

I can only speculate, but I believe a case can be made that Horace Mann (born in 1796) can be considered a likely suspect. In 1840, after presiding over the nation’s first public, or common, school for just a year, Mann wrote On the Art of Teaching. While he did not specifically mention conformity, to my reading his words taken as a whole reflect an unmistakable disposition toward conformity as an unstated, yet not unwelcomed, consequence (if not intention) of his recommendations for teachers. Therefore I find it conceivable that Mann’s writings in 1840 could have at least partially motivated or fueled Emerson’s reactionary thoughts in 1841 and Thoreau’s in 1846.

Consider these four manifestations of conformance as I interpret Mann:

1.  Conformance to Authority (in defining what should be learned and known). Mann presumes a fixed, static and perfectly-knowable body of knowledge, as if all that needs to be learned can be bound by some previously-defined curriculum container (my term).

2.  Conformance to Process and Method. Mann exalts the efficiency and expediency of getting to the right answer in the prescribed manner, in the interests of time management. This attitude disregards the benefits to learners of pursuing and discovering alternative, creative, imaginative, or otherwise unique solutions. He reinforces the stifling and stagnating attitude that there is only one approved solution that we have used, and will always use.

3.  Conformance to Roles and Responsibilities. Mann’s approach completely compartmentalizes the role of the teacher as the dispenser of information, and that of the students as the receptacles for the information. The teacher teaches; the learners learn. Nowhere is this more evident than in his stern admonition to teachers to immediately correct any and every student mistake. Failure to correct, according to Mann, is considered equal to “wrong instruction.” If practiced, this approach denies the student the opportunity to exercise his or her own capabilities to critically discern what others say or write. It reinforces the authority and responsibility of the authority figure and dis-empowers the student.

4.  Conformance to Convention. Not surprisingly, Mann insists that teachers not allow any laxity in enforcing “proper” grammar, spelling, pronunciation, etc. While there is some benefit for individuals to comply with commonly-accepted language habits within a society, a slavish attention to the niceties of grammar, etc., — especially without any acknowledgement that every aspect of language is arbitrary at some level — further reinforces the false notion that such niceties possess an inherent “rightness.” This is but one case that illustrates how foolish conformities are justified: we must do it this way because it is (inherently) the right way.

This tension between conformity and individuality continues to play out across the American cultural landscape. While we maintain cultural icons of individuality — the rugged individual in John Wayne movies, the nostalgic romance of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, James Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause, or even the recently-deceased Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider — what perpetuates the icon is the fact that these characters remain the exceptions in our actual culture. For every “rebel” there are millions of [Men] in the Gray Flannel Suit; for every Kerouac there are too many Willy Loman’s (Death of a Salesman) to count. Thoreau’s “quiet desperation” is realized again and again with each new day.

One motivation for a ruling group to appeal for conformity is to avoid dealing with differences. This motivation, I believe, is one factor underlying the recently-passed anti-immigation law in Arizona. Though I’ve heard no analysis that attributes the dispute to conformity, I can speculate that much of the passion that’s driven Arizona lawmakers to enact this legislation arises not from the fact that the undocumented immigrants are illegal, but that they are different. They don’t conform to the way Arizonians talk, they don’t conform to the way Arizonians live and work, and they don’t conform to the way Arizonians dress (according to one lawmaker).

But could this prejudice, or insistence on conformity, be attributable to education? Are such attitudes taught? Are they biologically determined? Are they just absorbed? Can Mann and educators following his course be blamed, or absolved, for our current condition?

That examination must be deferred to another day and another paper. However, as a new UNM Lobo myself, I’ve observed some of the freshman orientation activities on campus this week. It might be worth reminding them that mascots are chosen for reasons. Lobos, or wolves, are one of those animals that can be considered as an icon for individuality, as in the “lone wolf.” Despite the romance of this notion, in the real world lobos and wolves are hunted, trapped, and apparently shot from helicopters because they don’t conform to the rules imposed by humans on their “domesticated” animals. Lobos don’t respect fences, don’t recognize property rights, and they don’t suppress their natural predatory tendencies. They conform to nothing other than their own natures.

Go Lobos.