Cognitive Dissonance: The Purpose of a Modern Education

By: Jennifer Nelson – 10/8/2019

 

Children in the United States have a variety of schooling experiences. Some are schooled in very loving and nurturing environments and others in what would be closer to a military academy. Some students are schooled in environments that are very academic and others in environments that are more based on creativity and innovation. Because there are so many different environments, it could be argued that there are many different functions.

THE THEORY OF FUNCTIONALISM

The theory of functionalism states that, “education serves in fulfilling a society’s various needs. Perhaps the most important function of education is socialization. If children need to learn the norms, values, and skills they need to function in society, then education is a primary vehicle for such learning” (Theoretical Perspectives on Education, 2010).

I would question if the author means the most important function is socialization, or if conformity is the most appropriate word because the author also states, “schools teach the three Rs, as we all know, but they also teach many of the society’s norms and values. In the United States, these norms and values include respect for authority, patriotism (remember the Pledge of Allegiance?), punctuality, individualism, and competition” (Theoretical Perspectives on Education, 2010).

Here is where I disagree. Socialization should teach kindness, diplomacy, and respect for all humans, not just ones in “authority.” Furthermore, individualism is not a value that is taught in the United States, unless it’s framed in the way that individuals must compete with one another to further their selfish motivations.

My disagreement is further fueled by this statement, “A second function of education is social integration. For a society to work, functionalists say, people must subscribe to a common set of beliefs and values. As we saw, the development of such common views was a goal of the system of free, compulsory education that developed in the 19th century” (Theoretical Perspectives on Education, 2010).

Of course, every system needs a basic set of rules and standards. Without this, there would be chaos. However, believing that people must think alike in order to interact in a productive manner is not something I agree with. That’s a very limiting belief that kills the innovation that functionalists say they want to bring about.

Furthermore, it’s the antithesis to individuality, creativity, and living in a peaceful and happy world. If your society can only “work” if everyone thinks alike, then there is a fundamental flaw. It shows a lack of respect, diplomacy, and self-control.

The author continues by saying, “social and cultural innovation is a fourth function of education. Our scientists cannot make important scientific discoveries and our artists and thinkers cannot come up with great works of art, poetry, and prose unless they have first been educated in the many subjects they need to know for their chosen path” (Theoretical Perspectives on Education, 2010).

How can one come up with innovative great works, if one is told that they must think like the group or else there is a problem? How can one come up with important discoveries if they are being told what to think, as opposed to being able to explore their own inner world? Furthermore, one doesn’t need to be formally educated in order to come up with great works because if a person is to bring out a great work, then they already have it within them.

SCHOOL SYSTEMS PROMOTE COGNITIVE DISSONANCE

Cognitive dissonance is defined as, “a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors. This produces a feeling of mental discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance. For example, when people smoke (behavior) and they know that smoking causes cancer (cognition), they are in a state of cognitive dissonance” (McLeod, 2008).

Therefore, when people say the purpose of education is to teach innovation and individuality, while at the same time they enforce policies and practices that stifle innovation and individuality – that is a state of cognitive dissonance.

Yet, I agree that the functional theory seems to be the main purpose of education. Therefore, if the functional theory is accurately described in this article, then I would argue that the purpose of education is to create cognitive dissonance in people so that they are easily controlled.

When people are easily controlled, they make good workers. If one explores the history of compulsory education systems, one will find that the purpose was to create good workers.

In the article, A Brief History of Education, Dr. Peter Gray states that in 17th century, Massachusetts became the first state to have compulsory schooling. The purpose of this was to ensure that children became good puritans (Gray, 2008).

Gray also states that employers believed that school could help to create better workers. He says, “To them, the most crucial lessons were punctuality, following directions, tolerance for long hours of tedious work, and a minimal ability to read and write” (Gray, 2008). He states how schooling was harsh and full of rote memorization, punishment, and force.

What have the results been? An article in the New York Post states, “We created an assembly-line system meant to churn out assembly-line workers…The bell rings, you move to where the schedule puts you, the bell rings again, you do as you’re told. Everyone gets processed in the same way, and at the end of the line you emerge with a certificate of quality” (Smith, 2014).


THE SOCIOLOGICAL FUNCTIONS OF SCHOOLING

Modern schooling also serves sociological functions. One of the sociological functions is to teach children separation as opposed to unity. In the United States, children are divided into grades based upon their ages as opposed to learning together with multiple ages.  Subjects are often taught separately, as opposed to a view that shows how all things are interconnected. Also, children learn that there is a separation between those with knowledge (teachers and administrators) and those who need knowledge (students).

It’s rare to find an environment where learning is a two-way street between the teacher and the student. It’s rare to find an environment where all ages of children learn together and from one another.  And it’s rare to find learning environments that integrate subjects in order to help the students gain a broader world view of how things all work together.

Income is also a factor of separation. Students are separated by household income, or school districts. This type of separation is so important that society is willing to send someone to jail if they try to send their child to a school that is perceived to be better than the one that matches their income.

For example, “Kelley Williams-Bolar served nine days in jail in 2011 after she was found guilty of using her father’s address instead of her own in an attempt to have her daughters enroll in a better school district than the Akron, Ohio, one they were slated for” (Daugherty, 2019).

Taking this even further, schooling teaches separation from the family unit. Anderson-Levitt writes, “In France, a low fence often surrounds urban elementary and pre-elementary schools, and parents turn over their children to teachers at the schoolyard gate. The fence, although not the high chain-link affair that one sees at some urban U.S. schools, functions symbolically to separate the children’s lives in school from their lives at home and in the neighborhood. I begin with a question about the schoolyard gate as a way to launch a reflection on what schooling means for children and for childhood. The question is, is the gate keeping children in or keeping children out?” (Anderson-Levitt, 2005).

I think the author asks a good question. What is the purpose of fencing children in? Furthermore, it makes me think of more separation. For example, sometimes children are kind, loving, and respectful towards their parents, and then they go to school and start to think their parents are idiots and their teachers know everything.

A lack of respect can also be shown towards teachers. There are many parents that don’t respect teachers, and they take an adversarial approach towards any feedback the teacher gives to their child. Worzel writes, “Next, parents and their attitudes have changed. If you got into trouble in class when I went to school, not only were you disciplined by the teacher (or worse, the principal), you got it double at home. That’s not always true today. Now many parents start with the assumption that their little darlings must be right, and therefore the teacher must be wrong. So they attack the teacher who had the temerity to discipline, or even give a poor grade to little Suzy or Johnny” (Worzel, n.d.).

Where people should be working together for the greater good and benefit of the child, it becomes a battleground due to these ideas of separation. When you are in battle, you come up with solutions that are based on fight-or-flight response which is not the best state to be in when one wants to make logical decisions.

“When someone experiences a stressful event, the amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. This area of the brain functions like a command center, communicating with the rest of the body through the nervous system so that the person has the energy to fight or flee” (Harvard Health Publishing, 2018).

This is important to note because Worzel also writes, “And the system works against teachers. Two generations ago, discipline could mean some form of humiliation (“Go stand in the corner.”), a smack on the hand with a ruler, or even being sent to the principal for the strap. Today, all of these are considered Dark Age remedies, and teachers are almost powerless in matters of discipline” (Worzel, n.d.).

Humiliation and smacking are not the antidote to a lack of respect. Power should never come from harming others. But when you are in a system with a foundation of separation and division, you become divided from your ability to think higher level thoughts.

EDUCATING FRAGMENTED SOULS

When everything is separated, or compartmentalized, you cannot be authentic because you don’t know who you are, you don’t know your purpose, and you don’t feel free to just be yourself. I would argue that another possible purpose of schooling is to set the foundation for living life as a fragmented individual.

It is seen perfectly normal for people to wear masks depending on where they are – This is my work mask, this is my school mask, this is my friend mask – this is seen as normal and healthy. There are many materials that teach people how to compartmentalize their lives. That is not healthy in my opinion because one can never reach wholeness if they spend their lives fragmented. I also find it interesting that compartmentalizing is often mentioned when discussing sociopaths and people with narcissistic personality disorder. Is this what we aspire to be?

“Invariably, online definitions describe compartmentalization as a defense mechanism that a person uses to keep certain beliefs and relationships separated from one another so that they don’t conflict. For those who are particularly good at it, like narcissists and sociopaths, it means being able to get away with just about anything including keeping one lover from ever finding out about another or from lies ever becoming truly tangled” (Ballard, n.d.).

Unfortunately, students are so busy memorizing and regurgitating facts that they don’t realize what values they are actually being taught. They don’t realize what they are being taught to value and devalue. They don’t realize how they are being taught to create a world that they may not actually enjoy living in. But who has time to think about that when the goal in life is to go to college and get a job?

WHAT ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF SCHOOLING?

One might argue that school is important for teaching the basics. After all, how can one go on to bring forth greatness if they don’t have a basic education? How can one make great scientific discoveries if they have not taken a basic science course?

There is also the issue of socialization. It could be argued that schools teach children manners and how to conduct themselves in society.

Teaching the basics is important. I would never want to give off the impression that I disregard that. However, people don’t create things just because they studied something in school. People create a lot of things because they saw a problem and wanted to know how to solve it.  They may get the foundational knowledge in school, or they may get it based on their own initiative and need to know. I feel it’s important to allow for both.

For example, how does someone create an app when they don’t know how to code? They find someone who does know, or they realize that they need to learn.

Mary Anderson invented the windshield wiper blades without being an automotive engineer. She saw a problem, and found a way to fix it. “Anderson observed that streetcar drivers often had to open their windows in order to see during inclement weather, sometimes even stopping the streetcar to go outside to clear the window. Her idea consisted of a lever inside the vehicle that controlled a spring-loaded arm with a rubber blade” (National Inventors Hall of Fame, n.d.).

Thinking that someone cannot make a meaningful contribution to a field because they did not learn a subject in school is a disadvantage in my opinion. It limits innovation, and leads to people to get in their own way due to learned helplessness.

I wonder how many wonderful ideas were tossed to the side by people who had great vision but decided to limit themselves because they didn’t learn something in school and they didn’t have the time or money to return to school.

My disagreement is not with the basic functions that schools can serve, my disagreement is with educational philosophies that are based on a gatekeeper mentality that sees itself as gracefully bestowing all knowledge upon its subjects that it wishes to oppress.

As for basic etiquette, or socialization, it may be taught in school, but it doesn’t always seem to stick. Perhaps it’s not enough to teach it in school. It has to be in the fiber of the society. It has to be taught everywhere so that people can learn by example.

For example, in Japan people are always on time because that’s how the culture works. It’s taught in school but it’s modeled in the society.

“But one particularly baffling element of Japanese life is society’s meticulous and painstaking attention to punctuality – as embodied by the nation’s entire transport system, which is so punctual you can normally tell the time by its arrivals and departures… Late trains are so unusual in Japan that when schedules are on rare occasions delayed, there is normally an immediate assumption that there has either been an earthquake or a suicide on the tracks” (Demetriou, 2019).

In the United States kindness and diplomacy may be taught in school, but I cannot say it is modeled in society as a standard. Therefore, school may be an important part of teaching these things, but perhaps it is not very effective in its current state. If these things are taught in school, yet concepts like “workplace bullying” exist, then there some sort of disconnect occurring, possibly due to the cognitive dissonance that is inherent in the structure.

RETHINKING OUR VALUES

I think the function and purpose of schooling should be to re-educate humans on actual human values that serve for making a better society for all. That includes the values of unity over division, compassion and empathy, harmlessness, becoming whole within oneself, and freedom.

Therefore, the purpose of education should be to realize the inherent problems in the current systems we subscribe to. Once that is all cleared up, then structures can be created where students can learn for the sake of learning so that they can bring out the best that they have within them.

 

Jennifer Nelson
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    References

    Ballard, Z. (n.d.) Narcissists & the Compartmentalized Life (Part 1/2). Retrieved from http://www.thenarcissisticpersonality.com/narcissists-compartmentalize/

    Daugherty, O. (2019. March 14). Story of mother sentenced to jail for enrolling child in different district resurfaced amid college scandal. Retrieved from https://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/434051-story-of-mother-sentenced-to-jail-for-enrolling-child-in

    Demetriou, D. (2019 September 24). Why is Japan so obsessed with punctuality? Retrieved from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/asia/japan/articles/why-japan-so-obsessed-with-punctuality/

    Gray, P. (2008, August 20). A Brief History of Education. Retrieved September 7, 2019, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/200808/brief-history-education

    Harvard Health Publishing. (2018 May 1). Understanding the stress response. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response

    McLeod, S. (2018). Cognitive Dissonance. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/cognitive-dissonance.html

    National Inventors Hall of Fame. (n.d.) Mary Anderson Windshield Wiper. https://www.invent.org/inductees/mary-anderson

    Smith, K. (2014 January 11). US education model creates assembly-line workers. Retrieved from https://nypost.com/2014/01/11/us-education-model-creates-assembly-line-workers/

    Theoretical Perspectives on Education. (2010). In University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing (Ed.), Sociology: Understanding and changing the social world. Retrieved March 3, 2018, from http://open.lib.umn.edu/sociology/chapter/16-2-sociological-perspectives-on-education/

    Worzel, R. (n.d.) Why Parents Don’t Respect Teachers. Retrieved https://teachmag.com/archives/128