In primary school, I didn’t have a name.
I was a number.
In Turkey, where I grew up, each student was assigned a number in first grade, not unlike how livestock are branded for identification purposes. My primary school teacher didn’t call us Ahmet or Ebru. We were 154 or 359.
We wore the same outfits to school–a bright blue uniform with a crisp white collar–and the boys all had the same short haircut.
Each school day, we recited the national anthem, followed by the standard “student oath”:
I am a Turk, honest and hardworking. My principle is to protect the young, to respect the old, to love my homeland and my nation more than myself. My ideal is to rise, to progress.
O Great Atatürk [founder of Turkey]. On the path that you have paved, I swear to walk incessantly toward the aims that you have set.
My existence shall be dedicated to the Turkish existence. How happy is the one who says “I am a Turk!”.
The message is unmistakable: Subjugate yourself, repress your distinctive qualities, and embrace conformity for the greater good.
The task of enforcing conformity eclipsed all other educational priorities. In fourth grade, I once committed the grave sin of skipping a haircut, which immediately drew the ire of my school principal, a bulldozer of a man better suited to be a prison warden. He spotted my longer-than-standard hairdo during one of his “inspections,” borrowed a hair clasp from a female student, and put it on my hair as an act of public shaming, a retribution for nonconformity.
All students across Turkey took a standardized test in fifth grade where their future hung in the balance. The higher your score, the higher the quality of the middle and high school education you would receive, which, in turn, affected your college prospects and career trajectory. Stressed out and overwhelmed ten-year-olds showed up to this exam, with their # 2 pencils in hand, ready to showcase the only skill that mattered: rote memorization and the ability to regurgitate everything from dates of important battles in Turkish history to the crops grown in the Black Sea region.
This educational upbringing is the primary reason for my obsession with contrarian thinking. Writing about nonconformity and highlighting the virtues of standing up for what you believe even when the majority screams “That’s bad!,” is the best way I know how to combat the conformist tendencies deeply ingrained in me at a formative age.
The Turkish case is an extreme, dangerous example of what can happen when the same type of conformity that exists in an army barracks is transplanted into schools.
The pressure to conform may be more subtle in the American educational system, but it’s still unmistakable. As Seth Godin explains, the public school system in the United States was designed to churn out compliant industrial workers, not to inspire individuals to dream big and challenge the way things are.
School taught us obedience, compliance, and fitting in, so we could properly operate the assembly line in a dingy factory for six days a week at a lousy wage.
You recited the Pledge of Allegiance–the American version of the Turkish student oath–lockstep with your fellow factory workers-in-training, hand over heart. If you didn’t do what you were supposed to do, you ended up in the principal’s office. If you didn’t conform, you had to repeat a year.
You were brainwashed from an early age to toe the line, use # 2 pencils to regurgitate memorized answers on standardized tests, and to color between the lines.
Good boy. Good girl.
Conformity in the educational system saved us from our worst tendencies, those pesky individualistic ambitions to dream big and devise interesting solutions to complex problems. The students who got ahead weren’t the contrarians, the creatives, the revolutionaries. Rather, you got ahead by endearing yourself to your teachers and pleasing the authority figures, fostering the type of subservience that would serve you well in the industrial workforce.
Conformists played happily ever after in the Garden of Eden. The contrarians fell.
Here’s the problem: The Industrial Age is long gone. This is the Information Age, but our school system is lagging far behind. The workers we’re still producing to thrive in the Industrial Age wither in the Information Age.
We have a choice.
We can continue to make school the breeding grounds for compliance and conformity and require our teachers to be risk-averse gatekeepers with little imagination confined to teaching for standardized tests.
Or we can radically rethink our approach to education and turn school into a haven of creativity that produces—not cogs in the wheel—but empowered creators encouraged to dream big, challenge assumptions, and actively shape a rapidly evolving world.