Individualism and Conformity

So this last week I’ve been rereading Organization Man and also thinking a bit about the effects of the Chinese educational system (two different, unrelated, bits of my research).  I know this may seem like yet another instance of thinking about China as being in the 1950s, something I’ve posted about before. I recognize that this kind of thinking is potentially reductionist and can lead to completely misunderstanding the real situation, but bear with me nonetheless.  In the 1950s US, part of the anxiety about conformity and the power of the organization was framed in cold war terms: individualism was equated with capitalism, freedom, the American way of life, and there was a fear that the conformity of the suburbs and the grey flannel suit came too close to the conformity of communism, groupthink, and Mao suits. So this got me to thinking about conformity and individualism in my students and the ways that they approach learning.

One of the experiences that we have had, particularly in urban planning, where students do a great deal of group work, is that our students for the most part do not know how to work in groups because this is not a skill that they have lived in school, and of course most of them are only children and thus haven’t learned the skills of compromise and negotiation involved in being a sibling.  Unlike teams of American students, Chinese groups seem to often pick a leader and then assign tasks, turning much of the group work into individual assignments. Chinese students’ lack of training in cooperation became particularly clear to me when I chaperoned Ben’s school trip to the arboretum, where he and his fellow elementary school students went to a series of stations and had to solve various problems, each of which required cooperation.  The most striking of these was a puzzle where five of them stand on a bathrug and need to flip over, but without any of them stepping off of it.  I watched them propose various solutions and convince their teammates to try them.  Then I went into school where students in my class were to work together to measure and draw a section.  One student came to me and said “my team member was really bossy and I can’t take it so Ieft.”  I realized that as far as cooperation skills went, I might as well have been teaching kindergarten.

But we also think of Chinese students as conformist, shaped by group recitation and mass exercise, like this synchronized basketball practice that’s been making the rounds on social media.

Certainly the range of clothing styles worn by Chinese students is much narrower than those worn by their American counterparts, although not without its charms.


In school, Chinese students have been taught that there is one right answer, and that their job is to memorize that answer and repeat it. We have interesting discussions with them in the Student-Staff meetings; they tend to talk about quantifiable “knowledge” while we reply with talk of critical thinking, skills, and frameworks.  Grading exams you sometimes feel as if there is rampant cheating because you get so many identically worded answers.  They have each, however, individually memorized the “correct” answer (probably derived from a combination of handouts, class notes, and a study session led by the student deemed to be the best) and written it down verbatim.  It is not that they are not creative and critical, because they are, but they have been educated in a system that has taught them to minimize their individuality as the independently compete to be the verifiable best at a clearly defined, identical task.

This kind of competitive individualism may be a good fit with Chinese capitalism, capitalism with Chinese characteristics.  Hard work, following a formula, copying perfectly, these are popularly seen as the hallmarks of Chinese business.  But looking at my students through the lens of the organization man, I wonder whether all that suppressed imagination will flower out into their own version of the West’s countercultural revolution of the 1960s.


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