Saturday, November 29, 2014

Attitudes toward introverts are disquieting

It’s Socratic Seminar day in my English class, and, incidentally, my worst nightmare.
The desks are arranged in a circle to better facilitate the group discussion, and the classroom is abuzz with the voices of my classmates, all piping up with their penetrating insights on the themes and symbolism of our assigned reading. Strangely absent from the discourse? Me.
Somebody far more articulate than I shares her observations on a recurring motif in the novel. I look into the notes I scrawled into my copy of “Pride and Prejudice” and find that I had produced a compelling counter-argument, replete with a gold mine of page numbers and textual evidence to use as support. Do I speak up? Do I regale the class with my literary prowess? Do I dare disturb the universe?
No, no and no.
Whoops, time’s up! I have gone the entire hour without so much as mumbling a word. In my head, I feel a pang of disappointment, which is only exacerbated when I check Pinnacle that night and discover that my class participation grade has plummeted.
If you can relate, odds are you, too, belong to the 40 percent of the U.S. population that identifies as shy, a state of inhibition faced when talking to new people or being plunked into unfamiliar situations.
This is not to be confused with introversion, a personality trait in which a person recharges by himself rather than with other people. There are plenty of introverts who are not shy, but I happen to embody both characteristics. And it’s become increasingly apparent to me that I typify the exact opposite of the bold, brash, extroverted ideal sanctified by American culture.
Shy introverts like me occupy one of the lowest rungs on the social desirability hierarchy, presumably above only psychopaths and people with really strong B.O.
As if it wasn’t enough that society’s inherent aversion to the quiet was codified into every social sphere, this prejudice is starting to seep into the educational system. Group work is held to the highest esteem in the classroom, with Socratic Seminars reigning as a beacon of group collaboration and exchange of ideas. Participation points are doled out as the supposedly “easy” grades, only to have an adverse effect on shy students’ academics and self-esteem.
            Teachers are well intentioned in their actions, of course. But too often they fail to realize they are alienating the more quietly inclined students by subjecting them to activities that are oriented toward more vocal students.
Likely, many of these teachers will contend that they are preparing students for a world that is not as forgiving to people who struggle to find their voice, and that these exercises prepare those students to be part of a work force where extroversion is nearly always a prerequisite.
But they’re wrong. Introverts can carve out a niche for themselves in the world, even if they have come to terms with their limitations.
I know that I have no business in a boardroom, that I should steer clear of a career in litigation. By forcing introverts to “fake it until they make it,” teachers are doing students a disservice by forcing them to change something that is inherent to their nature.
I’ve come to terms with the fact that my shyness is as unshakeable as a second skin. But there is no reason for my education to be assessed not by the quality of my ideas, but how loudly I am able to express them.

Who cares? I do.

Pop quiz: which disease has ravaged thousands of people this past summer?
           You could answer Ebola, an endemic that has infected over 3,500 people in western Africa. You could argue that the poisonous ideology espoused by ISIS in the Middle East is a sickness in itself. But if you are unable to answer anything at all, that may be a prime indicator that you are afflicted with an ailment of your own: apathy.
           We live in a world where most of us can recite biographical details of the extensive Kardashian clan with mechanized precision but hardly anyone cares enough to trudge through the name of one US Supreme Court justice. Today’s youth seems to have a predisposed aversion toward keeping up with current events (but not “Keeping Up With the Kardashians”). And this “I-don’t-know-so-I-don’t-care” attitude isn’t just disconcerting. It’s dangerous.
           Never has this been more evident than in 2014’s (sometimes literally) explosive summer of discontent. The current geopolitical climate is apocalyptic, with conflicts festering in Gaza, in Crimea, in Venezuela and in our very own Ferguson, Mo. Yet, tucked away snugly in the bubble that is Weston, too many students – and even some teachers – are shielded away from the weight of the world. To the vast majority of the student body, mentioning Boko Haram elicits nothing but puzzled expressions. Drone strikes in Syria? Students remain nonplussed. Orwellian privacy breaches by the NSA? What even is that?
           And this indifference isn’t unique to the Bay. In the national report card issued by the U.S. Department of Education, less than a quarter of high schools seniors were found to be proficient in U.S. history based on an exam administered to 12,000 12th graders. A study by the Pew Research Center produced equally disquieting results: only 14 percent of young people aged 18-29 could identify John Boehner as the Speaker of the House, and just 7 percent knew the inflation rate of the U.S. These respondents are eligible to vote, yet they could not summon so much as a cursory understanding of the U.S. political system.
           Not that the new wave of youth can be counted to participate in elections. During the 2012 presidential election, only 45 percent of eligible voters below age 30 cast a ballot. Thirty years ago, in 1972, that number exceeded 66 percent of young adults. It’s understandable that the incoming generation of voters is weary of the politics – Congress did, after all, score lower in popularity than root canals, NFL replacement referees and Nickelback in a 2013 poll by Public Policy Polling – but that is no reason for more than half of young adults to shirk their civic responsibilities and act as dead weight in the democratic process.
           Apathy is nothing new, but the new strain introduced by millennials is especially worrying because they have unprecedented access to information. Technology today plunges users down a digitized rabbit hole of information and into a wonderland of more feeds, forums and factoids than any one person could possibly fathom.
           With all this available information, there is absolutely no reason for young adults not to know Baghdad is in Iraq and not Afghanistan (as 30 percent of students in a Kent State University study presumed). There is absolutely no reason for students to scratch their heads when asked about members of Obama’s cabinet. But much like ancient Romans were distracted from the world of their leaders with “bread and circuses,” it seems like technology is distracting students from global issues with cat videos or salacious stories of celebrities.
           If students don’t look toward the greater international community, they will never carve out a place in the world. This generation will fail to produce the inspired leadership to promote positive change in the world. Unless we are more finely attuned to the inner workings of the world, tomorrow will not see the leadership of Ghandis and Einsteins and Martin Luther Kings.  We’ll just be a nation of dummies.
           Apathy is a disease, though not in the same strain as Ebola. It’s not even in the same strain as senioritis, which also inhabits many students at the school but swoops away in time for college. But if left untreated, apathy only gets progressively worse, atrophying the brain until one totally withdraws from the world.