Female, bisexual, single, short; a writer, a sister, a friend: I ask, "Just how much does the social order affect who we are?" Today, society is one of the most crucial factors as to how our personality develops. Being different isn’t celebrated; those who look, act or express themselves differently are weeded out or forced to change. Only those who fit in may succeed, and it doesn’t matter who we are or who we want to be. From the very beginning of our childhoods, school comes into play and directs us to the path that fits its needs. Still, as we get older, we may try to break free from this directed path and expand our minds to what lies beyond society’s rule. We then may manage to be a part of the community without losing ourselves to the edu-cage-tion machine and become more than just another gear that helps it turn.
Competitive, grade-centric, power hungry, materialistic, attention-seeking, afraid, obedient, approval addicted: I, like everyone else, was raised to be this way and to follow the conventional path that would decide what I’d become. This was the case until middle school, where I slipped into a deep depression that I couldn’t bring myself out of. It wasn’t until I stopped going to school completely that those around me noticed something was wrong. Only when I stopped functioning in class did everyone see there was a problem. Throughout long, pressing hours with therapists, I was allowed to express myself as long as I didn’t step outside the borders they had drawn for me. I was permitted to speak until the clock ran out and then I was told to attend school and given some pills to numb me of any and all emotions which led me to a single conclusion: none of these adults actually cared if I was depressed or not because they had the medicine to take care of that. What they cared about was whether or not I was going to class and learning how to work for the benefit of society. I wasn’t a person who needed their support; rather, I was a rusted gear slowing down the machine.
Restrictive, demanding, disconcerting, unmotivating, unethical, unimaginative: The educational system in our country has become a factory meant to produce well-oiled cogs for gears that will eventually come to function within the machine known as modern civilization. No longer are schools focused on educating the youth but rather about developing young minds into something the rest of civilization can benefit from. The system strips away our individual identities by placing us into the educational funnel early within our lives, teaching us how to do the same things in the same way, so that each of us can serve as a gear in the machine. In Plato’s Allegory of The Cave, he demonstrates the ignorance that society breeds. People are chained up in a cave, forced to look only one way all their lives, shown only the shadows of puppets projected upon a wall. They’re unable to understand the rest of the world because they’ve only been taught to see things in a single way all their lives. The educational system is the same, providing standardized tests that force students to do and see things a single way. This method of learning erases any possibilities of developing individual identities or alternative forms of experiences. If we’re shown only one possibility in our lives, how could we know of all the other possibilities? “I don’t see how they could see anything else” (Plato). Much of who we are is the result of the overbearing control that society has held over us and how we develop our identities. This control is exposed to us through their education factories that sort us into groups that can benefit society and groups that cannot.
My own struggle with mental illness pushed me out of the mainstream factory and into a separate system for students who aren’t functioning properly. It didn’t take me long to realize that many of the students in this separate reality had given up on making anything of themselves in much the same way as the system had given up on them. I wondered how were we supposed to believe in ourselves when society didn’t. Although my program was custom-made for students struggling with mental illness and advertised itself as helping students with mental illness graduate, it was no more than a facade for those who looked in on the program. We students knew better. We would never again be a part of the machine. We were broken and placed outside the system so that our disease of mental illness did not infect the rest of the machine that had been so carefully constructed. I had been released from the conventional machine and thrown into the box they kept in the corner for the rusted gears who threatened productivity.
Even teachers who tried to get our gears turning again had morale problems. Their help was soundless to us. Many times class was stopped because students had broken down from anxiety and then got into screaming matches over due dates, their faces turning red and tears often streaming down their cheeks. We were scared we wouldn’t be able to live up to the standards teachers expected us to reach. Some students simply couldn’t handle being within the classroom setting and were led elsewhere. Wade, a close friend of mine in the program, once exploded after a teacher had confronted him over some missing work. He couldn’t find it and the teacher said if he didn’t get it done he’d fail. Slowly I watched as his anger and frustration built; even the teacher recognized that, but it hadn’t been enough. In a moment of rage Wade slammed his hands on the desk and started yelling at the teacher. When he realized he couldn’t win, he stormed out, striking the wall so hard that the next time I saw him I couldn’t help but joke that he probably broke it. Despite it being one of the most terrifying events during my time in the program, I was more concerned with how he was feeling than scared of the violence he expressed in that moment. To see him break down as all of us had done in one way or another was itself very instructional. We were certainly grappling for something to ground us, unsure of what lay beyond the machine that had raised us.
To not function within society is different for those who find themselves with an illness or impairment. Our utilitarian, technocratic society is shaped specifically to eradicate any need to move past the fourth stage of Lawrence Kohlberg's moral development where an “individual is oriented toward authority, fixed rules, and the maintenance of the social order” (Kohlberg). I had been kicked off the assembly line and refusal to stay within this stage. Even worse, I was moving beyond it, questioning, reaching out, and defying society’s narrow conformist game. I didn’t like being alone, but after being with only myself as company, I was able to find my own identity. I had to understand that the school system wasn’t in place to teach us but to mold us. Once this realization took hold, I stopped feeling as though I had been thrown out and more like I had been liberated. Still, this liberation did not quench my longing to be included.
For those trying to re-enter society, it is a whole new challenge of having to alter one’s identity so that it will conform with everyone else’s. Gloria Anzaldua speaks knowingly on the issue of identity as a Chicana in “How to Tame A Wild Tongue.” She tells of how her culture developed from the need to find its own identity since they were no longer considered Spanish after having to conform to American mores. The very culture she had changed herself to be a part of refused to accept her because of her Spanish heritage. To push the boundaries even further, she was an outspoken lesbian who wasn’t afraid to "untame" her tongue and lash out to be heard. Even with this constant fight for freedom and rights, people outside of the machine will be forced to change themselves so that they may fit into it. Now as a college student, I find myself being trained to do nothing more than make money, pushed with the need to pay off society for all it has done for me. I’m expected to get to class, get good grades, get a degree, and then get a job. From there, I will work until my life nears an end, all for the benefit of society.
When we first enter into the world, we do not know who we are or what we’re meant to do. The machine takes advantage of this innocence, trying to make us into something that they can use for themselves. However, as Alan Watts reminds us in The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, "We do not ‘come into’ this world; we come out of it" (Watts); the machine makes us into who we are, but this does not mean that it is all we are.
The system leaves little room or time for us to find ourselves for it is not designed for us to know that we are more than just gears spinning for its benefit. However, despite its attempt to stop us from searching for our individuality, we long to develop ourselves, to discover who we are beyond the spinning gears bolted in that single space of the machine. No human being wants to be just be another cog; we can’t help but want to free ourselves from the ignorance the system breeds. What those nuts and bolts fail to realize is that the individual is stronger than the machine. With the freedom to express ourselves and think differently than others, society is able to grow and expand.
Every person experiences life differently, and each person thinks differently. Expecting us to conform to become “just another brick in the wall,” as Pink Floyd once sang out on the album known as The Wall, is outrageous. Roger Waters cried out, “We don’t need no education. We don’t need no thought control” (Waters, 5). He attacked the system and brought to light the war we face at freeing ourselves from society’s control just as so many did before him and so many will continue to do. The educational system under the rule of the machine erases any chances for growth, especially the ambition to become more than what it made us. “All contain the power to reinvent ourselves and create a new, empowered identity that expands what is possible in our lives” (Robbins).
Individuality is one of the key tools that allows everyone to grow as a community as well as a person. The freedom to express who you are should be something that is supported, not hidden, nor mocked. We shouldn’t fear what makes one of us different from another. Accepting each person’s individuality can bring everyone together, for our differences are what makes us strong. We shouldn’t need to conform to be accepted. No matter how different two people may be, "Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you" (Whitman). We are all the same people, no matter how different each individual may be we are still the same. Why not celebrate what makes us different? Why not accept that we are all separate beings and stop throwing others away because they’re not like ourselves? Although society will try and conform us, we must recognize that we have our own identity.
Free thinking, insightful, compassionate, intelligent, caring, transformative: From where I stood outside the machine, I saw no rusted gears. I was told that I was rusted, that I could no longer function within the rest of society and yet here I am. I stand within society, but I am no longer a rusted gear that had been tossed out, nor am I a functioning gear within the machine. I am myself, capable of living within society without allowing it to control who I am.
Anzaldua, Gloria. How to Tame a Wild Tongue. Web.
Kohlberg, Lawrence. "Stages of Moral Development According to Kohlberg." Encyclopedia of Educational Theory and Philosophy Pennsylvania State University. Web. 4 Mar. 2016.
Robbins, Anthony. "The Meaning of Life: Finding Your True Identity." 29 July 2013. Web. 02 Dec. 2015.
Sheehan, Thomas. Plato THE ALLEGORY OF THE CAVE, Web.
Waters, Roger, and David Gilmour. The Wall. Pink Floyd. Sony Music Entertainment, 1979. CD.
Watts, Alan. The Book: On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. (1973).
Whitman, Walt. "Song of Myself (1892 Version)." Poetry Foundation. Web. 04 Dec. 2015.