|Individualism versus Collectivism at NCSSM|
I initially gave this post the title "Conservatism versus Progressivism at NCSSM" but realized that does not really describe the contrast as well as the final working title "Individualism versus Collectivism at NCSSM." The former has much "loaded language" whereas the latter does not. This is a very broad topic and hard to convey to students not already exposed to the contrast. So I will make an attempt at a concise treatment and its relevance to those entering the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM) though it has applications to academia in general. I base this post on my experiences as an NCSSM student 1982-84 and my subsequent reviews of the ongoing evolution of the school and its students.
Much of the public discourse today from the classroom to the boardroom contains many assumptions about human nature and government that go largely unchallenged. Phrases like "the general welfare" have their roots all the way back to the Constitution itself. Debates become mired in deadlock because few have the ability or courage to challenge these assumptions openly. In addition, "loaded language" buzzwords like "conservative," "liberal," "libertarian," and others have changed meanings radically over time. For instance, "classical liberal" means a viewpoint quite different from "progressive liberal." I have no doubt that others in this forum will even argue with me about that preceding statement. This is my point. Any discussion that has any hope of making progress toward a productive resolution, i.e. a new insight that illuminates the subject for all participants, requires clear and common definitions of key terms in the minds of those participants.
Students entering NCSSM will not only find their academic skills challenged harder than they have ever previously experienced, but will also find their core values challenged. This happens because of the great diversity of the student body and the faculty. The typical rural high school in North Carolina likely has a much more homogeneous composition due to geographical limitations than an urban high school. But even urban high schools with advanced courses still suffer from the limitations intrinsic in the nature of public schools, meaning they will be filled with people of "average" intellects and backgrounds. The typical NCSSM "well above average" intellect makes relating to "average" people quite difficult. While the "highly gifted" student has highly abstract thoughts like the space-time continuum lurking through his mind constantly, the "average" student's thoughts more likely revolve around more immediate and concrete issues like the athletic continuum or the beauty contest continuum. The resulting social disconnection and consequent sense of isolation and loneliness serve as a major motivator to apply to NCSSM.
This brings me to the subject of religion. The overwhelming numbers of North Carolina residents identify with the Christian faith and at least pay lip service to traditional conservative values such as straight marriage, monogamy, moderation in drinking, lawfulness, etc. Notice I said "identify" and "lip service" since clearly many do not "practice what they preach." Nevertheless, at the ballot box, these values make themselves known repeatedly. The recent passage of Amendment One to the North Carolina State Constitution formally defining marriage as one man and one woman show this conclusively. In that sense, the state population plainly shows itself as leaning strongly "conservative" meaning "contrary to change against tradition" for better or for worse. On the other hand, the 61% passage of Amendment One shows a substantial minority with a contrary viewpoint.
These observations bring me to the point of this post. Anyone raised with "conservative" values opting to attend NCSSM had better come prepared for major culture shock. The school has many students, arguably a majority of them, whose values run counter to that tradition. Much of this counter-culture comes from the international backgrounds of those students, e.g. nations in the Middle and Far East. Even those from families with multiple generations in North Carolina often have values that run contrary to the majority, e.g. the stereotypical "far-left, hippie, tree-hugging queers," to use loaded language again. Those conservatives who encounter these contrary viewpoints unprepared will have to face them in person around the clock. Therein rests the challenge. An ordinary high school at least gives a psychological break after hours for the student to recover from the trials of the day. A boarding school offers no such relief. The same person with whom you engaged in an acrimonious "classroom discussion" earlier in the day might be your own roommate or hall mate or even have an authority position over you such as Residential Life Assistant (RLA). Does this prospect excite or drain you emotionally?
Perhaps more importantly, the "traditionalist" viewpoint represents, in my opinion, a minority one at NCSSM. So while you may have enjoyed at least some connection with your peers at this "sense of life" level at your old high school, you may find yourself suddenly feeling socially disconnected, isolated, and lonely at NCSSM in new and highly unexpected ways. With this in mind, it should become crucially important to you to identify clearly to yourself your core values, i.e. your fundamental "sense of life" philosophy, and, more importantly, how you came to draw those conclusions. This means becoming even more introspective and inquisitive and mercilessly judgmental of the contents of your own mind.
Philosophy, the integrative discipline that studies existence and man's relationship to it, evolved from the earliest religions as a more methodical and rational approach to explaining human experience. Coming after religion and before science, the discipline sought answers to the five "Big Questions" of life in their respective areas:
Metaphysics: What is out there?
Epistemology: How do I know it?
Ethics: What should I do?
Politics: What may I do?
Aesthetics: What might and ought I become?
Notice the key term "I" in each of these questions. Critics will charge me with language loading even for my use of capital "I" as a common subject for each question. Nevertheless, by my own chosen standards, this question collection represents the most effective way to convey my point, namely that anyone who identifies with any label or viewpoint needs to ask these questions and begin cultivating well-reasoned answers in order to experience a flourishing life worthy of living.
Any student considering NCSSM needs to understand that the packed schedule of NCSSM allows very little time or "excess mental capacity" for investigating and answering these questions independently. In a downright cultish fashion, the brutal NCSSM schedule keeps students "broke and busy" around the clock. Given the vast predisposition of academics into the "progressive" camp, "conservative" leaning students need to practice a special vigilance in their personal scholasticism given the dearth of such resources at NCSSM. This means acting now on your time and not waiting until "stress time" to pull your ideas together into a cohesive and defensible whole. Understand that ultimately you must defend your ideology to your own satisfaction just to live well but might have to work much harder to defend it to the satisfaction of professors assigning grades to your papers or to the peers arguing with you in "class discussions." Moreover, few people ever have their minds changed against their will, so accept that discussions can reach a certain point where even if you feel satisfied, your opponent never will, and your goal is simply to earn "class discussion" points, not to win arguments with others. You only need to argue and win with yourself to be happy.
To get you started, I recommend Philosophy: Who Needs It by Ayn Rand. Love her or hate her, she will make you think about these deep questions of life. As a radical individualist, she saw the individual human life as ultimately an end in itself, not the means to the ends of others. Contrast her view with the collectivist views of both "conservatives" and "progressives," both types who too often cheerfully sacrifice the individual and his property to nebulously defined "greater good" causes. As Ayn Rand would ask: "Good – to whom? Good – for what purpose?" Begin investigating these ideas well before NCSSM so you can at least make better oral and written arguments at NCSSM. If you can articulate your own philosophy concisely as a "personal mission statement" a la Sean Covey in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens," so much the better. Prepare to exchange ideas well into the night in dormitory discussions with classmates. This core contrast explains the title of this post. As I will show later, my own choice to embrace Ayn Rand's philosophy, Objectivism, will explain my ultimate disappointment with the toll of time on my many classmates both old and new.
Now I will share some candid observations and strictly my own opinions. Those who identify themselves as "conservative" tend to stick with proven traditions and the "risk-averse" path to life. Those who identify themselves as "progressive" tend to investigate new ideas and apply them without necessarily doing a full and rational investigation of those ideas and their merits, preferring instead an "experimental" approach to see if they work. The "highly inquisitive" nature of the gifted mind might explain the reckless "social experiments" I saw at NCSSM in terms of the usual adolescent testing of boundaries such as underage drinking and fornication, often to the detriment of those involved. Notice that both approaches have their benefits and risks. Conservatives can miss opportunities for beneficial changes long overdue while progressives can miss opportunities to assess and mitigate risks before their "experiments" explode in their faces. Regardless, much of a person's "personal identity" has already formed before entry to NCSSM and threats to that "sense of self" can shake the soul of the unprepared.
Now for long list of provocative questions only you can answer:
How do you intend to deal with people very different from yourself? How do you intend to deal with an administration that stuffs a "Student Handbook" so full of rules and regulations that you feel like a micromanaged refugee in an "intellectual concentration camp"? Are there traits common to all humanity around which you can build meaningful working relationships and lasting friendships? Do you even need to do so? Does your idea of "challenge" include social challenge or mere academic challenge? Might staying in your current high school to save your brain power exclusively for AP and dual enrollment courses better serve your future? Are your brain and personal energy reserve prepared for the piranha attack of the NCSSM social environment? Would you do better to stay put and focus on earning college credit at the expense of potential lifelong friends of similar intellectual caliber? Can you really be friends with people so different from yourself? Would you benefit from making an extra effort where you are now to relate to people in your own vicinity based on their "less than intellectual" terms?
If I had to name a single disappointment in the many years since I graduated NCSSM, it came in October 2009 at my 25th graduation reunions at both my old high school and NCSSM. I called it "Journey to the Lands of the Pod People" because of the stark contrasts between myself and both class compositions. My "conservative" old high school classmates had evolved mainly into "Jesus freaks" while my "progressive" NCSSM high school classmates had evolved primarily into "Obama freaks." My entry into Facebook to reconnect with them prior to the reunions led to arguments and "Unfriend" exchanges that left me feeling burned – right, but burned. As the Thomas Wolfe novel says, You Can't Go Home Again. So if you go to NCSSM, expect to incur this type of risk.
In conclusion, take the time now to form a well-reasoned personal philosophy while understanding the viewpoints of its opponents. This will prepare you for the wildly diverse population of NCSSM and the "challenges" both real and fabricated that the school offers. In terms of the perspectives of individualism versus collectivism, many other cultures hew to the latter much more than do Americans. Books about global culture and business such as Riding the Waves of Innovation: Harness the Power of Global Culture to Drive Creativity and Growth by Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner show how to make the most of the strengths of both viewpoints to help teams to set and achieve worthy goals productively. The best NCSSM students will proactively seek these resources to prepare to harvest the best NCSSM has to offer while mitigating risks against the school's worst aspects. Likewise, even those who choose to forego NCSSM in favor of local opportunities will benefit from these exercises. College and "real life" itself offer many of the same strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats as NCSSM. The sooner the student acts to acquire new and relevant knowledge, the better prospects for success that student will enjoy.