When I was twelve, my mom took me out of public school and homeschooled me. I chose my own reading list and learned all I could about politics, law, and history. Eventually my mom didn’t have to call meetings at the kitchen table to check on my progress. I wanted to learn — and I wanted to arrive at my own conclusions.
Outside the constraints of public school, I was free to think. Two years later, I returned to public school to make new friends. I ended up making very few. I couldn’t stand public high school and did everything I could to limit my time there. I was homeschooled for some classes, participated in a charter school program, and spent afternoons at a vocational school. School wasn’t about learning; it was about fitting in to maintain a status quo. Though I was full of opinions, I didn’t have an outlet to voice them.
During college, I found ways to express my views and met like-minded friends through political activism. Then a curious thing happened: I no longer felt silenced by an institution — but by my own peers. Students often groaned and whispered to one another when I raised my hand in class. Although it didn’t prevent me from being one of the few students to offer my opinion during lecture, I felt pressured to keep my mouth shut.
Professors at my university tried desperately to invite interaction from students, only to receive blank stares in return. Noting the lack of conviction from students, one professor commented that my generation may be referred to in the future as “Generation Silent.” Students were upset by his observation, but couldn’t explain why they disagreed. At that moment, I questioned whether they were actually comfortable with their silence — or if they were just well trained.
Then I thought back to my experience in public school.
In public schools, knowledge is mostly force fed, to be easily digested by gullible minds without objection. Through dumbed-down class material and standardized test preparation, students are taught to memorize facts rather than to recognize patterns. Instead of exploring matters of principle, students learn about rules. Students are trained to accept ideas without reason, and submit to authority without question. Asking too many questions or offering a differing viewpoint is risky. Remaining silent and adopting commonly held views is safe.
After years of public education, is it any wonder why people struggle to formulate their own opinions?
Just as there are rules to be followed in school, there are rules set by lawmakers to be followed in society. In school, even if the rules are silly or irrelevant, students must comply or they are subject to detention. In our society, people are more concerned with obeying laws than with questioning whether those laws are ethical or constitutional. Deception from politicians who follow party lines is tolerated, while the honesty of politicians like Ron Paul who don’t follow party lines is considered radical.
If we continue to accept the status quo without question, there will be no more patriots to fight for the principles that our country was founded upon. America is not a free nation because its people have always accepted established rules; America is a free nation because courageous individuals have challenged those rules.
Emily O’Neill graduated magna cum laude from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in Communication. After graduation, she moved to the D.C. area for an internship with Young Americans for Liberty and later accepted a position on Capitol Hill as press secretary for Congressman Justin Amash. She currently serves as the press liaison for a non-profit organization. Follow her on Twitter.