In modern schooling we are expected, quite rightly, to consider the experience and needs of children with dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADD and other special educational needs. I think, however, that there is a much larger group of people (probably around half the population) who can very easily be marginalised and even oppressed by the contemporary educational experience. These people are introverts.
Most of us are aware of the basic difference between introverts and extroverts, even if we do not fully understand these differences. Put simply, an introvert is someone who is drawn to and energised by solitude and inner reflection and an extrovert is someone who is drawn to and energised by external stimulation. It is important to note that no-one is entirely one or the other, but that one or the other tendency is dominant in most people (although a few lucky souls are ambiverts). It is also important to note that the ageing process tends to ‘smooth out’ and camouflage the introversion or extroversion of most people. The introverted child is generally much easier to spot than the introverted adult.
In 2012 a one-time corporate lawyer called Susan Cain published a book called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Cain’s book was a global success, and has led, ironically, to a social media movement in celebration of introversion called The Quiet Revolution.
Like any work of pop psychology and cultural criticism, the details of Cain’s work are open to substantial criticism, but it’s basic arguments are powerful and have undoubtedly struck a chord with many people.
Among the main points put forward in Cain’s book, three stand out for me:
- Introversion and extroversion are core personality traits, meaning that experience and personal effort can only ever modify them to a degree. If an introvert tries too hard to be a ‘pseudo-extrovert’ they will suffer considerable loss of personal integrity and inner peace as a result
- At some point in the development of the modern capitalist world (Cain identifies the gilded age in the USA as the key turning point) socio-economic changes led to a traditional culture of character (prioritising duty, work, reputation, morals, manners and integrity) giving way to a culture of personality (placing greater value on attractiveness, charisma, energy and persuasiveness)
- Therefore, modern culture is both prejudiced against introverts and increasingly in danger of seriously undervaluing traditional notions of character
The fact that, regardless of intelligence, integrity or effort, introverts are at a disadvantage in the modern world seems to be borne out by a casual consideration of the rat race in all its forms. If we take the rather obvious and clumsy example of politics, consider the two least successful prime ministers of recent decades: Gordon Brown and Theresa May. What do they have in common? It’s nothing to do with policies or even circumstances. They are both introverts who have worked hard to thrive in what has become a dangerously extrovert milieu.
And, of course, the dominance of social media in modern communications also works against the introvert, making what T S Eliot called ‘this twittering world’ even more prone to favour personality and persuasive power over character and inner reflection.
What has all this to do with schooling? Quite a lot actually. Education is just as prone to cultural fashions and assumptions as any other field of life, and the modern school can be an environment that oppresses and marginalises the introvert, effectively treating an entire and essential pole of the human psyche as a problem to be overcome rather than as something to be nurtured and celebrated. Susan Cain goes so far as to say the values and priorities of contemporary culture have turned introverts into an oppressed minority.
Consider the introverted child who is constantly admonished by teachers to contribute more to class discussions, or forced into group activities. Consider also the contemporary emphasis (in the classroom as much as on the boardroom) on collaborative work and ‘brainstorming’. Many people maintain that this emphasis on group work is the only way to hold the attention of children when, in fact, it is almost tailor-made to alienate the introvert. What is the solution? Setting by Jungian character type? Probably not. More realistically, the point is that all children need to be exposed to and brought up to value both extroverted and introverted forms of working and living. A failure to strike this balance within schools will only make the growing imbalance in society at large even worse, and that could be very bad for the long-term health of our species.
The world needs extroverts and introverts, and the balance of these two types within our society and value system is as crucial as the balance of male and female. Schools are the repositories and transmitters of human capital, so they must pay close attention to this truth. In the last few decades, schools have spent a lot of time and effort thinking about how to make learning relevant and ‘stickable’ in an increasingly extroverted world. Perhaps it is time to fight against the tide, and make a noise for quiet people.