One in a Crowd: Group Culture vs. Individualism

            I remember the first time my kids had a big group of school friends over to our house in Buenos Aires – they were in 4th grade. There were about 10 kids sitting in a circle on our rooftop terrace mulling over what to play. I stood and spied at the door, amazed at how civil they were about their negotiations, how seriously they took it! And from what I knew so far about their new school, I thought ‘How wonderful that they should foster such a spirit of cooperation.’ I sensed I was seeing the effects of their new school culture playing out directly in their social lives.  I left them alone to play and came back to check on them about 20 minutes later. To my surprise, they were still seated in the same circle, but there was some arguing going on by then about what they were going to play: jump rope, la mancha, twister, etc. So I stepped in to mediate and pointed out that there were enough of them to break into smaller groups so everyone could play what they liked. They all looked up at me with perplexed faces until one spoke up: “What’s the point of getting together if we’re not going to all play the same thing?” Hard to know what to say to that.

Then again, I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised if I think about how groups of Argentine adults socialize. Have you ever been at a party where Argentines predominate and somehow you find yourself in a circle in which all present participate in the same conversation, whether there are 5 or 25 of them? You really have to be assertive – not always easy to maneuver linguistically, regardless of how well you might speak Spanish. In terms of discourse, English-speakers tend to have two-way or very small groups conversations, which ensures that all present can make their individual points – stand out and make themselves heard, so to speak. But in the multi-player Argentine version, the numbers have a dimming effect on most of the speakers who don’t happen to be “big” personality types, so it’s kind of hard for all 25 to shine. I often find myself really wishing people would mingle more at social gatherings here instead of “the big circle”…

And just one more example of what I’m getting at, for any of you on school parent e-mail lists here, you know how annoying all those endless email responses like ‘sí; ok; de acuerdo; listo; también; etc.’ in your inbox can be? Recently, when one parent suggested we make a Yahoo group so as to only have to receive the one daily summary, with very few exceptions, the rest overwhelmingly e-voted the motion down, saying that they preferred to ‘see the ongoing exchange because it gave them a better sense of the group dynamic.’ Down with efficiency in the name of togetherness.

Anyway, back to the kids, unlike my school years, where class groups were shuffled with every passing year so we had to annually adapt to a new group, here in Argentina classes are kept together sometimes from as early on as preschool throughout elementary school, and even on through high school. In fact, at the first parent meeting at our kids’ new high school, several parents lamented how their children were struggling with having to leave their childhood class behind. The sentiment in our house is very different – we’re all celebrating the expanding social horizons high school has opened up to the kids. Mainly, we hope the new environment will allow them to more deeply explore their unique abilities and interests and excel as individuals, because elementary school seemed to be a lot more about fostering group interests, both socially and academically.

Like other foreign parents I have talked to, I found the lack of individual assessment from my children’s teachers disconcerting throughout elementary school; grade reports were mostly in the context of the child’s performance as part of the group. The two annual individual reports were formulaic and showed little knowledge of my kids’ academic strengths or weaknesses. Even though it is just as important to me as the next parent that my kids feel socially accepted and respect the group dynamic, it was strange to see how this played out  academically, as if individual achievement and group role were somehow at cross purposes. Just like the kids refusing to play until everyone agreed on the game up on the rooftop, I sensed a real premium placed on the group advancing “as one” with their coursework – let no child be left behind. The fact is faster learners were indeed left behind:  to boredom, or its constant companion – mischief, as they continued working on the same concepts until everyone caught up; not until then could everyone move on.

This idea of the whole class as part of a common project in unity is particularly at odds with the notion of differentiated work for individual students, whether they happen to be gifted in math or speak English as their native language. When it comes to proposals to allow native-English speakers to opt out of mandatory EFL classes, the central argument from school authorities is the disruption of group unity; they see this as potentially damaging to the child’s social acceptance and the overall group dynamic. This also applies to suggestions of differentiated, level-appropriate work for English natives, the argument again being that setting them apart may somehow break down the fabric of the class. It just seems to me that this pretty much disregards the academic needs of individual students in favor of the group.

Argentines are actually very self-critical about their own individualistic tendencies. You will often hear people lament how individualism has taken hold of the country, everyone only out for themselves, no concern for the common good, this of course being at the root of all the crime and corruption. Perhaps. But at least in terms of social education, what I see my kids absorbing is much more about going along with the group and putting their individual differences on a lower plain, both socially and academically. This surely promotes tolerance, solidarity and cooperation, but I have also witnessed how it teaches them to be careful not to shine too brightly.

All this has made me reflect on what I really believe in. If asked whether I favor a school environment that fosters group harmony and tolerance, of course the answer is yes; but it never would have occurred to me that such an environment might also downplay the importance of individual achievement in the same classroom because I don’t see the two as mutually exclusive. So this has led me to wonder about the notion of individualism in Argentina, which I sense is equated with selfishness, whereas I see it as  more related to each individual attaining his or her unique potential. In fact, the different angles the two languages take are illustrated in standard dictionary definitions of individualism. The English is from the American Heritage Dictionary, the Spanish from the Real Academia:

English

1. n. Belief in the primary importance of the individual and in the virtues of self-reliance and personal independence.

Spanish

1. m. Tendencia a pensar y obrar con independencia de los demás, o sin sujetarse a normas generales. (Tendency to think or operate independently of others or without abiding by general rules.)

Just in these definitions alone, you can see the contrasting values associated with the term. I suppose this would explain why, by the end of elementary school, I was feeling like my personal value system was slightly under assault. If nothing else, it has given me a lot to reflect on in terms of why these things bother me, and how much the cultural ethos we grow up in shapes our beliefs.

Then again, the slate has been wiped clean now that my kids have moved up to high school. And I am hopeful that we may see a different atmosphere of encouragement when it comes to their unique qualities, given that they certainly had to stand out in the crowd to get in in the first place. Ideally, this will provide some sense of balance in which they feel more confident to express themselves as individuals but remain sensitive to the larger group around them.

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