Pressure to conform to orthodoxy in America’s classrooms is growing. When teachers and educational institutions assert, openly or implicitly, that there is an expected view to take on open questions, students face a bind: either they can go along to get along or stand out and suffer the consequences. Unsurprisingly, surveys show that most students now self-censor and self-silence in academic settings. Strategic self-censorship—biting one’s tongue—may seem like a prudent move, but what is the cost of hiding one’s true self just to fit in or please an authority figure?
In his book On Becoming a Person, humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers suggests that only when two people take the risk of honestly revealing their authentic selves to each other can genuine relatedness develop. Rogers argues that when people find themselves regularly engaging in interpersonal strategies that involve self-obscuring, self-distortion or self-muting—forms of inauthenticity—they are likely to experience psychological ill-being.
When humans experience themselves as possessing individual autonomy and as genuinely connected to other people through meaningful relatedness, development will progress optimally. Because autonomy and relatedness are basic human psychological needs, self-silencing represents a serious threat to well-being and healthy development. Numerous studies have illustrated the importance of both autonomy and relatedness to positive academic outcomes. When organizations like schools and colleges undermine these positive attributes, they impede and compromise student development and well-being.
Self-silencing is used in an attempt to connect to powerful others by sacrificing personal autonomy, and can occur in any relationship in which one person holds power over another. Academia is one such setting in which a considerable power differential operates, with clear demands that can enforce a strong dynamic of social inequality. Relationships defined by such social inequality increase the likelihood that young people will self-censor.
According to researchers, when people feel fear, vulnerability or conditional approval, they increase their vigilance and may choose to protect themselves by masking or suppressing their self-expressions.
Self-muting can result in reduced self-esteem and feelings of loss of self. When people predisposed to self-silencing find themselves in settings with particularly strong demands for self-silencing, they are likely to be especially vulnerable to depression.
Self-censorship has also been shown to relate to a wide variety of other negative psychological and behavioral outcomes, including insecure attachment, poor relationship adjustment, negative emotions (i.e., sadness, anxiety, anger), diminished subjective well-being and low achievement motivation. The literature also shows that self-silencing in academic settings is related to several negative academic outcomes, including low behavioral engagement, impaired perceptions of competence, maladaptive strategies for coping with failure, dropping out, reduced student autonomy and poor teacher–student relationships.
In her book Silencing the Self, Dana Crowley Jack describes a no-win tension between sacrificing personal needs and preserving an important relationship. This bind involves dependence, pleasing, anger, accommodation, self-censorship, low self-esteem and depression. When a particular educational context heightens students’ awareness of their lack of empowerment and the need to subjugate their own needs to those of teachers and other academic authorities, those who are predisposed to self-silencing are especially vulnerable to negative outcomes.
Other relevant studies highlight people’s tendency to conform to majority opinions, even when it means disregarding the evidence of their own eyes. For an enhanced understanding of the potential deleterious effects of this, see Irving Janis’ explanations of groupthink and its role in various lamentable but preventable disasters. The confidence of those in the majority does not, of course, make them right, nor does the reticence of those who perceive themselves to be in the minority make them wrong, as the fable of the emperor’s new clothes shows.
The research on concealed stigma—socially devalued identities that can be hidden from others—also indicates that the feeling of being unable to reveal facets of one’s authentic self in interaction with important others can carry a heavy psychic toll, including anxiety, intrusive thoughts related to the suppression of a secret, heightened feelings of psychological distress, perceived stress and increased rates of depression.
The implications of this research are clear. Without the opportunity to speak authentically, think independently and question received wisdom, our students will not develop the internal capacity to reason thoroughly and to trust their own considered judgment. This is worrying enough on an individual level, but what does it mean for our society writ large?
What kinds of students are we trying to prepare for adulthood in my home country of the United States? Do we want students to be able to deliberate thoughtfully and reach independent conclusions on public issues or be conditioned to yield predictably to peer pressure and the tyranny of the majority? It’s hard to imagine that such graduates, long accustomed to pulling their mental punches, would dare think new, potentially unpopular thoughts and investigate bold, untested ideas. Societies stagnate when contestable issues aren’t fully and honestly discussed, debated and deliberated, which makes this growing, education-based problem a national (and perhaps even international) concern.
It is also hard to imagine that this relational bind in scholastic settings is unrelated to skyrocketing rates of anxiety, depression and other health disorders among young people. When you couple the demands for inauthentic self-presentation in academia with the focus on presentation on social media, one wonders when and where students ever get to be authentically and fearlessly themselves.
Surely, our educational institutions can reaffirm that their central role is to teach students how to think, not what to think, and recognize the inherent dangers in fostering an environment in which students feel compelled to mute themselves in order to succeed. What responsible, ethical educator would ever participate in creating such an unhealthy, anti-educational environment? What informed administrator would fail to act to prevent or counter such a climate in her school or college?