Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

One system does not work for everyone

Ayla's picture

One System Does Not Work for Everyone


When I was in middle school, I had to take a physical education class every other day.  Every week, on the last day of class, our teachers would let us choose a sport that we wanted to play: kick ball, soccer, basketball or walking.  Of course, I chose soccer every time - it is my favorite sport to play.  After about three weeks, the teachers realized that the same people were picking the same sports to play every time.  They announced that since some students were dominating one sport, they were going to create a structured space for all students to play each sport.  So they put us in groups and rotated us throughout the sports.  What happened to free play?  The teachers thought that students who were always walking every week secretly wanted to play soccer.  They thought they were doing them a favor, but those students just stood on the field.  They didn’t want to play a contact sport with lots of competition and running.  They wanted to relax and think and walk.

Creating space for those who are quiet, shy, or not particularly involved to participate like ‘everyone else’ is not necessarily a good thing.  Some people do not want to give presentations, answer questions or talk in class.  Some people do not want to be involved in an organization at school.  Some people just want to be with themselves, thinking about things, creating quietly or observing.  Why do we try to force people to act in accordance with a social standard?  We are human; we are artistic, analytical, logical, irrational, sensitive, calculating, and needy.  Yet, social systems have evolved that we are forced to endure.  

Why do we think that one system should work for everyone?  Margaret Price’s book, Mad at School, argues that one system is not working for everyone, mainly people with mental illness in the education system (Price, 2011).  Similarly, Jacks McNamara, a woman with bipolar disorder, also argues that one system is not conducive to everyone’s life.  In the documentary film, “Crooked Beauty,” Jacks expresses that the world told her she was damaged, and they tried to “fix” her with medication.  However, she advocates for people to stop trying to fit into society and rather embrace their gifts of mental disorders.  The ideas presented forth by Price and Jacks can be expanded to many social aspects, even in the system that they reject.  Specifically, creating space for everyone in a classroom to speak is actually detrimental for most people in the class.

The public education system in America is very selective.  We sit and listen quietly.  Someone in the government decides what you need to know and they test us on it.  This selects for people who like sitting still, or are very good at forcing themselves to do so.  It selects for people who can concentrate for long periods of time on a test.  It does not include everyone, even with the “accommodations” that the school may offer.  Price illustrates this point in her book, Mad at School.  She argues that physically disabled students are accommodated in the education system because they are considered to have “able minds” (Price, 2011).  However, she points out that students with mental disabilities appear to be congruent with the expectation of the school system, and therefore they are not accommodated at all.  On the outside they seem to be able to behave and comply, but in reality, the structure of education often is not conducive to our learning styles.  So what happens to them?

Price argues that academic structure was created by the privileged able mind (Price, 2011).  Therefore, it continues to produce these privileged minds.  The consequence of this is that the education system is accepted and fueled over and over again.  We leave the education system expected to obtain credible jobs.  For those of us who don’t do this, or don’t want to do this, the world tells us we are wrong.  It says that we are not as successful.  We are not as driven or motivated.  There is something different about us - something that needs to be changed.  Price instead advocates to change the education system in a way such that the classroom would be more conducive to every learning style.  If a student needs to have a twenty minute class a day, that’s fine.  If a student wants to take only one class, that’s fine too.  But, that’s not the way the system works today.  So what happens to us?

Society is willing to help us in a certain way.  Medication.  They say something in me is broken and damaged, but don’t worry, they can fix it.  They can medicate us to shove us through the societal system so we can emerge shaped like everyone else.  Jacks McNamara is a very strong, articulate woman who advocates for people with mental illness to learn to live with their gift instead of medicate it away.  She had a negative experience with doctors when she was 19 years old.  She had to sit in a room with people she had never met.  She was expected to share her innermost feelings with strangers on her path to being fixed (Crooked Beauty).  She says in the film, “Crooked Beauty,” that if she wanted to work in an office building behind a desk then she probably would have to be medicated.  But, that’s not what she wants to do.  A spirit like hers wants to create and see the world, feel the Earth and all its pain.  She thinks that if people are given the time and space to reflect and sift through their own thoughts, then they will emerge on their own as the people they are meant to be.  Maybe they will be people who will not fit into societal expectations, but they will still be truer to themselves.

The other day my teacher and I were talking about my rough patch last year when I endured a traumatic experience.  She said that I was strong because I didn’t drop out of school; I didn’t give up.  I was confused.  Well, that wasn’t really an option, I thought, it’s what I wanted to do.  I wanted to keep going to school.  She said other people would have given up and gone home.  Is that giving up?  Or is it just knowing yourself and doing what is best for you? According to Jacks ideas, taking time to visit a space to think through trauma is better than trying to fit a mold that will never encompass all of a person.  Following Jacks advice would not have worked for me.  I needed to be in a set structure, a set pattern, to have some consistency in my life.  So, my system wouldn’t have worked for the next person, possibly.  Yet, Jacks’ system wouldn’t have worked for me either.

One system does not work for everyone.  Some people can’t stand sitting still.  Some aren’t interested in learning how to write because their mind is stuck on Chaos Theory.  Some do not want to learn how to do long division when they could be outside watching a butterfly.  Some don’t want to change the school system. Some people do not want to play soccer during free play.  I do not want to walk during free play.  

We are human; we are artistic, analytical, logical, irrational, sensitive, calculating, and needy.  One system does not work for everyone - except maybe just living in the world.


Price, Margaret.  Mad at School. University of Michagan Press: 2011.

Rosenthal, Ken Paul.  “Crooked Beauty.” 2010.


Ayla's picture

Things I had not considered before



I had wanted to do a similarly themed paper using two sources: Wikipedia and the rest of the internet (i.e. "reliable sources").  I didn't exactly think it through - would they both be two page papers or four pages?  Would you be interested in reading that?  I thought this idea would tie into my first paper quite well - actually testing the reliability of Wikipedia on this one topic.  Wikipedia might not even include everything that I want to write in the paper, so the two papers could be quite different.  


Your suggestion about answering my own question is ironically challenging.  Why are we forced to endure social systems?  Well, I think Price touched on it when she said the education system was created by privelaged minds and therefore produces privelaged minds which just refuels the system.  I think this is true in a lot of contexts.  Why do we sit through lectures when there is proof we don't learn best that way?  Why do we continue to elect people who we know will lead our country to war?  (Why are men's egos running politics?)   We endure situations that are "socially accepted," because we, as the opposing side, don't have our shit together.  There is a unified minority and a dismembered majority, as I see it.  The unified minority wants to sit in the traditional school and take their standardized tests and go to college and get married and have two kids and a dog.  Some of the rest of us want to join the Peacecorp, Teach for America, lobby to the government, save the environment, appease hunger, save the wild animals, save the domestic animals, etc.  What do you think?  Is that why the system doesn't change? Because we are all so split in what we want that we can never fight together to change a system?


As for "building structures that call on our differences rather than eradicate them," I think my above argument would support that this is not possible.  How can we erase a system and replace it with a "system" that celebrates our differences when we all want different things?  Who will cooperate?  Who will organize?




Anne Dalke's picture

Evolving systems?

You start and end with the same claim: that one system does not work for everyone. Inbetween, you offer examples, from your own experience and the film Crooked Beauty, of cases in which allowing for diverse interests and habits was beneficial.

One angle of inquiry I'd like to explore with you is the possibility that people might benefit from doing what they don't like to do. You seem to collapse "liking" with "profiting from": just because I "don't like to speak in class" (or do math problems, or play soccer) doesn't mean that I wouldn't benefit from learning to do so.You seem to take dislike as the measure of the end, rather than as a starting point, for learning.

I'd also like to explore with you now what next step follows from your claim: once we acknowledge the diversity of us all (see vspaeth's essay on this topic also), how might we create institutions that don't just "accommodate" each of us, but are designed for universal access and flourishing? Do you believe that this is possible? (The two educational theorists who I think have written most effectively about this--see Ray McDermott and Hervé Varenne's Culture as Disability, plus Varenne's On the inevitability of cultural disabilities--argue that we can only create systems that disable; indeed, that we cannot create systems that do not).

And yet last month you argued that Wikipedia's success was due to both to the ease of "radical collaboration" and "a sense of cooperative responsibility." Is there a way to apply such modalities to schooling? Building structures that call on our differences, rather than try to eradicate them? Perhaps a first step towards doing so is answering the question you ask about why "we try to force people to act in accordance with a social standard." Why are all of us, in all our diversity, "forced to endure" the "social systems that have evolved"?

Ayla's picture

Things I had previously considered


Thanks for your honest and polite criticism.  I had considered putting in something about learning from doing things you don't like to do.  Clearly, we learn a great deal when we do things we dislike.  I was going for a different angle with my paper; I should have made a clearer distinction between 1)doing something you don't like to do and 2)banging your head against a wall.  In the examples I gave about students with mental disorders and the idea Jacks' presents about having to be medicated in order to work in an office, I think these fall under the latter.  I think that there are certainly situations that people are just not meant to endure.  You can make a person with ADD join a monastary but how productive is that?  What are they learning by being forced to sit still when they just cannot?  You can take a whale out of the ocean and put it in a tank and make it do tricks, but is that really beneficial for the whale?  I am not a fan of "taking the easy way out."  I think people should challenge themselves.  Lately, though, I've been hearing that phrase being thrown around a lot referring to leaving situations that are just dead ends.  If someone cannot handle taking a full class load, what is so terrible about cutting back?  Is the person giving up, or accommodating so that they may work on themselves?  I guess I just think that forcing people to do things that they just do not want to do, in these types of situations, is unproductive.