Headmaster’s Thoughts – April 2009

It is embarrassing to realize how often I do things because others do them. In fact, the older I get, the more I realize that we are really much more like the adolescents that we teach than we admit. I used to say that all 14-year-olds had the same prayer: “Oh Lord, may I please be like everyone else!” The implication being that we adults no longer have this prayer and indeed pride ourselves on our individuality. I now am not so sure.

It all comes down to faith in our freedom of will, that icon of American beliefs. Of course, we all have free will in making small, individual decisions such as whether or not I should lift my arm at this very moment. There, I lifted it! But I question whether we have such free will when we find ourselves in a “swarm” of people who are reacting to a given situation. Thus we tend to buy the latest “hot” toy for our children (and every year there is some tragic story about two parents fighting to get the last of the available toy in the store), we get influenced far more by the general style of fashion, and its changes, than we like to admit, and those clever marketers who put “laugh tracks” in television comedies do it because they know that we just laugh along with the fake crowd. Part of this is social convention, but a lot of it is our increased comfort level when we are part of a group. In adolescence we call that peer pressure.

My immediate example is the use of vitamins. Study after study tells us that multi-vitamin pills have no meaningful effect. Yes, the studies say, certain pills (calcium and vitamin D come to mind) are beneficial, but those large capsules that contain every possible vitamin, from A to whatever letter it is lately, have scientifically been shown not to help our health. And yet they still are taken by many millions (I took them, too) because… well, everyone does.

Artificial sweeteners fall into this category. My father used to add small saccharin pills to his coffee in place of sugar (which has 16 calories per teaspoon). He much preferred the taste of real sugar but used saccharin solely because he was certain that he would lose weight this way. The advertisements told him that. He would drink that coffee with apple strudel topped with whipped cream (hundreds and hundreds of calories).

This lemming effect applies to lots of other situations. I am by no means exempt. I like going to the opera and recently have noticed that I applaud an aria as soon as other people start to applaud. I don’t stop to think whether I liked the singing. They applaud; therefore, I applaud. Not much free will there.

At fine restaurants, it has taken me years to stop ordering wine with every meal. I really do not like the taste of wine, but since everyone else was ordering wine (and, heaven knows, the waiters expectantly urged it), I ordered it too, until recently. My fault for not exercising my free will! Have you noticed they offer a wine list but never a juice list? Cranberries picked last year in September from Nantucket! No chance!

Jayme and I knew a couple who got engaged because they were pushed into it by their families. Both their parents liked each other and thought it was a great match. So one day, the two young people entered a room at a gathering for just the two families and, all of a sudden, the parents started to talk loudly about how the couple had “something to say to them” and the “secret is a secret no longer.” Of course, the couple figured out that their parents were suggesting that they were engaged and so, even though neither had proposed to the other, they announced their engagement rather than disappoint their parents. They may have been going to get married anyway, who knows, but the social pressure to “go along” took away their own ability to choose the time. Since I was not seen as “a good catch” by Jayme’s parents, I fortunately was never in that position. But I certainly cannot judge the couple; they just went with the flow.

If you take this to the point of absurdity, these “Headmaster’s Thoughts,” which began because I thought my Senior ethics class should have something to criticize and see that I also had homework, have taken on a life of their own. I enjoy writing each piece. I have no real idea how many people actually read them, but I am not sure that I can now stop writing them. They are expected of me. I have even had comments about people looking forward to them. So I dutifully produce them on time. Once on the gerbil treadmill, can you ever get off?

Let me be clear: none of this is wrong. Far be it for me to suggest that we should not conform to social expectations, and indeed I would be the last person to advise anybody to go back to wearing frockcoats and fob watches. I just suspect that absolute freedom of will may be a myth. We follow the crowd more than we like to admit.

So the next time I remark that the adolescent dream is one of conformity, you are very welcome to correct me and say that we adults do not have such different dreams. We hide our insecurities better, and we pretend that we have free will. There goes my arm in the air again! But if we think that we really are ruggedly independent, I suspect most of us are self-delusional.

Now I have to start writing next month’s Thoughts.

Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster
E-mail: rstewart@yorkprep.org 

“Headmaster’s Thoughts” for previous months are archived in the section In the News. You may access additional months by clicking Headmaster’s Thoughts Archives on the same page.