Abnormal is the New Normal

“An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior,” according to renowned psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. Could it be that the abnormal reactions we are seeing in our youth–anxiety, depression, addiction, suicide–are normal behaviors and that the situations we have placed them in are abnormal? Could our current education system be one such abnormal situation? 

This thought came to me during a discussion I had with Dr. Ai Addyson-Zhang who recently left her tenured university position to build a new type of school, Classroom Without Walls. The now vibrant, energetic professor describes the academic climate of her youth in China as a time of despair. Her school life was extremely isolating, as her teachers continually reminded the class that everyone around them was a competitor, not a friend. Testing was routine and after every test, the scores were placed on the board next to the students’ names. They would then take a seat in the classroom–front to back–depending on their test scores. Furthering the humiliation, their parents had to attend regular meetings and were required to sit in their child’s seat. Thus, the performance of the student reflected on the status of the family and increased academic pressure at home. Ai suffered chronic anxiety and contemplated suicide. 

Given the circumstances, Ai’s reaction seems normal and understandable. Although not as blatantly, we follow the same protocols here in the U.S. with class rankings, award assemblies, and standardized testing. Students compete against each other for grades, test scores, and extracurricular recognition. College admittance is a status symbol for families and the pressure to build an academic and extracurricular resume is paramount in most homes. The ‘front seat’ students get admitted to the most prestigious universities while the rest are left to feel ashamed. 

Our humanness is challenged by our factory-style education system which is designed to mass-produce the same kind of smart in all students without regard to their unique character, circumstances or interests. The foster youth trying to process a traumatic experience is expected to perform the same as the student whose family can provide academic and emotional support. All students are expected to progress along a linear trajectory at the same age, at the same pace, and in the same environment, even though life isn’t linear and it is not possible–nor should we desire–to make all humans the same. 

Being treated as a widget along an assembly line is dehumanizing to students. It ignores their need to choose freely their direction, to pursue their dreams and goals, and to have agency over their lives–essential qualities of the human experience. To exist merely for the promise of some potential future financial return is not to live. Life needs meaning and without it, suffering–a normal part of life–turns into despair. The feeling of meaninglessness in this rigid system is a breeding ground for mental illness. 

The clash between our humanness and our mechanistic education system has created abnormal situations. The following are just a few of the many examples:

  • The intense focus on individual achievement promotes competition, not collaboration. This impedes authentic relationships and our desire for common humanity. Human beings are wired for social connection and constant competition is stress-inducing and isolating. 

This is an abnormal situation.

  • Conformity and compliance are highly valued in our education system. We encourage students to be the same, only better than everyone else. They are not encouraged to challenge the teachings or the definition of success that has been imposed on them. We want them to be “out of the box” thinkers, but we reward them for being receptacles of information and staying in the box. Their potential contributions as a unique human being are ignored.

This is an abnormal situation.

  • We physically confine students to a closed environment which limits their ability to engage with the broader world. The prison-like system keeps them restricted to same-age cohorts and top-down power structures for the majority of their day. The freedom to explore their interests and discover who they are and how they can contribute to the world is hampered. 

This is an abnormal situation. 

  • Insisting that students spend time and energy–at school and at home–on content that is irrelevant, outdated and lacks meaning, leads to widespread boredom (lack of interest) and apathy (lack of motivation) in our youth, according to Frankl. Learning happens when interest and supportive relationships are present, not when they are treated like programmable robots. They belong to a new era yet are not allowed to adapt to the dramatic changes occurring. We keep them so busy trying to follow in our footsteps that they don’t learn to take responsibility for creating their own. 

This is an abnormal situation.

  • We try to get students to fit the system, often propping them up with labels, tutoring, and medication while ignoring the fact that the system is not working for most students at any level. Students in high-achieving schools are now considered “at-risk” along with those in poverty, foster youth, and immigrants. College–the goal of the K12 education system–is not delivering the desired workplace, financial or citizenship outcomes and yet we continue to focus energy on channeling every 18-year-old directly into its broken framework.

This is an abnormal situation.

“When a flower doesn’t bloom you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.”  – Alexander Den Heijer 

We are experiencing a crisis that cannot be solved by the same system that created it.  While we need to quickly address the epidemic of acute mental illness, we also need to identify and rectify the situations that may be contributing to the epidemic. If we don’t, we could end up losing those we love to the anxiety, depression, addiction, and suicide overwhelming the youth of today.

We all need to take responsibility for the culture we have created–intentionally or not–and work toward change. It starts with awareness in our homes and local communities that the systems we largely depend on to prepare our children for life devalue their humanness. Their reactions may be normal human responses to abnormal situations. Question everything.


5 Replies to “Abnormal is the New Normal”

  1. Thank you Pam! As an educator for 20 years I Admire your work and appreciate your blog posts! Please keep researching and supporting our community it’s incredibly valuable!

  2. Very provocative for me to read as a mother of four, do you see any trend to change the educational system in the US?

    1. Yes! I see lots of change starting to happen. Mainstream media has even started writing about it. I am currently working on a blog titled, “How I Know Systemic Change Is Coming To Education”. There are many new types of schools, blended learning programs in traditional schools and companies that are helping promote learning-centered change. Check out https://education-reimagined.org/, https://www.gettingsmart.com/, and https://xqsuperschool.org/. I also post examples on my Facebook blog page. Thank you for commenting!

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