Why are we taught to be sheep?

Although I study animals, I do not study domesticated animals. Despite this, I know that sheep like to remain in flocks (or is it herds?), as they take the evolutionary approach of survival based upon the power of numbers. They follow each other around and do not stray far from others. They do not seek alone time; they do not follow a butterfly to greener pastures; and they do not question their version of authority. Because of this (and because they have no sharp teeth or claws to defend themselves with), sheep are considered meek. We even define the word sheepish as lacking self-confidence. Yet, our education system “trains” us to be just like sheep. We are taught that certain things are facts, and that is just the way it is. We are typically not taught to question, to ask “why”, or to contradict what authority says is true. In fact, it is commonly stated that once you get to graduate school you have to “learn to think for yourself.” So, let me get this straight – we spend 20+ years learning to think like others before it is ubiquitously expected for us to think individually!?!?

Image result for sheep meme wake up sheeple

Reading Ellen Langer’s article “Mindful Learning” really hit this home for me. She discusses how we are taught the basics until the basics become second nature. We automatically drive on the right side of the road (in the US); we put forks on the left side of the plate when setting the table; and we don’t question “why.” Now, I am not suggesting that you got out tomorrow and see how you feel about driving on the left side of the road around here – some things we are taught should be followed. However, if you travel to England, you have to ditch your learned “second-nature” of driving on the right to be safe. I particularly liked the example about how we set the table. I had never thought about why we put the fork on the left side of the plate and the knife on the right. It really doesn’t make sense for the majority of the population, as right-handed folk typically hold their forks in their right hands and knives in the left. As a child, I was just taught that “this is how it is done,” and so, I accepted it.

As I got older, I was rewarded in school for blindly accepting what I was taught. I got A’s if I memorized what my teachers told me and did not do well when I didn’t. But what if the teachers are wrong (and having taught in the past, I can assure you that I was wrong sometimes)? Every day, research is showing us how things that were historically considered “common knowledge” are now incorrect (e.g., the world is flat; the Earth is the center of the universe; smoking doesn’t cause cancer). Every day, people prove that pushing the boundaries and not listening to what everyone told them furthers our understanding of the world. If everyone stayed a sheep, there would be no change. We need to start teaching children to think for themselves – it is as simple as saying “this COULD BE the answer to that question” vs “this IS the answer to that question”. In part, graduate school is so challenging because it is the first time we are truly and consistently evaluated on how well we can think for ourselves. Maybe, graduate school would be less daunting, less stressful, and less likely to cause or contribute to mental health concerns if we were “taught” how to think for ourselves.

I could go on and on about this topic. But I leave you with this: it’s good to be the “black” sheep (even though we are taught it is not). It’s even better to be a rainbow-colored lion. So go out there and ROAR!

Image result for sheep individuality meme

25 Replies to “Why are we taught to be sheep?”

  1. I appreciate you brought up that there were “Common knowledge”, considered trues historically, are now incorrect. I believe that’s why students should be taught to question “WHY”. But I don’t think that’s what we have now. I’m surprised that you as American also think that “we don’t question WHY”. From my view as a Korean, I feel much freedom to say and question than students in my country have, so I guess it is relative. I hope we all have a better education environment to encourage them to question WHY.

    1. Interesting – yes, it must be relevant! Could you elaborate on how the Korean system allows less “freedom” in this regard?

  2. Interesting post. I agree that it is important that students learn to ask “why” at any stage of their learning process, or even better, be taught to think on their own and come up with their own solution, before blindly accepting the “right” solution.
    This sheep behavior can be seen in many aspects of our lives. We need to understand that there is not a single right way in life, everyone has his/her own right path to create.

    1. It is interesting, because it seems that very young children are constantly asking “why?” To the point where it can become annoying and overwhelming. I wonder if parents inadvertently contribute to the accepting things without asking why that inevitably comes later?

  3. I agree that it is important to question the why, but isn’t there a line that needs to be drawn somewhere? I’m thinking of the people who calmly deny that the Earth is round or climate deniers. Sure it is important to look critically at the facts, and consider multiple perspectives; but, isn’t it an act of sheer ignorance when you don’t believe such things that are overwhelmingly true/supported? It is incumbent on a person to have a grasp of the facts that are available. Just because you don’t like them doesn’t mean you can ignore them and believe something else. I guess there is a lot of nuance to asking the question of why.

    1. I agree – of course there are people who are just ignorant and there really isn’t a whole lot we can do about it (unfortunately).

  4. Thank you for your post Erin! I really enjoyed reading it because you bring up points in such a way that if I didn’t chuckle I’d be really depressed with the state of things. BTW I’m glad its okay to be the black sheep cause I don’t think I conform anymore to most things, it was comforting. We are so conditioned to “follow rules” and stop asking “why”. Let me tell you what a struggle it was to drive in the US when I got here years ago (scary!)…but I learned and got used to it. What if learning was like that? Challenging yet scary with a dash of encouragement from the teachers…play with it, think, do, fail…and you will learn something new each time, right?!

    1. Thank you, Jyotsana! I try to add a little humor to things because you are right, if we did not have any humor, things would be way worse!! And I agree — learning should be challenging, a little scary, exciting, etc!

  5. I agree with your comment that the switch from K-12 and undergraduate education to graduate education can be a bit of a shock. We aren’t adequately prepped to be thinking on the edge of possibility and asking meaningful research questions, so it’s a steep learning curve during the early years of graduate school.

    1. Yea — I distinctly remember being told that it was now time for me to think independently once I got into graduate school!

  6. Just Perfect! I can’t agree more that the ultimate goal of education (or at least higher education) must be about teaching humans to unlearn the learned. To become doubtful of everything they are told! To deeply believe they might not be always right, because there is no absolute right or wrong, and then it comes the peace!

  7. Your comments encouraged me to find out more about student behavior (sheep). It is important for professors to be aware that some students will be resistant to active learning activities. Educators “may indeed encounter many students who are still used to doing schoolwork at home and using class time to sit and listen and absorb whatever the professor wants to communicate. Those students may not easily adjust to a course that asks them to work in class, too” (Gooblar, 2015). Professors can implement strategies to address this situation. For example, professors can vary their teaching methods and explain why each activity is being introduced (Gooblar, 2015).
    Gooblar, D. (2015, February 4). Why Students Resist Active Learning. Chronicle Vitae. Retrieved from https://chroniclevitae.com/news/893-why-students-resist-active-learning

    1. That is a good point! Some students do thrive (or at least prefer) the lecture format. While it seems impossible to appease everyone, a mixed teaching style class seems like the best option to cater to everyone.

  8. Erin, great post. I have avoided the inclusion of Karl Marx in my discussions but his views towards education in capitalistic societies is strongly present in Langer’s writings and your post. Marx argued that early public education was created to perpetuate the bourgeoisie and the labor structure of early industrial society. In kindergarten, we are taught to sit in orderly fashions and behave in a specific manner that resembles early assembly line requirements. Schools were also government sponsored day care so the parents could go to work. Education was meant to condition the sheeple to perpetuate a system that benefited the owners of production. Middle class, middle management families sent children to public schools and public, large universities to learn better ways to be middle management. Trade schools perpetuated trade craft and the rich went to private schools and Ivy League universities to be upper echelon managers, CEOs, and owners. Unfortunately, the societal class structure that led to educational structure did a good job of entrenching that institution. Now we must rail against the educational institution to create the necessary change that allows free thinkers to flourish.

  9. Nice blog! I like how you bring examples of our daily lives that we do not know the reasons behind the facts and not speak-out and ask “why” before accepting everything in most of the learning process. I do not mean to break the rules but thinking out of the box and flourish more and more1
    I grew up in an educational system that we accept everything that we have been taught, but as you well said, when I enter in grad school and do researching, I see that much common knowledge can be incorrect/ half- incorrect. I was a real sheep in the school, but this blog is inspiring me to be the black sheep, be different, and think freely. But what I am concerned with is how encourage my future students not to be a sheep? Or how can we incorporate this into our teaching?

    1. I think that it comes down to primary and secondary education shifting towards more of a hypothesis-based approach than a memorize and regurgitate approach. But, this should continue into college. People should not start graduate school feeling insecure about forming their own ideas and opinions!

  10. LOL! Sheep are easily controlled and give us clothing as a bi product. Imagine trying to raise bears for the same reason. Don’t our professors love the nice gentle sheep?!?!? It’s all good, I have never minded being a black sheep because friction is caused by changes on a molecular level…..we have to start somewhere! 🙂


    Cheers, Lehi

    1. LOL, Lehi – that is true. Sheep certainly serve their purpose. And they are easier to handle. But, like you said, sheep (particularly white sheep) don’t tend to instigate change.

  11. Your post in some ways aligns well with Langer’s discussion on mindful learning. I agree with you in terms of the need for a change in how we approach teaching and learning in general. We know that the traditional way of education based on standardization is now changing. However, as we discussed in class, the change in the politics of education is slow but inevitable. For example, at Virginia Tech, some standardized tests, like GRE, are no more required for entering the graduate school. Open access journals are gaining more popularity compared to the past. When it comes to education, especially in academia, I am an optimist because of the nature of the people who work in these settings. Universities are essentially less conservative and more open to change compared to many other institutions. I think the more difficult challenge is how to deliver this notion of mindfulness to families, public schools, and the society in general.

  12. I agree — universities tend to be more open to change; however, that also varies by town, city, state, country etc. And then there are all the private schools!

  13. Great post, Erin!! You’re so right!! This is so similar to how it is being a female – pretty much being taught to not speak up unless you’re spoken to, being a good girl and not questioning authority, etc…. We are taught to NOT be the black sheep and listen and trust your teachers because they know more than you and they are never wrong. This isn’t always the case. I think that we SHOULD question more because questions are thought-provoking, and thought-provoking questions lead to greater learning!

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