Does Not Play Well with Others

by Tina Blue
October 26, 2002

          About four years ago, Newsweek ran a short article about the fact that psychologists were encouraging elementary school teachers to be on the lookout for the child who tended to go off by himself on the playground or in the classroom, rather than participating in group play or other group activities with his peers.  Such a child, the mental health experts suggested, might benefit from early intervention--from counseling and perhaps even from medication with Prozac, Zoloft, or other antidepressants.

          Well, I was such a child, and now, as a middle-aged woman, I still prefer to go off by myself rather than engage in group activities. 

          It's not that I don't have friends.  I do, and I enjoy spending some of my time with them.  But now, as in my childhood, I most enjoy those activities that require solitude: reading, writing, thinking.  I am quite certain that if the idea of "early intervention" had been common when as a child I wandered off by myself on the playground, I would have been spotted as someone in desperate need of social and psychological tinkering to help me integrate more successfully with my peers.

          But such intervention would have seriously retarded my intellectual development, because all of that time I spent alone with my nose in a book or my head in the clouds is precisely when I was learning to read, write, and think at a level far beyond what was considered normal for my age group.

          Very little of intellectual or artistic merit is accomplished by committee, and a child who spends all of his time being socially "successful" is not spending that time doing the sorts of things that lead to intellectual or creative development.  (I consider the current President Bush to be the poster child for the effect excessive social success can have on a person's intellectual development.)

          I think it unfortunate that the tendency in education in the United States has been to elevate group activity (rather oxymoronically called "cooperative learning") as an ideal and to denigrate the attitude and activity of the person who likes to bury himself in a field of study and pursue his own highly individual--even idiosyncratic--interest as far as it takes him, even if it takes him to the edge of the playground where no one wants to join him.

          As early as elementary school, and all the way up into college, students are chained to group projects, where the grade for each member depends on the performance of the group as a whole.  All too often this means that one or two bright, motivated kids will take over and do all the work while everyone else slacks off, riding the hardworking students' shoulders even while deriding them as nerds, brown-nosers, or control-freaks. 

          Sometimes, despite their valiant efforts to do everything themselves to make up for the other students' lack of effort, the serious students end up with a mediocre grade--either because they were not able to adequately manage the entire workload by themselves, or because the teacher noticed that one or two people were doing all the work and docked the entire group for that failure to perform as a group, even if the completed project was of superior quality.

          And how galling it must be for the intelligent, hardworking students to realize that even as their extra effort earned them a lower grade than they deserved, it earned the slackers a
grade than they deserved.

          I was lucky.  I finished school before the vogue for required group projects pervaded the educational system in this country, but from what I have read, a similar groupthink fad swept through U.S. public schools from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s.  (I started school just as that fad was receding.)  But in the past two decades I have listened to my own children (both now college seniors) and to many of my students and my young friends complain about their experience with group projects.

          One 26-year-old man I know, a graduating senior here at the University of Kansas, is in an upper-level history course that requires a group presentation, for which the members will receive a single group grade.  Of course, in order to perform well as a group, they will need to meet together several times.  But this student works five to seven nights a week in Overland Park, a city 40 minutes from Lawrence.  He leaves for work at about 3:30 and gets home around midnight, sometimes later.  He really does not have the sort of free time necessary to fit in such group meetings.

          One problem is that a lot of professors have not caught up with the changing undergraduate demographic.  There was a time when most undergraduates were 18- to 22-year-olds living fulltime on campus and supported by their parents or by grants and scholarships.  But now many students are older, self-supporting, commuting, and paying for their education by themselves.  Some even have families to take care of and support

          When I was an undergraduate, most undergraduates
on campus all day every day, so fitting in a group meeting might have made some sense.  But nowadays for a group of five to seven people to find several occasions when they all can get together for two or more hours at a time is darned near impossible.

          Something very similar happened to this same young man in another upper-level history course about a year ago.  One member of the group was a  single mother with a toddler and a fulltime job.  Another was a family man commuting to Lawrence only two days a week for classes and working fulltime the other five days.  He also took care of his children at night while his wife worked.  Two other students lived on campus, but both had heavy work and class schedules.  And, of course, there was my friend, with his own fulltime job and course load, plus a nearly 1½-hour two-way commute between Lawrence and his out-of-town job.

          All of the people in his group were straight-A students, and yet they got just a B- on their group project, simply because getting together was such a problem that they were unable to spend enough time blending their research and smoothing out their presentation.

          In "The Dismal Discussion Class" I complain about the fact that we overvalue gregariousness in the classroom and a  student's willingness to talk (even when he has nothing to say) and to show off or otherwise put himself on display.  We also undervalue self-effacing intellectual seriousness.  Generally speaking, learning is not a performance art, and at the deepest level, intellectual activity is more likely to require solitude than group interaction.

          It is time we stopped thinking of "Plays well with others" as the most important quality in a student and penalizing those who do not possess that trait.

          Many of the brightest, most talented, and most serious students simply do not play all that well with others.