Schools & LAs
April 24, 2023

How anonymity can be a blessing for vulnerable students

Everyone wants to be famous it seems. Social media has given every young hopeful this opportunity and everyday Instagrammers, vloggers, Youtubers, and X Factor wannabes, are filling news headlines with tales of fame and fortune. From Kim Kardashian to PewDiePie, the new wave of social media and reality TX stars provide dubious role models for millions – and they want to emulate that success in whatever online niche they can find.

But the reality, especially for vulnerable students, can be very different – particularly at school. Education can expose weaknesses. Not everyone wants to be seen or heard when struggling with lessons, or even life. Some want simply to disengage and hide away. Being famous is neither an attractive nor attainable option when you have problems just dealing with the everyday.

One of the biggest benefits of online learning is that many vulnerable students begin to thrive, thanks to the anonymous nature of the online classroom. Gone is the pressure to conform. And anything that sets the student apart, such as a physical disability, is no longer an issue. Students want to be treated without prejudice or presumption. Anything that marks them out as “different” in a traditional classroom is removed. The learning environment is once more a safe and level playing field. And for kids for whom “normal” is their goal, that’s huge.

Henri Nouwen, a Dutch priest whose special interests was in psychology, once wrote about ‘downward mobility’ and how that contradicts “our whole way of living which is set to climb up the ladder of success and make it to the top.” He went on to say that he was not denigrating ambition – nor was he against progress and success – he just thought those are “something different from the uncontrolled drive for upward mobility in which making it to the top becomes its own goal.” His work condemned narcissism and the popular, mostly Western, prosperity goal. “The problem,” he said, “is not in the desire for development as an individual or a community but in making upward mobility itself a religion.” Through this new ‘religion’ we make ourselves believe that success means we are worthwhile and failure means we are worthless.

I think Nouwen was spot-on because we are programmed in our culture for success our entire lifetime. At home we are rewarded when we demonstrate any precocious ability or talent. In organized children’s sports we tell them they’re really good when they are, in fact, not really good. In school we are given grades that encourage us to position ourselves in a hierarchy among our peers. We have performance reviews in the workplace that tell us how well or poorly our work is regarded by our supervisors. And recently, after many heated discussions about the insidious prospect of designer babies, researchers at Duke and UNC have reported that DNA studies can now be predictors of whether people will succeed or fail. While professional athletes, CEOs, and other celebrities may rank near the top, none of us is exempt from performance evaluation. A ‘brave new world’ is aborning, if not already here, with the hushed and secretive information-gathering on you and me by our largest social media companies. It’s clear that all of this is of a piece – everybody in this culture is under somebody’s microscope – and that is not only invasive, but a plainly oppressive place to be.

We strive to mitigate this at Apricot because the search for purpose in life is not about measuring ourselves by others peoples’ opinions about us. It’s essentially a personal journey and our life’s meaning and purpose are defined at basically two levels. First, we want to know what our life is all about – and second, we want to know how and where we fit in to the grand scheme of things. True greatness, I would argue, is relative to whether we serve one another. If you want to know what life is about, it’s about service – and if you want to know where you fit in the big picture, you need to understand that if you want to be first, you must be last – and being last means serving everyone – even, perhaps especially, those who do not aspire to any aggrandized status. To know this is liberating, not oppressive. And, as we in this industry already have, it’s a lesson our vulnerable children need to learn.

As adults and teachers, we could argue that there’s no such thing as ‘normal’ and challenge the validity of defining someone as ‘different’. But, for vulnerable young people, it’s not always so easy to separate fact from fiction – cultural imperatives from daily life and aspirations. Students thrive in anonymous, online classrooms with their learning precisely because they are, quite simply, on their own terms. There are no perceived differences, prejudices, or unwelcome social pressures that often accompany learning in traditional school environments.

Most of us will simply be ordinary – ordinary servants who simply embrace the confidence that being so will show us the purpose of our lives. So, I want to say plainly that there is no shame or embarrassment either in being a servant or in being served. Promoting, modeling, and living in service is how we and our vulnerable children can become self-affirming and self-fulfilling.

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