Individual Identity in a Big Box World
“Say No to Big Box Schools” is a message on signs recently posted around my neighbourhood in Oakville. The local school board has announced plans to consolidate a number of schools, in some cases closing smaller schools that have been part of communities for a very long time. This has produced quite a strong reaction in the community, not surprisingly. I believe that this is for many reasons, but not least of all, because of the feeling that children who attend these larger schools may be severed from their rooting in a local environment that allows their individuality and uniqueness to come out and be appreciated. The fear is that children will become lost in anonymous and faceless institutions.
The phrase “big box schools” seems to me to be very evocative for most suburban / exurban people who have seen the rise of the “big box” stores. We all carry images of huge, cavernous home and building supply stores, electronics retailers and department stores. It is true that they have almost everything you could ever want, but sometimes the search for a particular item can seem endless. Above all, it’s hard to escape the feeling in such a store, despite assertions to the contrary, that the individual customer simply does not matter. That everything is about the mass, and the individual is simply made to feel that he or she is one in a million.
Many of our subdivisions are dominated by the same large retailers, restaurants and other businesses. It is easy for one community or town to seem just about interchangeable with the next. In the U.K., they have an expression for this type of place. They call them “clone towns”, a term coined by the New Economics Foundation in their 2004 report “Clone Town Britain”, which documents the demise of local businesses on the high streets of British towns and cities.
If anything, the situation in North America may be more extreme. A drive north up Winston Churchill Boulevard, a long major thoroughfare near my home, reveals an endless repetition of the same retailers, service providers and restaurants, with similar-looking buildings and business venues, repeating over and over in seemingly endless succession.
It’s not surprising then, that something in us automatically rises up against the image of the “big box school”. We want to preserve the individuality of our locality — and of our children. And, most fundamentally, or our lives.
In the middle decades of the 20th century, Carl Jung spoke up in vehement opposition to the rise of what he characterized as a kind of mass consciousness in which the identity of the individual becomes lost. He thought of this in terms of the great totalitarian movements of his day, Communism and Nazism, but his essential point remains valid in a “big box”, “clone town” world.
Something in us becomes very alarmed when we feel that our individuality might be slipping away, and that our lives might be being absorbed by a sameness that leaves us indistinguishable from our neighbours. We resist, we rebel, because something in us knows that this is inherently contrary to our true destiny. We are beings whose fundamental nature is to become individual, to “individuate”, in Jung’s term.
This process does not just happen by itself, by just going with the flow. Are we willing to truly explore the nature of our individuality? We feel strongly that we are different from our neighbours, but can we find the courage to examine and embrace those parts of ourselves that are really individual and unique, without judging them, or feeling shame or inadequacy? To be able to really know ourselves, and to affirm ourselves, in all that we are, light and dark, strong and weak is a very central part of our journey as human beings. It is the core of the process of Jungian analysis.