Elitism and Compassion (a Back to School Special)

September 4, 2009

The vehemence and viciousness of the health care debate and the onset of the academic year have colluded to raise my typical elevated levels of anxiety and tension to unknown heights.  Part of this concern is rooted in the foggy financial outlook: my vocation is threatened with extinction as my access to health care and my family’s security are both facing severe challenges.  It’s hard enough to be an under-employed, highly educated father; it’s worse when I am constantly reminded that many of my fellow citizens view my security and health as a liability, as a risk to what they perceive to be their freedoms. 

This underlying anxiety and frustration is sadly exacerbated by the viciousness of my brethren, my teachers-in-arms.  Perhaps viciousness is the wrong word.  Pettiness?  Cruelty?  I’m not sure the appropriate term, but the return of students to college campuses and the ugliness of public discourse have given my colleagues plenty of opportunity to display a stunning lack of sympathy for the very populations we are expected to help.

Illiteracy and Ignorance;Coping and Compassion

While I cannot speak for all teachers, I would venture that most of us still experience back-to-school jitters.  The nervous excitement of the impending new year so common to all of us from our schooldays memories continues to haunt and excite teachers.  Even though we relish the summer lull, I think most teachers anticipate the new school year, the excitement of interpreting an old routine for a new audience.  It’s exciting to meet new students, try our new lesson plans, and, yes, to be back in school, back in the hallways full of fresh young faces, the names and styles changing, but the experiences and desires and intelligences so very similar.  We may work long, hard hours and our rewards may be small, marginal and fleeting; but the joy of teaching is intoxicating and its high is most palpable around Labor Day.

Although teachers are idealistic to a fault, the return of the new academic year also opens the door for the cynical humunculous that sits nittering and chattering in our ears.  Teachers can be a nasty lot, full of vinegar brimming out of our frustrated hearts.  Much of this meanness is rooted in the legitimate frustrations teachers have with administrators, trustees, and communities.  We are asked to do incredible work for mediocre pay and are often have little power over the very communities which are dependent upon our abilities and our hard work.  While I cannot and will not address this frustration here, I want to be clear that I share these frustrations and am doing my part to improve the academic workplace.

My subject here is the negativity with which some teachers greet their students, especially students of varying skill levels and levels of engagement.  The excitement of the new semester is quickly tempered by the realization that our students are inadequately prepared for the work we expect them to complete.  While neither I nor any of my colleagues have had a fully illiterate student, it is not uncommon for students to lack basic critical thinking, reading and writing skills.  I am often shocked at the pathetic writing skills of my students. 

Perhaps more frustrating is the disregard students often have for required coursework.  In my Ethnic and American Studies courses I often grappled with students who clearly did not want to be in class and made their feelings visible through body language and, at times, open challenges of my qualifications or the importance of the material at hand.  I know this is a common frustration among my fellow teachers.  We know that material we teach is vital and we enjoy it; but we are met with aggressive, at times vicious disregard for the material and our classroom. 

I understand my many of my fellow teachers feel disheartened by their work.  I understand why many of us become cynical.  But what pains me is the easiness with which some teachers allow our frustrations and cynicism to boil over into contempt and nastiness for our students.  The return of the school year has brought the annual chorus of teachers lamenting the stupidity, meanness, and vileness of our students; the mockery of student writing or ideas; and the general dismissal of students’ needs. 

Like the rare full solar eclipse, this seasonal frustration has come into life just as the irregular, occasional vicious culture wars have come to dominate the political landscapes.  This blog was occasioned by my frustration with the level of discourse surrounding the debates over healthcare reform and I am generally disheartened and disgusted by the viciousness with which the extreme fringes of the right wing launch salvos in this latest culture war battle.  Within my frustrations with national discourses is a deeper disappointment with the retrograde  motion of our collective response to these larger cycles. 

In the past few days a number of friends have recommended an online album of pictures of anti-Government and anti-Obama protesters.  Posted on Facebook, the images are accessible only if you have a Facebook account.  I was able to find an example of the images and a link to the album, which is called “Morons Holding Signs.”  The images are troubling.  They are evidence of the violent and vicious paranoia that has long defined America and Americans, especially in regards to race and sexuality.  And, I think it is important that teachers, especially those of us in composition and American and Ethnic studies work to counter the viciousness and divisiveness of discourse of which these images are but symptoms.

Perhaps it was the simultaneity of this viral photo album and the return of the academic year, but my frustration with these images pales in comparison to my anger at the ways in which those around me have responded to them.  The appeal of these images has little to do with the viciousness of sentiments and everything to do with the ignorance and illiteracy of the expression of those sentiments.  Based on observing activity on Facebook, the general feedback to these images has been to laugh at and poke fun at the protesters.  Because the majority of the photos are of protesters holding signs with poor spelling, poorer grammar, and questionable grasp of basic literacy, most comments on the album ridicule the protesters are ignorant, stupid, uneducated, or simply moronic. 

Let me stress that I am deeply troubled by the sentiments presented by these images, just as I am troubled by the woeful preparation our students are given in High School.  But it is my firm conviction that we cannot counter the vicious and violent paranoia of our national culture and that we will fail as teachers if we respond to these frustrating circumstances with derision and mockery.  Laughing at our students writing may make us feel better in the short run; but it is evidence of an eroded trust and a shallow commitment on our part.  And making fun of illiterate protesters may sooth our anger at the direction of discourse; but it will only serve to drive us further and further away from the communities which we serve and for whom we must feel compassion.

Confession; Penance

Before I move on, let me confess that I am very guilty of the crimes I have just described.  I have been known to mock student writing.  I have been known to laugh at the beliefs of the fringes of our polity, both the r0ght-wing and left wing extremes.  I have given into laughter and bitching as coping mechanisms.  This essay is an attempt to correct a behavior in which I am fully implicated.  It’s confession and penance. 

Community and Compassion go to the Fair and the Banquet Hall

A few weeks ago I went with my family to the Wood County Fair, which is held just a few blocks from my house.  We went earlier in the day, before the rides and games had begun, and strolled the midway looking at farm animals and eating the satisfyingly unhealthy food available only at a country fair.  While I look forward to some parts of the fair–the milkshakes the local 4-H students make are great; I always like looking at goats and sheep–I usually do not enjoy myself.  I am very much a child of the sub/urban landscapes of Arlington, Virginia and I’d much rather walk along a city street than visit the barns and rides of a county fair.  I just don’t feel comfortable in such settings

This sense of displacement was heightened by the fact that at the very center of the fair grounds a vendor had set up his portable shop from which he sold car decorations.  The selection was mostly made up of stickers for car bumpers and truck windows; the vast majority were pro-gun, pro-rural, anti-urban, and anti-liberal.  The vendor’s trailer was easy to find because he had two large Confederate flags flying. 

(I won’t digress and follow the obvious tangent:why the hell would someone in Ohio, birthplace of Sherman, Sheridan and Grant, fly Confederate flags?). 

Simply understand that I felt very out of place and grumpy with the almost wholly-white crowd at the country fair.  This grumpiness was verging into anger when we sat down to rest on a bench underneath a small tree.  We were close to the goat barn and a small crowd was dispersing.  We had just missed the judging of goats raised by FFA students.  As we sat out of the heat, I noticed a young man, a boy really, no older than 12 or 13, who was walking out of the barn leading a goat.  The boy had one athletic shoes that looked a size or two too large; black jeans which had been hemmed and were cinched around his waist by an old belt; and a white dress shirt that was 10-12 years out of style.  He had a short buzz cut and carried a huge red ribbon in his hand.  He’d done well in the show; he hadn’t won first place, but he’d placed.  And when his family saw him and began cheering, he stood still as a huge smile came over his face.  Whatever his station in life, the poverty of his dress or the provincialism of his community, he had worked hard.  And his family’s pride in his success nearly made me cry. 

The last time I had that sensation was the summer I taught a class for BGSU’s Upward Bound program.  An intensive immersion into college life and academics, Upward Bound is a program for students from underrepresented groups, usually racial/ethnic minorities or people living below the poverty line, who have a chance of being first generation college students.  My students that summer were all students in Toledo Public Schools and all but two of them were African-American.  At the end of the summer we had a banquet with the parents, at which the students displayed examples of the work they had completed that summer.  One group of students had taken a journalism class and had made a small newspaper to demonstrate their writing and editorial skills.  I was showing the newspaper to my wife when one of my students came up with her parents.  The student was one of my favorites; a kind, hard-working, intelligent young woman who was both very large, though not particularly overweight, and unable to afford new clothes that adequately fit her frame.  Her brightness was often overshadowed by the meagerness of her circumstances and the other students discounted her as slow and poor.  That night at the banquet, dressed in her nicest clothes, she introduced me to her folks and then showed them her article in the newspaper.  And they were oh so proud of her.

The joy and pride her parents clearly felt at their daughter’s work and my students happiness in her parents’ praise were all echoed in the moment outside the goat barn.  In both cases, young people who were been born into poverty or near-poverty were given a chance to outshine their meager circumstances and their ill-fitting thrift-store clotes.  And their parents, who presumably couldn’t offer much, were so clearly proud of their child. 

In many ways, these two young people have little in common.  And, in many respects, they bear many of the faults that awaken cynicism in teachers.  And, while the social and cultural distance from rural Wood County to urban Toledo is far greater than the 20 geographic miles which seperate them, these two young people face the same economic challenges.  Their families and immediate communities are impacted by the same social and economic forces which affect all of Northwest Ohio.  And, in their moments of pride, these young people worked through similar paths.  Boththecounty fair and Upward Bound are government sponsored and supported programs and without the crucial work of the government neither of these kids would have had the same opportunities.

In both cases, it would be easy to dismiss these kids, to laugh at the paucity of their intellegence, their ignorance.  But in doing so, we simply prevent ourselves from feeling compassion for them.  And it is compassion that can help us see the commanility that cuts across our communities and find the grounds with which to reform our teaching and improve discourse. 

(Unfortunately, we see the differences between them and go on to encourage them to see each other as different.  And, while the subject of creating community through diversity training is a subject for another post, it is important to point outthat we ought to consider the ways we teach the histories of race and racialization impact our students.)

What troubles about the cynicism of so many teachers and the cynicism and nastiness of our current discourse is the fundamental lack of compassion, that we fail to see each other as members of one community.  I know the temptation to look around and presume I am surrounded by enemies and threats, to presume that my students come from Confederate flag-waving rural enclaves or failing urban schools.  But, ever if they do, I need to see within them the same humanity I ask them to see in me.  And, until teachers can have the patience to treat their students compassionately, we will be unable to teach our students the same values.

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4 Responses to “Elitism and Compassion (a Back to School Special)”

  1. Gavin Says:

    In my experience the worst students at BGSU were the entitled suburban kids. They take education for granted, bristled at anything that brought them out of their comfort zone (such as acknowledging the suffering of people not like them), and had no love of learning outside of what would “get them a job” (as if that marketing degree is going to get them jack shit). Every student I busted for cheating was from this demographic.

    Teachers complaining about students with poor skills is like doctors complaining about patients being sick! That’s your job!


  2. Rather than complain about sick patients or ill-prepared students we could better channel our energies into fixing the system so that we have a healthier, better educated populace. Bitching may make us feel better in the short term; but it only makes the long term situation worse.

    You’re comment about resistant students is resonate with my experiences and I’ll discuss this in my next post, which will focus on my experiences teaching Ethnic and American Studies from a position of social privilege.

  3. Dr. Lampshade Says:

    Oh if only compassion for students were a more central criterion for academic hiring. Good work Brother Barbee.

  4. Matt Trease Says:

    Matt,

    Good thoughts. I know I always have to work hard to try and stop myself from returning the volley of culture war vitriol, and I’m not always successful at it.

    I wish there were more conversations like this in the academy. I can’t tell you how tired I am of hearing folks bitch about how their students have no/little capacity for critical thinking (a position I disagree with). It’s sad that there are few of my colleagues who ever want to talk about what we can do structurally within our departments to make school less of an assimilative institution and more of a place for rigorous curiosity.


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