End Totalitarian Teaching (Part 7 of 7)
April 22, 2010
This article is the final installment in a seven-part series that implores teachers to abandon their attachment to outdated, oppressive, and arbitrary control issues, in the name of harboring a more positive, fostering learning environment. Each part of the series focuses on a different aspect of control. Part 7 focuses on hostility.
Imperative #7: Never Forget: Hostility Begets Hostility
Although I didn’t intend it from the start, it has become apparent to me over the course of writing this series that these imperatives are all the things I resented as a student. I can articulate them now much better than I could then (and with far less profanity), and I enjoy a vantage point now that allows me to see not only what the problem is, but also from where it comes. On an individual basis, totalitarian teachers are insecure and short-sighted. They do not trust their students’ abilities, and they do not trust themselves to be able to maintain order without also attempting to have control. On a more universal scale, totalitarian teaching exists when we simply fail to observe the Golden Rule. This is all the more the tragic when we consider nostalgic images and descriptions of school as the very place where we are supposed to learn this Golden Rule. We have lost sight of this. Or perhaps, this is fanciful revisionism, and the Golden Rule never actually existed in the master-pupil setting. And perhaps, even without the Golden Rule, the heavy-handed, master-pupil methodology worked reasonably well for a time. What is certain is that it does not work now.
I have encountered too many teachers, both as their student and as their colleague, who set the tone on the first day of school as one of hostility. They introduce themselves, perhaps try to impress upon their youths the so-called significance of their academic degrees, then they follow the Reading of the Rules and Consequences with some sort of sermon of which there are many variations but only one thesis. It goes something like this:
You are young, and I am old.
You’d better do what you are told.
If you try to fuck with me,
we’ll step outside, and then we’ll see
how little you know, and where I’ve been,
and you will learn that I will win.
Unfortunately for these sermonizers, hostility does not equal learning. In all their efforts to strike the fear of God into their students and establish their authoritarian position from Day One, totalitarian teachers do not realize that all they are establishing is the contest. Adolescents do not care who will win. They do not even care if they are certain to lose. What they care about is the contest. They thrive on the challenge. The joy is in the journey, not the destination, and when teachers introduce themselves by throwing down the gauntlet, the students are more than happy to take it up. The teacher has not established respect or even fear. He has, however, established the adversarial relationship. He may then proceed through the entire school year with the absolute certainty that the students will learn very little, but that they will take great pleasure in challenging his authority in all ways both passive and aggressive. This is all because civility begets civility, and hostility begets hostility.
On a similar note, threats are not nearly as impressive as actions. In fact, threats are insulting. So long as the cause-effect relationship is made clear, the recipient of any disciplinary or retaliatory action is far more likely to respect the impetus of that action, as well as the arbiter, if the action is preceded with as few warnings as possible. Simply by virtue of our positions, we have power. We don’t need to display it. Displays of power are for apes. The students are not impressed by such displays, and displaying is entirely unnecessary for true power to be meaningful or effective. True power is wielded only when it is timely, and only with responsibility, humility, and compassion. But let us not worry about when to wield power, as it is just this sort of preoccupation that leads to totalitarian thinking in the first place. If we are doing everything correctly in our classrooms and observing all the imperatives of Anti-Totalitarian Teaching, we will find that we very rarely have to wield our power at all.
Totalitarian teaching is failing us. It is failing our students, and therefore, it is failing our society. In our schools, we preach democracy but practice fascism. Demanding blind obedience, we attempt to mass-produce focused, uniformed, industrious academics. Instead, we breed narrow-sighted, resentful, exhausted servants who lack the variety of knowledge and skills necessary to maintain an advanced society. If we want our nation to continue to grow and improve through the 21st Century, we must abandon our attachment to outdated, oppressive, and arbitrary controls and harbor a more positive, more understanding, more cooperative learning environment. End hostility. End invulnerability. End servitude. End conformity. End forced adulthood. End imprisonment.
End totalitarian teaching.