Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Our Children’s Ethics – and our Own

Our Children’s Ethics – and our Own

This was a response to a Facebook Post reporting a recent assault, in Central Park, on a 31-year-old jogger by four teens and a twelve-year old, being part of a recent pattern of targeted violence there.

These kids are criminals. But one should also ask oneself what kind of society produces such criminals. In India, there has been a spate of horrible rapes and now a strong public reaction against this. But as in here, the questions regarding what brought this about, what are the social conditions that led to this -- these questions are rarely asked. This is not to excuse the criminality, but to seek to cure it and prevent it by looking at its causes, as one should do for any pathology.

The social and economic situation, and the social ethics, in the parts of India where the rapes mostly occur are different from other parts, as they are from here. Turning to our own culture, why is there such a resistance against strongly condemning (I am not speaking here of banning) the extreme and unnecessary violence portrayed for so long on screens and the extreme misogyny accepted as cool in certain forms of music? Shouldn't we teach children, including by example, to turn away from such things, to despise them?

These are highly lucrative businesses, and those dollars are coming from people watching and listening to these things, accepting them as normal and shelling out cash for them.

Of course, violence and its celebration as well as misogyny have been part of many cultures, and ours has never been an exception in this. I am against political correctness and all for free speech, but the transmission of ethics to the young, along with the awakening of empathy, compassion, kindness and gentleness have always been, in most human cultures, a part of the perceived duty of parents and adults, best set by contact, caring and example.

These include (and may be most clearly evident in) those cultures we (most mainstream civilizations, including Indian) arrogantly view as "primitive" -- such as those of hunter-gatherers, even though (or perhaps because) the killing of animals and, in certain cases, of plants, is something the tribals have to do themselves each day in order to survive -- rather than having these things done for them in mass slaughterhouses and farms, as with us.

I would not necessarily tie this particular incident to the culture that is transmitted and commercially exploited by our entertainment industry. But we are exercising, at best, a double standard here by accepting and even promoting that debased culture. This includes, by the way, the "I, me and myself !" (or "Me and mine -- and f**k the rest of you!") ethos.  This is flaunted by many of our screen heroes, both in their screen personae and in their personal, too often public, lives.  And this is part of the reason they are admired, even worshiped. And yet we find this attitude disturbing when we see it evidenced in the way our children, neighborhood youth or students speak and act.

In the absence or dissipation of the traditional cultures, with all their problems but also their basic values and their histories and mythologies, what many of our young imbibe is the culture (and manufactured mythology and history, from Disney onwards) transmitted by the entertainment media, along with, from their peers and older children in their neighborhoods and schools, a "street culture" that is also degenerate, even depraved.

So we have a disconnect between the generations, between working parents too busy, unable or unwilling to teach their kids what humans have always taught their young, and children who run wild, with their own (to us) strange ethical rules and attitudes. The schools aren’t usually able to bridge that gap, and this isn't even considered to be one of the duties and rights of teachers.

I have to be careful, except with freshly arrived ELL (English Language Learner) kids who tend, in many cases, to be more receptive to such things, with less hostility towards and distance from their teachers, viewing us more as humans like themselves, gifting us with good intentions, sometimes undeservedly -- I have to be careful, with the rest, of ever venturing, even by example, let alone speech, into areas of right and wrong, or of duty and responsibility. I know I will be quickly disciplined by the call, "Just do your job -- teach!"

For teachers’ assistants (paraprofessionals) such a venture is even riskier.
I have long believed that, especially for high school regular ed. teachers with up to 170 students to teach each day (or more, each week, if one is a science teacher with many labs), that our main concern, as teachers, should be the subject (or, too often, subjects) we teach.  To say otherwise may often be mere pretense. 

But we cannot be oblivious to the human side of our job.  We need to notice what's going on with our students, at least in the classroom and with homework, and that cannot really be isolated from what is happening in the rest of their lives.  

Even basic teaching and learning cannot proceed without an atmosphere in which there is some degree of mutual respect and some commonality of ethical culture between the students and between students and teachers.  I need not go into the details of all that transpires, making teaching and learning impossible, when these things are absent or badly frayed.  It has been accepted that the establishment of this atmosphere is primarily the job of the teacher. I would differ with this, along with most other teachers, and say that the students have at least a shared responsibility, as do parents.  So does the larger community, if such a thing exists in any coherent form.

If we have a situation in which some of the same things we find objectionable in students are also present in many teachers, then those of us who cannot deal with this have little choice but to leave the profession as fast as we can without landing up, quite literally, on the street. 

Perhaps such teachers (who have imbibed the same popular mores as the kids) will find some commonality with their students, and so succeed.  It will become, even more than it has been, all about the dollar and the show, like much of show business is, and school will become, even more, a place where only the savvy, slick and hard-hearted can hope to survive.  And, even more so than now, it will be those who are best at this who will climb up and dictate to the rest.

If this isn't what we want, then it is up to us to publicly voice our concerns. Not to do this is to be as derelict in our duties as not bothering much about really teaching the subject or helping the kids learn it.

I had noted, in earlier posts and writings, that there are two main sets of issues that have plagued the schools, long before the current punitive reforms and the testing mania and privatization hit us. 

One of these sets contains the structural issues, over which we have some control, if not as individual teachers then collectively, although some would deny that.  These include issues of purpose, choice, background, resources, sequence, pacing, time, focus, feedback, familiarization, habituation, success, diligence, confidence, application, connection, exploration and questioning.  I will not elaborate on these again here.  And there are other things one could add to that list. 

This is not yet another list of what a teacher has to incorporate into a lesson, although some of these things do need to be considered in a unit plan.  It is more the structure that the system itself has to at least acknowledge, consider and try to provide so that teaching and learning can proceed without the heartache, failure and misery that is so prevalent.

But there is also the set of social issues, over which we have far less control. These are the ones that have been primarily responsible for wrecking the schools. The chaos and tension they create do not allow the structural issues their due attention. On the social front, the most we can do is publicly voice our concerns, both individually and collectively.  This does make a difference.

On both the structural and the social issues, no worthwhile, meaningful progress will be made unless we, the teachers and others in the schools, along with concerned parents and sincere students, bring these to the forefront.

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