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Philosophical Meanderings

An Open Letter to “Teachers” Everywhere (from a ‘non-teacher’)

Paula White’s description of the pain she experiences in the mad, mad, mad, mad world of education has prompted me to make a single point (albeit in a rather longwinded, round-about way).

Whether you follow the yellow brick road purported to lead to the City of Oz (material “success” in the U.S. or the “global society”) or the road less traveled (of “enlightenment” or critical thinking), your students and I “feel your pain”. Perhaps it is not exactly your pain, but your students and I are pained nonetheless.

The phrase “No pain, no gain” is often used in connection with building up our physical bodies. The phrase also applies to “learning”.

There is a physiologic basis for our experiencing pain while gaining new insights and incorporating new information. When faced with new information that conflicts with “what we know” or with our passive acceptance of matters despite prior inquiry, we experience cognitive dissonance. Functional MRI studies have demonstrated that cognitive dissonance triggers a response in the same area of the brain that physical pain triggers.*

This is related to a matter societies the world around seem to have “known” but which had not been “proven” until recently. “The Rule of Sevens” is something of a legal concept that suggests human beings, up to the age of seven, are largely not responsible for their actions. Between their seventh and fourteenth years, they start to be responsible for their actions. Between fourteen and twenty-one, they become increasingly responsible for their actions and are thereafter fully accountable for what they do. All of this is related to the development of the human brain.**

Notwithstanding the seeming rigidity of the foregoing rule wide developmental latitudes exist – it is a “rule of thumb” only and yet, due to myopia and small-mindedness, “We the people” tend to think all individual children should develop “normally” and in lockstep with one another. Lewis Terman assuredly thought this when he developed the Stanford-Binet IQ Test. Those devoted to the God of the “Bell Curve”, those who develop standardized testing processes that supposedly prove the existence of intellectual and other characteristics, also seem quite enamored of the notion all humans are “supposed to be” the same at the same time during their lives.

The “supposed to be” has become a societal “fact”, with deviations to the left or right of the Bell’s peak deemed as either positive or negative anomalies.

I hope what follows gives you the same type of headache it does me. What I am about to say is personally offensive to me; you may find also find it personally offensive. If so, our respective offense will be but mirror images of one another’s pain.

Youths know that being compelled to attend school and compete against one another by seeking out the highest scores on quantitative tests comprises a great lie. They know their scores do not establish their individual value as living, thinking beings. Most know there is no pot of gold at the end of the education rainbow.

The structure of the public education system is at best amoral – it simply “is”. There is no one to blame, and herein lies the perverse and certain beauty of it – nothing can be done about the structure in a “meritocracy” in both praise and blame must be “merited”. A “Catch-22” situation exists in which we expend our time and energies looking for scapegoats to heap blame upon – the students, the teachers, the parents, the economy, the industrialists, etc. Amidst the screaming, shouting, blaming, the premises underlying the structure that assure individuals will be transfixed along stratified bands of color, sex, gender, ethnic, cultural, religious, socioeconomic and other lines are not interrogated, and by evading interrogation they remain fixed in place.

Teachers, you are functioning parts of one or another “education system”. In the USA, you may be parts of the “public” system. The system is an amoral structure premised on an immoral thought presented and discussed in the public forum in such a way that its pernicious aspects remain hidden from view in a fashion similar to a variety of other “American” viewpoints such as “The American Dream”, “Equality”, “Freedom” and “Demoncracy” (the spelling of the latter word was quite purposeful).

Unless each individual would gain critical insight, their entire lifetimes will be spent attempting to fight their way out of a paper bag. Public education assures this through teaching of lies. Each teacher is a part of this process – so, too, am I along with every other citizen, spouse, parent, employer, employee who goes along with the status quo.

I know of the foregoing Truth because I am not “free”. I am not “an American” who has an “equal” opportunity to achieve my “American Dream”. My “test scores”, education credentials that demonstrate cultural capital, experience as a police officer, Paramedic and attorney all evidence the Truth of the matter. We live in a structured society and I find myself quite screwed, quite firmly affixed in place as part of a structured society.

I was raised in a “privileged” environment. My adoptive parents were college graduates – my father had attended years of seminary afterward to become a minister, my mother was a high school teacher. As a child I could do little but grow – my verbal intelligence grew due to the fertilizer around me – plenty of bull, horse and other manure. I was raised to become an active participant in “American society”. Despite this, however, I have been and remain somewhat distanced from “mainstream” society.

In The Republic, Plato set forth a dialogue between Socrates and several students involving the proposal to present youths with a lie designed to lead them to live in a manner that placed the good of society before their own. Despite recognizing the potential for extreme outrage should the youths discover they had been taught to live a lie, it was concluded that teaching them to live a lie was the best course of action to take.

Thomas Jefferson was quite astute. The structure of “public education” in the U.S.A. acts as “the hand that rocks the cradle”, “educating” each individual to the effect of assuring they serve society unawares.

Socrates and the students were correct – upon learning the truth, the recipients of lies will be extremely angered.

 I suspect that some who read this have been, and continue to be, somewhat uncomfortable. Perhaps your heads hurt because you think – perhaps you have been living a lie taught to you early in your lifetime.

* Masten, C. L., Eisenberger, N. I., Borofsky, L. A., Pfeifer, J. H., McNealy, K., Mazziotta, J. C., & Dapretto, M. (2009). Neural correlates of social exclusion during adolescence: understanding the distress of peer rejection. Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience, 4(2), 143-157. doi:10.1093/scan/nsp007

Masten, C. L., Telzer, E. H., & Eisenberger, N.I. (2011). An fMRI investigation of attributing negative social treatment to racial discrimination. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 23(5), pp. 1042–1051

van Veen, V., Krug, M.K., Schooler, J. W., & Carter, C.S. (2009). Neural activity predicts attitude change in cognitive dissonance. Nature Neuroscience, 12(11), pp. 1469-1475. doi:10.1038/nn.2413

Westen, D., Blagov, P. S., Harenski, K., Kilts, C., & Hamann, S. (2006). Neural bases of motivated reasoning: An fMRI study of emotional constraints on partisan political judgment in the 2004 U.S. Presidential Election. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 18(11), 1947-1958

** Blakemore, S. (2008). Development of the social brain during adolescence. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 61(1), 40-49. doi:10.1080/17470210701508715

Choudhury, S., Blakemore, S., & Charman, T. (2006). Social cognitive development during adolescence. Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience, 1(3), 165-174. doi:10.1093/scan/nsl024

Oberstar, J.V., Anderson, E.M., & Jensen, J.B. (2006). Cognitive and moral development, brain development and mental illness: Important considerations for the juvenile justice system. William Mitchell Law Review, (32)3, pp. 1051-1061

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About Brent Snavely

A construct of upbringing and society, holder of a BS and JD and most recently an MA, I have practiced law for about 20 years. It has been said "The Truth shall set you free" -- I believe it will, but only if it is Your Personal Truth. Parrhesia may be humankind's only hope (see, https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=explorer&srcid=0B9yCDQy_KiIGYTNiZTc1NmMtNzQ4ZS00OTM2LWI5ZWItNDI5MjVkMDM5NzZm).

Discussion

6 thoughts on “An Open Letter to “Teachers” Everywhere (from a ‘non-teacher’)

  1. Wow. Really?! Can’t even get a comment out.

    Posted by Caffeinated Impressions | September 16, 2011, 6:21 pm
  2. I appreciate your perspective. Can’t say I agree with all of it, but there is more overlap than it might appear from a sellout like me.

    Cognitive dissonance is a hard concept for me. It seems a fine line between dissonance and nuance, paradox and mystery. The line between hypocrisy and paradox is often elusive.

    Posted by John T. Spencer | September 16, 2011, 6:29 pm
  3. Call it cognitive dissonance, paradox, aporia or whatever you will, the closer two or more “things” are (whether physical or intellectual concepts), the more difficult it becomes to choose one over the other.

    I don’t think “sellout” is entirely applicable to you and others who are in similar situations.

    I have the advantage of being an “outsider looking in”, and the advantage of being older than you, with no children in the house (the stepsons are out and surviving on their own), no children in (or soon to be in) school of any sort, and have decades of experience dealing with physical and intellectual power confrontations.

    You and other “teachers” have extremely tough rows to hoe.

    Posted by Brent Snavely | September 16, 2011, 7:03 pm
  4. I have a lot to agree with here, but a few things to clear up. More than a bit reductionist to peg anything in the brain with fMri’s. We don’t know enough about how the brain divvies up the work to make your conclusions about no-pain-no-gain anything more that a wild ass guess. Second, initial conditions might bend us in particular ways, but small changes in initial conditions can lead to widely disparate emergent consequences. Plato’s parable of the cave was just that–an analogy to prove a point, but in the end all analogies (like all metaphors) are problematic. They do not tell even the larger part of the truth. Lastly, I sense a powerful argument here based upon certitude, your personal belief and experience, and not certainty, something based in ascertainable and reproducible fact. The thrust of your post an outsider is that you have the perspective that those who teach do not. This standpoint is just as hard to stomach as the one teachers often have that outsiders have no clue because they haven’t lived inside the belly of the beast. Tone is everything sometimes and that is why I preface my remarks as I did. I sense you are summing up in your post as you might in a legal brief. I think you have a clear idea about the row teachers are hoeing, but a bit clueless as to the feelings that flower in a teacher’s heart and soul. This is not a fact easily bound up in a pair of terms like ‘cognitive dissonance’, but, hell, I did like your post.

    Posted by Terry Elliott | September 22, 2011, 6:23 pm
    • Terry,

      Thank you for your insights.

      There is little doubt that as an outsider my perceptions of education and teaching differ from those of the “pros”. Perceptual differences may very well lie at the heart of the heated discourse (and some recriminations) about “education” in the public forum. As I meander about the Coöp I am learning about your “terms of art”, the words and phrases that seem to have meanings for teachers that differ from what a layperson might believe them to mean. I am also learning a bit about educational theories, theorists, and their authority.

      More important than anything else, I have begun to get a sense of the perspective of teachers-as-humans who play multiple roles: pedagogues, mentors, counselors, disciplinarians and more. It is clear that those here are passionate about their art, their students and the society in which they and their students live.

      I do not know what you and the others here think or feel about my “intrusion” as an outsider – I find it quite painful – my heart and head hurt whether demonstrable through fMRIs or not. In speaking with neighbors who complain about “school taxes” because their children no longer attend public school, I tell them my stepsons are also out of school but that I am more than happy to pay those taxes because of the long-term benefits of education for the local community and for broader society as well. The next time the subject comes up, I will try to convey a few of your stories to them. Perhaps they, too, will begin to learn.

      Posted by Brent Snavely | September 22, 2011, 8:04 pm

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