Sunday, March 22, 2015

Can You Become Better?

One factor that shapes a person's approach to education is that person's answer to a simple question:

Can a person become better?

For many people, the world is separated into two sorts of humans. Some humans are wise and virtuous and imbued with most of the graces a human being can have, while other humans are foolish makers of poor choices, lesser beings with lesser grace, upright bipeds who are just Less Than. Not only do some people believe in this division of humans, but they also believe that this division is immutable and permanent.

Maybe you're born as a Lesser, or maybe you're raised that way (because, you know, your parents were lesser). Maybe your environment shaped you as a Lesser. But if you're a Lesser, that's fundamentally who you are and who you will always be. And the same is true for the Betters.

Starting from those assumptions, we arrive at two completely different approaches to education.

For the Betters, we need a system that nurtures and coaxes their Higher Qualities to the surface, that simply lets the seeds already planted blossom forth. Betters need to be loved and fed and watered and supported, so that they can more easily become the Better Person that we know is inside. If they falter and show a moment of bad judgment or bad behavior, well, everyone makes mistakes sometimes, but doesn't change our understanding of the Better Person they fundamentally are. It's just a stumble on their road to Awesome. We need to support them and build them up so that they feel the Better Person inside. For Betters, the whole system is about helping them embrace and embody their Better nature.

But for the Lessers, we need a different system. Their fundamental Lesser nature must be stomped down, repressed, smothered, buried. Mind you, they will never be Better People. Our goal with them is to teach them to at least pretend to act like a Better, even though that is counter to their very nature. So they need discipline-- lots and lots of discipline, so that they understand that if they let their Lesser nature rise, they will suffer consequences for it.

This strictness is not just about repressing their Lesser nature. Part of the constellation of Lesser character is a laziness, a lack of grit and prudence and ambition. They can never be Better, but they can do better if they will just try harder, and so we must hammer them with high expectations, accept no excuses and just demand that they perform better. If they falter and show a moment of bad judgment or bad behavior, that's their true Lesser nature rising and they need to feel the consequences like a ton of bricks on a loathsome snake. It can be useful to remind them repeatedly that they are Less Than, so that they never forget the Lesser nature that they must never express. For Lessers, the whole system is about helping them repress and reject their Lesser nature while trying to do their best to fake acceptable behavior instead.

Good-hearted Betters are always looking for ways to improve life for Lessers (because, poor dears, they're not capable of even understanding what a better life would really be). Betters like to believe that their success is the result of certain qualities they possess as part of their Better Nature, and they advise Lessers to try adopting some of these qualities as a way of rising above their Lesser nature. And such programs, including schools, can't simply have funds and resources pumped into them, because the Lessers wouldn't handle them properly; Lessers can have resources only if those resources stay under control of the Betters. After all, if the Lessers deserved to have more resources, they would have them, wouldn't they.

Betters will have success because they deserve it. Lessers can earn success, but they will not become Betters. 

Oh, but what if we viewed Lesser and Better as fluid states. What if we even went so far as to view individual human beings as complexes of complicated and varying behaviors, with good and bad behaviors emerging over time and circumstances in a wide variety of ways? What if we decided that stack-ranking human beings based on markers of success such as money and cars and "nice" neighborhoods and social status was not useful in education? In fact, what if we decided that ranking human beings was not useful in education at all??

What if we built the education system on the assumption that each child is a Better? What if we started with the assumption that each child had value and importance and the potential for some sort of growth and accomplishment that could fulfill that child's aspirations and hopes for a future?

I'm not a Pollyanna (nor do I play one on tv). I know that some students will disappoint us, thwart us, and rebuff our best efforts. I remember all too well that every murderer, drug dealer, rapacious CEO, and ignorant, horrible human being once sat in some teacher's classroom.

But if we don't believe that people can become better and stronger and wiser and more decent-- really become those things and not fake it as some sort of camouflage for their immutable inadequacy-- then why have an educational system at all? Most especially, why teach at all?

The biggest failing of those who believe in the immutable categories of Lessers and Betters is that they cannot see possibilities. They imagine a system that can stamp Lesser children with a new brand and polish them up real nice, but they do not imagine a system in which all children have what they need to transform themselves and, with the assistance and guidance and expertise of trained, caring professionals, become the adults they aspire to be.

The largest tragedy is not that some people believe they are Betters and so they design reform programs around this world view. The largest tragedy is that people who have been cast as Lessers can come to believe it, too.

1 comment:

  1. "...why have an educational system at all? Most especially, why teach at all?The biggest failing of those who believe in the immutable categories of Lessers and Betters is that they cannot see possibilities."

    Teaching is the triumph of hope over experience. The possibilities are what we see.