Saturday, May 30, 2020

Teaching And The Social Contract (TL;DR)

I didn't write anything yesterday, which is an unusual day for me, but I've just been trying to take it all in. I have family in Seattle, friends in Pittsburgh. There's a lot of mess out there tonight.

It's nothing new for our country, but it's never been laid out so starkly. The woman in Central Park deliberately weaponizing her status as a white woman to, at best, put a Black man in his place and, at worst, to try to harm him for daring to challenge her right to break the rules. The armed white guys threatening duly elected lawmakers with harm and worse, because masks make them sad; met by well-disciplined law enforcement who do everything to avoid escalating the situation (reminiscent of the Bundy family's armed attack on a US facility to protect their right to steal US resources-- nobody lost their cool there, either). A peaceful protest of the gazillionth unjust death of a Black man escalated.

One of the most useful lenses I've found in the past few days is this one, from Trevor Noah

In it, he talks about the social contract, the various sorts of deals we make as a society that keeps the society working. We pretend sometimes that it's people exercising authority, like police officers or school teachers, who keep the place working, but in the absence of some kind of contract, even if it's unspoken and unexplained, there aren't enough authority figures on the planet to keep things from falling apart--it's the contract that makes the center hold.

On some level, we understand this. I'm not the only teacher who spent his first year (or two) grappling with the knowledge that if every student in my classroom stood up, threw their books down, and said, "Screw this, I'm walking out," I would be helpless to do a thing. But both the school and I enter a sort of contract. In the later half of my career, I got in the habit of making my side more explicit. "I promise, " I would tell them, "that I will never knowingly waste your time. I promise that I will demand that everybody in this room be treated with respect and like a functioning adult." And also, "Let me start by admitting that we have been lying to you for years. Teachers tell you that you have to do this or you have to do that, and you and I both know that you don't have to do anything just because I ask you to do it."

When Jefferson wrote about government needing "the consent of the governed," he was getting at the same point. Governments-- really, anything wielding authority-- offer some kind of deal. Sometimes the deal that they offer is pretty brutal-- "Do as we ask, and we'll let you live." The American deal is supposed to be more aspirational-- "Work hard, be responsible, pay your dues, and you will become successful and have a comfortable life." But that deal has never been offered to everyone in this country. And we're in bigger trouble now because the government's side was supposed to be "We will maintain a level playing field and not exercise the power we've been entrusted either to enforce our personal biases or further our personal fortunes." That part of the deal is perhaps the more history-making part of the US experiment, and it's in obvious trouble at the moment. That and the part of the contract that says, "The law will be exercised equally for all citizens regardless of status or bias."

This contract is part of the purpose of public education.

You don't learn about the social contract from your parents, not right away. Your deal with your parents, in all but the most toxic of families, is that they love you no matter what. It's at school where we start learning about the contract; we usually talk about learning socialization or social skills, but we're talking about the conditions of many social contracts. Children learn about the different contracts they can make with peers (some great, some terrible), and they most especially learn about the deal that society, as represented by the teachers and administrators, will make with them.

They learn that it's complicated, that the institution will make a contract, and each different individual teacher will also make a contract, and they will all be different.

And this is where teachers and schools can blow it.

Individual teachers may offer a wide range of contracts, and it sucks. "Sorry," we say to some of our students, "but I'm not going to make that deal with you, that deal with all the good stuff, because you are not smart enough or white enough. I don't believe you will show the kind of behavior I require for that contract, so you can't have that one." Pat gets a contract that says Pat can get all the rewards and praise and support; Chris gets the contract that says Chris can get the chance not to be hassled and made miserable on any given day.

One of the best deals a teacher can offer is that you will actually hear and see the student. This is valuable to the student, and critical for the teacher as well, because people absolutely desire to be heard, and if they do not feel heard when they speak, they will keep raising the volume until they can be heard. The answer to pearl-clutching concerns about rioting and "That certainly isn't going to help their cause" is (at least in part) two-fold. First, what would help? Because if you're at the rioting part, that means the bus already drove past a bunch of quieter, calmer options, and you chose to dismiss them. Second, why isn't this also your cause? And here in 2020, you also have to ask-- just who is doing the looting and burning and vandalizing, because many bad actors have become quite sophisticated about using peaceful protest as cover for attempts to sow chaos and delegitimize the real protestors and even, apparently, usher in a new civil war. So racism making even demonstrations against racism worse.

But still--unheard voices will just get louder, even in your classroom. The power differential between teachers and students may lead you to imagine that you can just squelch the loud voices, shout them down, shut them up. That does not work. If you want proof of how poorly it works, go back to looking at the streets that are filled with protestors in America right now.

Because-- and this goes back to what you knew when you first started in the classroom-- you do not have power, not really. What you have is a contract, a deal, and if the folks on the other side come to understand that you do not plan to honor it, that there is no benefit to them in honoring the deal, then they will stop, and all your illusions of power and control are in trouble.

If you, as a teacher, are watching what's going on right now and thinking that the explanation for the riots in Minneapolis and elsewhere is something along the lines of, "Well, that's how Those People are," then you are a problem, not just as a citizen, but as a professional. There's no way that doesn't lead to your belief that some of Those Peoples' children can't really be expected to make the bigger, better deal, and so, instead, you make a deal based on managing their supposed deficits instead of fostering their strengths and potentials.

All of this--- all of this-- is why teaching about racism, about systemic bias and injustice, has to happen all the time and not just in response to the latest outrage. The classroom should not only be where we unpack what just happened, but where we get the tools to see it before and as it unfolds.

I'm grateful to the commentators who offered this framing. It's hard to talk about Big Things like Justice, but a contract is pretty simple. I'm reminded of one of the do-overs of the famous marshmallow experiments in which the adults made a deal, a contract with the children-- show some self-discipline, and you'll get more marshmallows. Then the experimenters showed, through some other actions, that they could not be trusted to honor the contract, and so the children ignored the deal as well.

So look at the deals you're offering in your classroom. What are you offering, and what are you asking for in return, and does that strike you as a reasonable deal? Do all students have a chance to make the same deal? Have you tried to change the deal unilaterally? Have you decided you can ignore it at will and just use raw power to paper over the lapse? And as a teacher, what are you teaching your students about the social contracts they'll deal with as adults?

Who knows what the days ahead hold? Most likely a confusing push of details and debate. But the basic issues-- the racism, the failure of those in power to make a hold up a decent social contract-- will still be hanging in the fall air (right next to the other stupid virus) and teachers should be finding a way to deal.

Having said all that, there's one last important thing that doesn't easily fit in the contract frame. That's the obligation we owe to fellow humans. I suppose we can call it a debt that we owe for the privilege of being alive plus all the other privileges we enjoy, but we have an obligation to be decent and supportive and kind and human to fellow humans, particular those who because of age or race or birth or resources have been denied what we have been given. "I've got mine, Jack," is not a legitimate social contract. We can do better. We have to do better. If people raise their voices in protest, and that fails, either because of the resistance of authorities or the subversion of bad actors, what do you suppose comes next?

1 comment:

  1. Yes. And thank you for sharing Trevor Noah's YouTube commentary. After I heard about the looting and "riots" across the country, I wasn't shocked or appalled. Having read Malcolm Gladwell's David and Goliath a few years ago, I understood: The people involved have been wronged so many times; they have nothing to lose.

    Maybe white people in American society who care about people of color should make the following commitment to them: We will protest, we will go out and march, thousands of our white bodies filling the streets, speaking power to power and white to white and right to wrong. You stay inside. Because otherwise people of color step into the protest like lambs led to slaughter. And how often does it turns from peaceful to violent? Then think of the Amristar massacre in India, Bloody Sunday in Russia, Tiannman Square in China, the Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa. No longer will I consider peaceful protests as viable (in the usual sense and in the biological sense of the word) options for people of color, at least in this country.