Thursday, March 22, 2012

Teachers Are Not Personal Assistants

I am not someone who subscribes to a “tough love” (such a ridiculous phrase!) theory of child-rearing. Humans, adults and children alike, seem to do best in circumstances of moderate challenge in purposeful pursuits. Most people generally need to regularly work at a moderate pace towards a purpose that is larger than themselves, facing moderate obstacles that challenge but do not overwhelm them. For most of us, overwork is more of a debilitating problem than over-leisure. But the young of the wealthy learn that the latter is their natural right. Naomi Wolf here criticizes elite schools that are overindulging the children of wealthy parents by removing all obstacles for them in order to satisfy their parent’s desire to keep their kids from having unpleasant experiences at school. 
This is strongly related to the norms of consumerism that emerge in our commodified and inegalitarian market society. Wolf writes:
Many educators in these schools complain that parents' – and, increasingly, students' – attitude to educators is that they are consuming a costly luxury product, and that the teachers work for them; rather than serving as authority figures to the kids, educators at such schools complain that wealthy US parents increasingly expect "service" and "deliverables" from teachers, so won't brook a poor grade or evaluation, or a difficult experience for their child. This attitude then carries over into colleges that serve wealthy populations. And it does not stop there: the consumerist ethos has trickled down, destructively, into the public school system, too.
"How many times has a kid said to me,'You work for me; I am your employer,'" sighed one such administrator to me, recently.
My experience teaching at a state university full of suburban middle- and upper-middle class kids was similar in that I often felt that students saw me as providing them with just another service. But education is not a consumer good, it is a practice that forms character itself; the relationship between teacher and student is not that between diner and waiter, or shopper and salesman, nor should it be, at any socio-economic level. Education should be demanding but not overwhelming or degrading so as to foster growth. The entirely pampered rich-kid educational experience that Wolf describes creates narcissists who think that educators, with decades of experience and the highest degrees in their fields, are simply a kind of domestic servant. They never learn to respect legitimate expertise or authority, and do not understand that people with more knowledge than them should be respected and listened to as guides.
Just as there is crude anti-intellectual strain at the bottom of the Right in the form of ignorant tea baggers, so there is anti-intellectualism at the top. There always has been in America; Sinclair Lewis characterized it well in "Babbitt," his early twentieth century story of a philistine businessman whosaw himself as superior to those snooty artists and intellectuals, who believed that making money made him a better person, when in fact it only made him richer. Babbittry continues today. The pursuit of knowledge and wisdom is not seen as the most import thing you can do with your brain, but is reduced to a pleasant consumer experience. Thus people learn as children to instrumentalize knowledge so that, later in life, it is not seen as something to pursue for its own sake, but as something only useful for, and subordinate to, consumption, profit, war, or other matters of state.

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