The Heart of Darkness

My friend, fellow educator and cousin, Liz, commented on yesterday’s post where I (basically) asked why we waste educational opportunities by being unpleasant or bullying. Here’s something that she wrote in the comments:

How we respond to young people is vitally important. How a parent or teacher responds is so important to the self-esteem of a child/student. There is rarely a call for being brutally blunt or thoughtlessly cruel. But bashing is in style. It’s been in style a long time, long enough for an entire generation to think it is the norm.

The emphasis of that phrase “But bashing is in style” is mine because I couldn’t agree with it more. You can see it where we knock people down for being good in ways that we think that we may not be able to attain, while feting people who are wealthy, because somehow we can see ourselves being millionaires. Steinbeck, unsurprisingly, said it best and we paraphrase is longer thoughts on this as:

“Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” as given in A Short History of Progress (2005) by Ronald Wright.

So there’s surprisingly little bashing of the “haves that we might attain if we are really lucky or play the game in the right way”, but there is a great deal of bashing of visionaries, dreamers, risk-takers, experimenters, those who challenge the status quo and those who dare to dabble within a field in which we consider ourselves expert. I think that list of ‘types’ pretty much describes every single good student I’ve ever had so it’s not that surprising that a large number of the experiences that these students have are negative.

This has not always happened – the forward thinking, the intellectual, the artistic manifesto maker have been highly prized before but, somehow, this seems to have faded away. (I know that every generation complains about this but, with our media saturation and our near-instantaneous communication, I think that the impact of negative feedback and bashing has a far wider reach, as well as being less focused on debate and more on cruelty, destruction and brutality.)

Let me give you an example. I am an artist, across a few different outlets but mainly writing and design, and I am creating a manifesto to describe my intentions in the artistic space, my motives in doing so, and my views on the fusion between creativity and the more rigid aspects of my discipline. The reaction to this, if I tell people, is predominantly negative. Firstly, due to a certain famous manifesto, most people assume that I am making some sort of revolutionary political statement. (The book “100 Artistic Manifestos” is an excellent reference to get a different view on this.)  Secondly, most people assume that I am somehow incapable of doing this – I suspect it’s because they believe that my job is me or that Computer Scientists can’t be creative. The general reaction is one of “knocking”, a gentle form of dismissive undermining common in Australia, but this is just a polite version of bashing. People don’t believe I can do this and have no problem expressing this in a variety of ways. Fortunately, I’ve reached the point in my career and my art that the need to write a manifesto is based on a desire to explain and to share, so people not understanding why I would do it just tells me that I need to do it. (Of course, calling yourself an artist is a hard one, as well. Am I published? No. Do I have any works on display? No. Do I make my living from it? No. Am I driven to create art? Yes. By my definition, I’m an artist. If I ever sell two paintings, of any kind, I’ve doubled Van Gogh’s lifetime sales. 🙂 )

This is the environment in which my students are learning and growing – and it’s a dark one. If I have noted nothing else from working with the young, it is that they are amazingly fragile at some points. The moments that you have to work with people, when they feel comfortable enough to be open and honest with you, are surprisingly few and far between – being cruel, taking a cheap shot, not having the time, cutting them down, not listening… it’ll have an effect, alright, and it may even be an effect that stays with that student for life. Going back over your memory of your teachers and lecturers, I bet you can remember every single one that changed your life, whether for good or for ill.

I don’t really want to harden my students, to make them into living armour, because I think that is really going to get in the way of them being people. Yes, I need them to be resilient but that’s a very different thing to rigid or tough. I need them to be able to commit to a particular set of ideas, that they choose, and to be able to withstand reasonable argument and debate, because this is the burden of the critical thinker. But I’m always worried that making them insensitive to criticism risks making them easily manipulable and ignorant of useful sources. It’s far too easy to respond to people you see as bashers with bashing – Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens both spring to mind as people who wield words and ideas as weapons in an (on occasion) unnecessarily cruel, dismissive or self-satisfied way. There is a particular smugness of “basher-bashing” that is as repellent as the original action and this is also not a great way to train people that you wish to be out there, sharing and discussing ideas. If I wanted repellently smug and self-serving prose, I’d read Jeremy Clarkson, who is (at least) occasionally funny.

The obvious rejoinder to this is that “well, we need people on our side who are as tough as the opponents” and, frankly, I don’t buy it. That sounds more like revenge to me, with a side order of schaudenfreude. If we don’t act top stop it, then we make an environment in which bashing is tolerated and, if we do that, then the most successful basher will win. I’ll tell you right now that it won’t have to be the person who is smartest, most correct, most well-prepared – it is far more likely that it is the person who is willing to be the most cruel, the utterly vindictive and the inescapable persecutor who will win that battle.

So, longwindedly, I complete agree with Liz and want to finish by emphasising the start of her quote: “How we respond to young people is vitally important. How a parent or teacher responds is so important to the self-esteem of a child/student. There is rarely a call for being brutally blunt or thoughtlessly cruel.”

I am convinced that the majority of educators and parents are doing everything that needs to be done to give a good environment, but we also have to look at the world around us and ask how we can make that better.



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