This is one of the first lessons that students learn from an early age—how to be silent: sit still, fold your hands, listen. If you want to speak, raise your hands. Wait for permission. Be quiet when the teacher speaks. Too often, the teacher’s prejudices come to bear as to who will speak. Experiment with this—take a gender tally. You will notice that boys/men tend to be called on more frequently than girls/women. In social situations, it’s not uncommon for the women to be silent when men are telling (and retelling) their stories. Jokes out of context? That’s the men’s specialty. More lessons: males own air space. Notice how these dynamics function when it comes to race, age, beauty, sartorial preferences.
Yes, there is something to be said for how silence bespeaks of courtesy and listening in the classroom, but really—why must the teacher be the recipient of most of the courtesy and listening-to? Teachers talk/talk/talk. Students learn what they do—shut up when the teacher is speaking. Let’s not be surprised when they don’t instantly jump into impassioned discussion when they’ve been veggying in their seats, practicing silence.
As teachers, let’s say less. Say nothing. Treat silence as Japanese artists do space—something to create and shape.
At this stage, we buy into a bipolar cosmology—the world neatly divided into clearly defined extremes: Teacher/Student, Powerful/Powerless, God/Man, Man/Woman (gays and trannies aren’t real), Black/White—remember George W. Bush’s swagger when he bragged “I don’t do gray”?—and, of course, the almighty Right/Wrong. Children, insecure teenagers, and stunted adults yearn to live in this universe—it’s safe, solid, permanent—please, it has to be. And in this world we get to have someone—the person or deity in charge—to take care of us.
Symptoms of Yes/No dualism in the classroom? Teachers who specialize in “I’m right/you’re wrong,” devising paintball hunts to splotch student “errors” with the favored color of ink or highlight—the better to grade you, my dear. Such a great way to serve (as administrators are delighted to call it) “the needs of assessment”! Let’s wheedle yes/no answers from students. Hooray for Multiple Choice! Hooray for rote! Hooray for quantification of qualities! Ask them questions they are likely to get “wrong” so we can tug-of-war them back to the sunshine of “right”!
Students in the Yes/No classroom acquire a mechanical attitude toward learning. They can become anxious, bored, competitive, combative, and non-responsive in response. A polarizing atmosphere fosters hierarchies and animosities between students and breeds prejudice.
Students learn to ask teachers the most foolish of questions when they are forced to live in or aren’t guided out of the false security and therefore terrors of Yes/No dualism: Can I ask a question? What do you want? How many pages? (I’ll elaborate on those in another post.)
So-So What? Relativism
So-So What? Relativism is also known as “sophomoritis.” No longer a hazed and vulnerable newcomer needing the certainties of a bipolar universe, once sophomores pay backward the humiliations they suffered onto new freshmen, they may swing to the safety of solipsism: I live in my universe—you live in yours. Don’t bother me with your point of view. With apologies to Descartes, this translates to I think it—therefore it is.
So-So What? Relativism in the classroom? Teachers who specialize in being popular, anything goes, and coasting. In writing classes, these teachers will praise everything—challenge no one.
Students learn little when they aren’t drawn out of the So-So What? Relativism stage. They go slack. They can’t focus. They become entrenched in whatever, and are likely to revert to Yes/No.
It Depends Contextualism
It Depends Contextualism embraces ambiguity, flexibility, democracy, and uncertainty. It’s what John Keats said William Shakespeare “possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” This is the danger zone of scholarly adventure, creativity, experimentation. It cannot be easily assessed.
In this stage, truth and morality are treated as a function of context. It challenges Kant’s categorical imperative, which I translate as “what if everyone were to do this?” Well, if someone came into my classroom in a rage and asked, let’s say, for Terrence—I would instantly lie that there was no Terrence present. I would, of course, be breaking the categorical imperative for honesty. So be it!!!
Students who are encouraged to contextualize may baulk at having to abandon the certainties, prejudices, and arrogance of the Yes/No and So-So What? stages. But the benefits of It Depends Contextualism—freedom of thought, creativity, flexibility, new experiences, depth of ideas, friendship, collegiality, and community—are immeasurable. Contextualism fosters What If?—which is the foundation of civilization. It is to be lead forth from the shadows of Plato’s cave. It’s what “education” means—“leading out.”
How do you move among these stages?
© 2014 Susanna Rich