Saturday, June 29, 2013

Disempowering students...through empowerment!

The Universe is a bigoted asshole for making me go through this. We should punish it!
It seems that every culture has some variation of the self-reliance message. "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." The old man and Hercules. "Fall down seven times, get up eight." "I didn't fail 1,000 times; I found 1,000 ways not to make a light-bulb." The ant and the grasshopper. Giving a man a fish versus teaching him to fish.

The story is always the same: perseverance, hard-work, and rising above obstacles and opposition through force of will and effort. My own favorite example happens to be the real-life story of Ernest Shackleton and his voyage through the Antarctic on a ship aptly named The Endurance. It wasn't "changing the system," or shifting the cultural paradigm on X, Y or Z that got him out of what could have been a nearly fatal shipwreck for the crew, it should be noted. It was incredible amounts of effort, preparation and sacrifice.

Side-note: in case you missed one of the best articulations of this lesson, check out David Wong's piece in Cracked. It involves allegorical street-surgeries, incendiary Jesus quotes and Alec Baldwin screaming curse words at old sales farts, so on those grounds alone it may be well worth the read.

As if this idea needed more support, Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney recently published an article in Scientific American Mind about the importance of resilience on the road to success. "Success can hinge on resilience. Setbacks are part of any endeavor, and those who react to them productively will make the most progress." So reads Fast Facts, item number two. Number three claims that people can boost their resilience through a number of strategies. Logically, it follows that conversely, there must be ways through which we could, theoretically, drain people's resilience.

Why would we want to do that? Who would want to do that?

It's easier to speculate on how for the moment, since after all, we're speaking in hypotheticals.

Perhaps we would start by disconnecting what happens to people from their own actions. Even better, we could simultaneously flatter these people by telling them that they don't deserve these bad things. We could tell them that they are "victims." Better yet, victims of an old and evil "system" of perpetual racism, sexism, or some other conveniently simple-minded bigotry (heteronormativity, patriarchy, eurocentricism, take your pick). That way, they would feel unable to do anything about it, except feel sorry for themselves and maybe demand unreasonable accommodations, thus feeding the cycle of dependency. Simultaneously, we could say that giving them as close to a stress-free environment as possible, cut off from inhibiting adversity and uncomfortable challenges, really makes them more free to do what they want and say what they want, without fear of reprisal. We're empowering them. This is how to give a man a fish and explain to him why this is better than learning how to do it himself.

Where do these ideas prevail strongest? Why, in the same place designed to prepare people for greater success in life, where else? The university. This brings us to the why question.

The University claims that it is preparing students for the working world, and they would be right...partially. When we hear "prepared for the working world," we think of job skills, creativity, networking and portfolio building. In actuality, "preparing students for the working world" means training them to be obedient and dependent, which makes sense, given that students want (or are convinced to want?) jobs at companies that desire conformity. Said companies hire out of school, school decides to optimize curriculum to improve numbers and voila, the perfect storm of incentives to breed a generation of citizens prone to conformity and averse to creativity and problem-solving. I disagree with Chomsky on many international issues, but I think he's right on the button when it comes to education:

But I digress. All of this disempowerment is made possible by the idea that personal problems should be externalized, an idea that schools teach to their students with the industry they lack in other departments, namely math and science. If your feelings are hurt, if you don't succeed, if you're late for the bus, if you slept in, whatever your trials and troubles may be, remember, it isn't your fault: it's everyone else's fault for letting you down. This could fairly accurately be described as the approximate opposite of what Southwick and Charney found to be the best attitude to achieve success and overcome obstacles.

What do we do instead? Here's an idea...

Full episode available here.

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