Recently I had the opportunity to work with a great set of educators in a daylong seminar. One of the things I do with teachers when I present is have them play Minecraft. In this case I started off by giving a general presentation that ended with a story of auto-didactism in an Ethiopian village, where 20 children who had never seen the printed word were given tablets and taught themselves to read. I did this in part to frame the pedagogy for what came next: I had them turn on Minecraft and spend 30 minutes exploring the game without any instruction other than getting them networked.
The responses were as varied as the instructors, but one response fascinated me in particular. Midway into the 30 minutes, one teacher stopped playing the game and started checking her email. Later, when we returned to our group to have a discussion about the thoughts and feelings that came up around game play, this same teacher spoke up. We were discussing the idea of playfulness in learning when she said , “you know, I hear a lot about games and learning, and making learning fun; but sometimes learning isn’t fun and you have to do it anyway. Sometimes you just have to suck it up and do the work.”
“I’m not saying that I disagree with you entirely,” I said. “But then how do we account for your giving up on Minecraft and starting to check your email?”
She looked a little surprised, and after a moment’s reflection said, “fair enough.”
I use this example because these are educators who are extremely dedicated to teaching their students, and very academically educated themselves. Academia has this way, though, of seeping into your mind and convincing you that academics and education are one and the same. They’re not.
I worked in the field of Special Education for more than a decade from the inside of it, and one of the things I came to believe is that there are no unteachable students. That is the good news and the bad news. Bad news because if a student was truly unteachable, they wouldn’t learn from us that they are dumb or bad if they don’t demonstrate the academic achievement we expect. I remember the youth I worked with calling each other “SPED monkeys” as an insult; clearly they learned that from somewhere and someone. They had learned to hate themselves as a bad object, in object relations terms, or to project that badness onto other students. They learned this from the adults around them, from the microaggressions of hatred they experienced every day: By hate I’ll go with Merriam as close enough, “intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger, or sense of injury.”
We tend to mistakenly equate hatred with rage and physical violence, but I suggest that this is because we want to set hatred itself up as hated by and other from ourselves; surely we never behave that way. But hatred is not always garbed in extremis. Hatred appears every day to students who don’t fit the academic mold. Hatred yells “speak English!” to the 6 year olds getting off the bus chatting in Spanish. Hatred shakes its head barely (but nevertheless) perceptibly before moving on to the next student when the first has fallen silent in their struggle. Hatred identifies the problem student in the class and bears down on her, saying proudly, “I don’t coddle my students.” And Hatred shrugs his shoulders when the student has been absent for 3 weeks, and waits for them to be dropped from the rolls.
I’m not sure how I came to see this, because I was one of the privileged academically. I got straight A’s, achieved academic awards and scholarships that lifted me into an upperclass world and peer group. I wrote papers seemingly without effort, read for pleasure, and was excited to get 3 more years of graduate school. And I have had the opportunity to become an educator and an academic myself, having taught college and graduate students. I could have stayed quiet and siloed in my area of expertise, but work with differently-abled learners taught me something different. It taught me that people learn to dislike education, shortly after academia learns to dislike them.
Perhaps one of the best literary portrayals of adult hatred of divergent thinkers comes from the movie Matilda:
“Listen, you little wise acre. I’m smart, you’re dumb; I’m big, you’re little; I’m right, you’re wrong. And there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Nowadays I teach in a much different way than I did early on, before I flipped my classrooms and facilitated guided learning experiences rather than encourage people to memorize me and ideas that I had memorized from others. And I struggle with this new approach, because I enjoy it so much I feel guilty. You see, I have internalized the bad object too. Even with my good grades I internalized it. And any time I start to depart from the traditional mold of the educated self, I experience a moment of blindness, then a stony silence that seems to say, “you’re being lazy, you should make them a powerpoint and prepare a lecture.” Yet, if my evaluations on the whole and student and colleague testimonies have truth to them, I am a “good” educator. So let’s say I am a “good” educator, and if I as a good educator struggle with this, we shouldn’t assume that people that struggle with these issues are “bad” educators.
In fact, when it comes to emerging technologies like social media and video games, educators often try to avoid them, if not because they are fun and suspect, then because educators risk experiencing themselves as the bad object: Who wants to experience themselves as hopelessly dumb, clumsy or lazy when they can experience themselves as the bountiful and perfectly cited fount of all wisdom? Truth is, both are distorted images of the educated self.
Don’t forget that educators themselves experience tons of societal hatred. For them it often comes in the guise of curriculum requirements or linking their performance to outcomes on standardized testing. Hatred comes in the low salaries and the perception that people doing intellectual or emotional labor aren’t really working. All of this helps educators to internalize a bad object which feels shaming and awful; is it any wonder that we sometimes unconsciously try to get that bad object away from ourselves and locate it in the student?
The good news as I said before is that we are all teachable. We can learn to make conscious and make sense of the internalized bad object representations. We can see that thinking of people in terms of smart or dumb is a form of splitting.
And yes, there’s a lot we can do about it.