Disrespect in Education

I was sitting at a large, round table with all the teachers of the CHOICE middle-school program sitting around me solemnly. They had called me here to inform me that, in my final year at middle school, I wouldn’t be allowed to go on this year’s spring trip — a multiple-day hiking and camping excursion taken every year by the school. Ms. Green cried as she delivered this news. The reason was that I was not a good enough student — that I did not complete enough of the work that they had assigned me to be afforded this privilege.

I don’t remember analyzing the situation closely, but I do remember being rather unfazed.  After all, it meant that I got to stay home for a week doing as I pleased instead of spending a week with my cruel classmates and lack of friends.  I did empathize with my teachers who were very torn up about the whole thing. I knew that they saw “potential” in me and perceived that I was squandering it, and felt that they needed to impose “consequences” in order to drive the message home. Perhaps I learned that if I don’t do what authorities tell me to do, they set me free and allow me to do with my time what I actually want.

In 11th or 12th grade physics, we were learning about circuits, and I was learning LISP on my own time (instead of doing homework). I saw a mapping from the circuits we were studying to a hierarchical description, and wrote a program that would reconstruct as much information (currents, voltages, resistances) as possible from the information given using repeated application of Ohm’s law. I informed the teacher of this, and he seemed pleased; I asked if I could use it on the homework and tests and he said that I could not. Writing the program increased my understanding of circuits a great deal, but the existence of the program itself afforded me no real advantage. Perhaps this experience is why my preferred way to use software today is as a mathematical and mind-expansion exercise rather than making a tool that can actually be used.

When I studied education in college, the community was very interested in making sure that students saw the real-world application of mathematics, trying to combat the (correct) perception that what students are being taught is useless.  Hence the all-too-familiar “word problems”:

Train A, traveling 70 miles per hour (mph), leaves Westford heading toward Eastford, 260 miles away. At the same time Train B, traveling 60 mph, leaves Eastford heading toward Westford. When do the two trains meet? How far from each city do they meet?  (source)

Of course, nobody has ever tried to solve this problem with two trains unless they are already interested in math, and then only in the abstract (this kind of information is difficult to find about actual trains). The truth is that at this level of “real world”, math beyond basic arithmetic and estimation is not really useful, so any attempt to make it seem so will be disingenuous. I believe kids are smart; they will not be fooled so easily. 

The theme tying these anecdotes together is disrespect. I do believe that teachers have the best intentions for their students, and in many cases love them. But if you respect your students, you would not give them as a word problem a situation you have never come across to convince them that math is useful in the world. Why not give them a problem of algebra similar to problems people actually face — how much should a tech company expand its datacenter capacity given a projection of its growth; when will it cost more energy to drill for oil than the energy it returns; should a company with a given amount of capital build its own infrastructure at a fixed up-front cost or lease it at a monthly rate? The fact that the “real world” presented to students is one of travel times, house building, and saving and spending sends a strong message to them about what they can become. Algebra is used in engineering, science, and business, not purchases of milk and eggs at the grocery store. You will ignite a student’s passion for math when she understands that she can use it to become something, not that it is (pretending to be) an essential skill for a consumerist greyface.  Conversely, if the student has no interest in engineering, science, or business, he is right to be disinterested in math class; let him do something useful with his time.

I felt disrespected that my teachers felt I was squandering my potential by failing to do the work that was assigned to me. I felt disrespected when I couldn’t use my creation to assist me with my homework. I felt disrespected when, despite getting high test scores, I was punished for not doing the work assigned “to help me learn”. No attention was paid to my developing programming skills or my talent for music — they never asked what I did with my time instead of doing homework. (I wonder what they thought?) This was all confusing to me at the time, and I rebelled from my heart, not my intellect; now that I have a more acute awareness of society, I am grateful that I rebelled. In retrospect the message shines through with clarity: school is not for me. I had assumed that I was there to learn the content and the teachers were all just blind or crazy — I know now that I was there to learn to follow orders, and my education is for the ones who give them. When teachers talk of my squandered future, they refer to a future of subservience to authority. (If I’m going to squander a future, please let it be that one!)  The disrespect for my personal autonomy was pervasive enough that the idea that I could be an entrepreneur, an artist, or a leader were not even considered possibilities.

What boggles me is that I doubt my teachers saw it this way. They truly cared about me, I could tell. I feel that this is a cultural phenomenon of seeing children as less than human, as incapable of making good choices for themselves. (A basic rhetorical analysis The Powell Memorandum reveals that leaders of enterprise feel the same way about the working class.) I don’t know where this view comes from — except the teachers’ own internalized oppression as working class. Teachers are not paid well, which makes them feel bound and powerless, which is communicated to the students and sustains the system of subservience.

Today, just as in school, I struggle to follow orders, and this comes as no surprise to me. I was not successfully trained to do so. I struggle to continue exchanging my alienated labor for Google’s money, and I am realizing more and more that convincing myself to care about this labor is not a viable strategy. Sometimes I think badly of myself for this, but it is not a fault only to have energy for what I care about. I don’t know what I would have become if my gifts had been acknowledged and nurtured rather than ignored. It’s too late for that; now I must bring to others the respectful, humanizing education I was denied. The remaining question is how?

22 thoughts on “Disrespect in Education

  1. My experience was very similar to yours.

    I recall going to my parents, frustrated that my elementary school was moving at so slow a pace. At that point my dad sat with me and we talked about how, yes, school is not primarily about learning—it’s about many things, some important, like socialising and collaborating with other people; some not so important, like homework. Regardless, you still have to put in a nominal effort to keep the system happy. And if you do want to learn things, no one is actually stopping you from doing so on your own. And I have, ravenously. Simply being told about the agency I had was empowering.

    Like you, I cannot be productive if I don’t care about what I’m working on. You’re right—convincing yourself to care is not tenable in the long term. I worked for a year at Facebook, and even though I was working on a pretty cool open-source project in Haskell, I was not engaged most of the time.

    So I said to myself: I have lots of savings, not much debt, and some stock. Working here for as long as I have has been an investment in my happiness…and the final step is to quit. So I did, and my well-being has soared.

    I’m not telling you that you should quit your job. I just want to remind you that you are privileged to have a wealth of resources at your disposal with which to improve your own happiness. Whether that means something big—starting a company, changing careers, living as a monk in the mountains—or something small—exercising more often, having more sex, eating better, drinking less. Do whatever it is you need to do to optimise that variable, because we are not getting out of here, so you might as well enjoy it.

  2. My experience with school was opposite. I excelled and was the start of the school. In addition to everything in school I got hooked on programming with my ZX Spectrum. I taught myself Basic, assembly, pascal and even forth by reading computer magazines, in addition to learning everything at school. Sure I thought that some classes were a bit stupid, but I mostly thought everything was super easy because I was so smart. So the whole situation was essentially designed to inflate my ego. It took some very socially adept friends (who cared) to poke at me in the right spots for the gases to vent (I hope — the friend tells me I still have not entirely recovered).

    You nailed it when you said “the school is not for me”. I think that’s what determines how a smart student will do in school. If the environment is right for him (by which I mean the social environment) then the student will excel. But if the students is a bit introverted, or not easily manipulated by the teacher, or cannot get over the stupidity of how and what he is being taught, then he will feel that school is not for him. And it’s easy to create a feedback loop in which the school and the students feed each other with negative vibes (or positive, as the case may be).

    Our school system sucks big time. It’s so bad and so broken it’s hard to begin to describe its many failures.

  3. I just wanted to post that I can relate a lot to this and personally think institutionalized school can do a lot of harm to the creativity and curiosity of young individuals. In my country it also creates a strong anti-intellectual sentiment, discouraging people from learning for fun. My positive way to handle this is to make more free educational materials for people to use in their self study.

  4. “I don’t know where this view comes from.”
    It stems from personality traits, I believe.

    In the lower grades teachers are much more likely to be of an ISFJ personality type, for example. The SJ “Guardian/Traditionalist” temperament (a HUGE chunk of the population) is the temperament full of personalities which LOVE rules, tradition, etc. These personalities have been known to clash with the NT “Rational/Intellectual” temperament (a very small fraction of the population); for the traditionalist, logic usually ends at the rules. It’s not that NT’s can’t follow rules but it’s, generally speaking, not a driving part of their personality.

    I am of an NT personality and, like Donald Hebb, “failed” the 11th grade from what I interpret to be very similar situations, the SJ overhead at school. Also, I saw my time as valuable (as you did feel you did too) and would spend my time on personal CS projects and such which I found engaging. Of course, this intellect was never factored into any part of my grades in high-school. Luckily for me my personal projects were impressive enough and among other factors it helped me get into a fine college.

    Anyway, a better understanding of psychological types truly let me understand the bigger picture at play. If you are still looking for a better understanding, I would highly suggest checking it out!

    Also, a small disclaimer, I love all the different personality types, SJs included, now that I understand them.

  5. “I must bring to others the respectful, humanizing education I was denied.”

    First I would suggest you ignore the last 150 years of false progress [in education] and do some reading. I would start with Plato’s dialogue “Alcibiades”, and follow it up with “Hippias Major”. This is just off the top of my head and to give you a taste of something different.

    Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics” is a good read to juxtapose against the modern slop bucket of moral relativism.

    This is to build up to the rather difficult question: What is education?
    (this question is deeper than the kinds of problems, technology, or methods used for teaching).

    When reading you should always try to secure for yourself old editions of books — the older the better. This is because the newer versions are often not faithful to the originals and have been altered for [modern] political reasons. The whole point in reading old material is to see how and what people used to think (hard to do that if someone has been making their own adjustments or adding their own biases). In fact, I would go so far as to suggest you ignore modern interpretations of classical material (i.e. let the ancients comment on the modernists, and not the other way around).

    The Greeks had much to say on the topic of paedeia (education), which is why they have always been the core of a classical education (mutilated and abandoned only in the last 100 years).

    If you do some research you will find that the topic of education is far broader than what the current opinions allow for.

  6. @James, since you seem to value self-examination based on your recommendations, I have some feedback for you: through your last several comments (this one, this and this), I’m perceiving you as somewhat bigoted, presenting yourself as wise. I do see that you are trying to help, at least.

    To disregard the past 150 years of education progress is to disregard essentially all civil rights movements. I refuse to call that “false progress”.

    I’d like to read more of the dialogues. I have a hard time with Socrates — it’s anti-dialogical under the guise of dialog. I don’t “go along for the ride” with his questions, and so by the time we’re deep into the argument I’ve rejected so many of the premises that it feels almost meaningless. The wisdom I extract is mostly about how to make someone feel powerless in a conversation (something I’d like to avoid). Perhaps there is another way to read that I’m missing, from which I can get more.

  7. @brook, oh there you are, I thought I had seen your name before in this thread and just missed it. Sorry, I treated it as spam. I assume you are making this request out of anger and would actually like to have a voice rather than be removed; let me know if I’m wrong. IIRC, your comment was:


    Care to elaborate?

  8. In case you need more choir, I too endured a great deal of disrespect from the primary education system. In third grade I was almost labelled as “special needs” and expelled from the standard K–12 system because of my refusal to do busywork. I never memorized my multiplication tables because I could do it in my head, and teachers take it poorly when you draw quietly to stave off the boredom rather than jumping through pointless uninformative hoops. Somehow my mother managed to convince the principal not to expel me, and to entertain the notion that perhaps the problem wasn’t that I had a developmental disability but that I was far ahead of the other students. (I remember being there for those discussions, disallowed to speak. The principal only acquiesced grudgingly, tentatively, conditionally, and after a great deal of argument.) That got me put into a “gifted and talented” program, which was profoundly better, though still painfully dull— literally: painful. Meanwhile, during middleschool and early highschool I was taking college-level courses over the summer, and when I wanted to apply these to fulfilling various highschool requirements —again, my mother had to come in and argue with them at great length. And even then, they required I take some stupid test instead of bothering to read the syllabus for the course I’d completed, and only gave me the credits when they finally realized that I had exhausted the curriculum available at, not just the school but, the local community college as well. That is, they only let me go when they realized they were entirely incapable of holding me any longer.

    I am eternally grateful to my mother for her advocacy and stubbornness. Had she believed in me any less, been even slightly less determined, or been unable to reschedule her work so she could come in repeatedly to personally cut through the red tape, I would’ve either dropped out or been expelled very early on. That I managed to survive primary education required both middle-class and white privilege. Without leaning heavily on that privilege, I would not have been able to obtain the credentials which endow me with middle-class privilege today. I bring up this privilege to highlight the fact that disrespect in education has an intersectional impact on the poor, working-class, and people of color. Even as I watched my mother bludgeon the bureaucracy into acquiescence, I watched other students who were just as bright being forced into bondage by our “educational” system. This disrespect is not just a social problem of dehumanizing the next generations, it is an institutionalized form of subjugation.

  9. Luke, I am not a bigot (certainly no more so than _everyone_ else is). That word means nothing: because it is a catch all word used to divert attention away from the argument itself. It is more honest to simply tell me that you disagree.

    What is wisdom? I would say it is lessons learned the hard way. I have followed many of the same paths that you are presently on and the consequence was that it left my life in a horrible mess. I drank that koolaid already. When I checked the facts and thought for myself I found that I had been lied to.

    The right way to read Plato is to avoid any preconceived notions beforehand. Plato does not hide his message so as to trick you (the way advertisers do), but it is behind a veil challenging you to pull it aside and think for yourself (which is part of the classical objective of education). The reason you should avoid the last 150 years of commentary is that it has already done the thinking for you. It is always best to let the original author speak for himself, and vitally critical that you read with the right spirit. You should never assume Plato is giving you the answers (even when it appears that way), because what is left unsaid is often more important than what is said.

    The civil rights movement is/was a failure. Laws and special privileges do not mend disharmony and broken spirits. Each of us is equally a victim of some injustice if we look far enough into the past. Who are we to favour some and ignore the others? What has the civil rights movement accomplished? It has created an enormous divide amongst many different types of people.

    I was born into this world innocent, yet continuously branded an oppressor for crimes I have never committed. With massive generalizations huge swaths of innocent children are treated as criminals the moment they step outside, turn on the TV, or enter the modern education system: what do you suppose the consequence of that will be? Many of those people will be pushed into performing this very role. I am sure you have read the studies done which verify this: If you continually tell someone how bad they are then they will lose confidence and become that way.

    If you want to believe a crappy ideology that puts you at the foot of another for some alleged antiquated injustice then go ahead and do it, but what good will you be? How will you ever really help the situation? Will your admittance of wrongs you did not commit help anyone who feels wronged? I doubt it — it will only further encourage them to feel wronged. And what right have they to blame those who have not sinned against them? These chains must be broken or the cycle will continue ad infinitum.

    The real solution is to make good of yourself so that you can set a good example. But first you must confess your true sins: which are between you and the almighty first, and between you and a real person second (i.e. not fuzzy groups or people you don’t know). But you can’t do that to appease others, nor can you do it for selfish reasons, and if you read all the modern rubbish this is the trap you will fall into. The only chance you’ve got is to start from the beginning (hence my support of Plato) and work your way forward to try to make sense of the whole thing. After that you might even read the Gospels — if you are open minded enough to discover what they actually say.

    Take care.

  10. “There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there. The other is to walk round the whole world till we come back to the same place; and I tried to trace such a journey in a story I once wrote. It is, however, a relief to turn from that topic to another story that I never wrote. Like every book I never wrote, it is by far the best book I have ever written. It is only too probable that I shall never write it, so I will use it symbolically here, for it was a symbol of the same truth. I conceived it as a romance of those vast valleys with sloping sides, like those along which the ancient White Horses of Wessex are scrawled along the flanks of the hills. It concerned some boy whose farm or cottage stood on such a slope, and who went on his travels to find something, such as the effigy and grave of some giant; and when he was far enough from home he looked back and saw that his own farm and kitchen garden, shining flat on the hillside like the colours and quarterings of a shield, were but parts of some such gigantic figure, on which he had always lived, but which was too large and close to be seen.”

  11. You should read into personality types. I think it contains many things that will help you understand this situation and many others. Also, David Keirsey came up with the temperament sorter. It sounds like you are likely one of the few in the NT temperament. Realizing what the other temperaments are about really helped me understand a great deal about the world. The SJ temperament is all about rules and obedience… these are often (but certainly not always) the ones enforcing rules and order at school. NTs, if they are teaching in Education, are likely to be teaching at university on a subject about which they are passionate.

  12. Here here, bravo

    I left the public education system as early as I could. Where did my bleak and terrible future lead to? Did I fall out of society and end up as a bum, on drugs, a drunk? No, it lead to the public library, it lead to the Internet, it lead to getting a job. I taught myself all I wanted of any subject I desired and no one was there to tell me I had to. I’ve ran my own computer repair shop and now run my own web design and hosting company with my partner.

    Follow your head heart and spirit where ever the lead because it will make you truly happy.

  13. Hey Luke,
    I had similar experiences in school. When I was 9 years old, I won a scholarship to Ace Computer Camp (I believe it was at Fairleigh Dickinson University), and that’s where my programming journey began. I went there for two or three years, then self-educated on CS. They did not teach it in school. From then on, I would skip homework to code, write code on paper instead of listening during math class, and eventually (when I really felt neglected) skip school altogether so that I could complete coding projects.

    The NJ school system is known for being a little extreme. It led to me being referred to psychiatrists who put me on amphetamine-like drugs, among others (Wellbutrin gave me a seizure at around 12 years old). I was eventually removed from normal classes an placed in special ed. I learned nothing in these classes – they were designed to get me out of the system ASAP so they didn’t have to deal with it anymore. This sort of thing continued until I was able to drop out of high school and spend my time more wisely.

    Once I left school, I started freelancing which led to starting a career. I was expecting to struggle more due to the self-esteem damage done in school, but it was really as simple as that. I realized that being told “You have so much potential, if you’d only live up to it” was wrong after all. I’m a front end engineer now, and my enthusiasm for learning new things will never end until I am ready to retire, which I hope I never do, because I love what I do. I’m not sure if it was more painful to go through the motions that my school district enforced, or to leave and find that none of it was necessary in the first place.

    We have an education problem, without a doubt. Maybe it doesn’t affect everyone, but I’m pretty damn certain it affects people like us. It is clear to me that something needs to be done and the “How?” question resonates with me as well. I’ve discussed this with education reform activists to find that there are a LOT of kids with similar experiences, and a lot of ideas. I think it’s more a question of “When?” at this point. I can only hope that it won’t require this problem to grow so large that it becomes an emergency.

    Thanks for the honest post. It’s not an easy thing for me to write about so I really appreciate it when others do.

    -Nick P

  14. I can perfectly understand what you have experienced. Was unschooling an option in your childhood? Here in Germany, compulsory school is interpreted very strictly. You have to be in a school building all the day at all costs. I only recently learnt of the idea of unschooling and felt in love with that idea.

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