Tag Archives: love

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?

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Polyamory and Respect

I have been in an open, polyamorous relationship with my partner Amanda for about a year and a half. The relationship began as open for somewhat coincidental reasons, but over its course, I have developed a respect for polyamory — an understanding of why it makes sense for me, and why, I suspect, I might want my future relationships to be open as well1. And it is not for the reasons that most people think.

For the first time in the course of the relationship, I’m currently being intimate with someone else. However, I was supportive of polyamory before I had taken advantage of its freedoms, even though Amanda was seeing other people reasonably often. The question is: why? Why would I put myself in such a position? Why would I allow Amanda to sleep with other people while she is with me?

The key lies in a word of that final question — “allow”. To me, a healthy relationship is founded on mutual respect. There are many relationships which are not, but I find the most fulfillment from a relationship which is a coming together of two whole people with respect for each other. Anything else, to me, is just a fling (maybe a long-term one). So, under the supposition that I respect my partner, what does it mean to “allow” something? More pointedly, what does it mean to “disallow” something?

Both allowing and disallowing suppose that I have the power to make decisions for her. It supposes that I am informed enough, without even being present, to make the judgment call about whether her actions were right. In a traditional monogamous setting, I have a wholly un-nuanced view of the situation — if she has slept with someone else, she has made the wrong choice, and I, therefore, have been wronged, and I (with the assistance of social norms) am the one who has decided that.

Let’s imagine a polyamorous situation to help get to the heart of this. Let’s say that she met a new partner, and asked me if it’s okay if she sleeps with them. I will not respond with yes or no. She has offered me the power (and responsibility) to decide the best course of action for her, and I feel it necessary not to accept it. In accordance with my values, I can’t accept that power for anyone but myself: it would be a disservice to us both.

However, I don’t mean to say that there are never any emotions that come with it, or that if there are I have an obligation to bury them. Indeed, I often get jealous and feel hurt when she is with someone else. But as a partner, I want to understand. Why did what she did make sense to her? How did she perceive that would affect me? — knowing that I am considered in her decision-making process is important to me. I will communicate how it actually affected me. Perhaps I spent the night alone feeling shitty — it’s important for her to know that, to take that possibility into account next time she makes a decision, and it’s important for me to understand that I am still alive and that we still love each other. But the key is that, because of respect, I give her the benefit of the doubt that she made the best choice she had — I just want to understand her reasoning, and probably be reassured that she still cares — which she always has.

There are certain “codes” that I see as being very powerful, as leading to a stronger and more aligned internal experience. One of these is honesty — I am committed to always being open & honest (in a more nuanced way than I have been in the past). This is not because honesty in itself is “right”, but because integrity (i.e. always doing what I feel is right) is a quality that is important to me, and I have found that honesty is a code that is easy to verify (i.e. it is easy for me to know if I am abiding by it), which leads to integrity. This is because if I do something which I feel is wrong, I learn that, because of my code of open honesty, I will need to tell someone that I felt what I did was wrong. And that pressure is huge — I can no longer keep it to myself, now I need to show others about my lack of integrity when it happens. This pressure very quickly causes me to start acting with integrity.

In the same way, I see polyamory as a code which is easy to verify, which leads to respect as a consequence, and respect for my partner is something I value. Jealousy happens — when she talks to someone I can tell she thinks is attractive, when she stays out later than I expected her, when she tells me she has or had a crush on someone. But I know that we are in an open relationship — we have agreed that being attracted to others, even to the point of acting on it, is okay, and therefore my feeling of jealousy cannot be instantly transformed into a feeling of righteousness and being wronged. Hence, I have to consider the larger situation — I have to see where she is coming from, I have to understand her and her choices, I have to know her better. And in doing so I understand her values, her wishes, her way of being, her way of relating to others — and such a deep understanding leads me to respect her. I have not felt such a deep respect for anyone else I have ever been in a relationship with, and I think the openness of our relationship has been a major factor in that.

Further, polyamory leads to more communication and strength in our relationship. Consider “cheating” in a monogamous relationship. Let’s say I am in a monogamous relationship with my partner and, in a flush of sexually-excited irrationality I slept with someone else. I still love my partner very much and want to be with her, and we have a good, mutually supportive relationship, but I just made a mistake. (The idea that I could sleep with someone else while still being in love with her may seem impossible to some; that idea is worth examining — consider these prompts: masturbation, past relationships, fantasizing.) The question is, do I share my mistake with her? If I do share, it’s very likely that the relationship will end by social contract — many consider cheating to be an unforgivable offense. I don’t want the relationship to end, because I still love her and want to be with her. If I don’t share, I turn one wrong into two, and eventually many — not only have I wronged her with my actions, I wrong her by lying once about it — and, as lies are, probably many more times to cover up the first one. So not sharing is incompatible with my respect for her, and sharing is incompatible with my love and desire to be with her.

Would it not be easier for everyone if I felt free to share my mistake, if I were not in this terrible bind after making it? With the roles reversed, what would it say about how much I care if I were willing to put my partner in such a bind? Letting go of the moral attachment to fidelity allows this situation easily to be a conversation — she can tell me how it affected her, I can understand that and that may inform my desire not to be so reckless again. Perhaps the conversation will reveal something about our relationship dynamic that needs attention, or perhaps something that is secretly making us both unhappy (one of the possible causes of sleeping with someone else). In that sense we can make a plan to repair it, or possibly we will mutually agree it is in both of our best interests to end the relationship, allowing us to be friends afterward, feeling sadness for our loss but not hurt and anger, because we both know that it was the right decision. In the case that the relationship does not end, the conversation may have revealed a deep problem which we are now on the road to solving, strengthening the relationship and bringing us closer. And maybe it was no big deal, and we understand that as sexual beings sometimes we just need to feel attractive and get our rocks off, and the relationship has not been harmed. All of these are preferable to an abrupt end due to an objective wrong, in which one person feels deeply guilty and the other feels deeply wounded.

There are things which I will only briefly mention: for example, it is freeing to know that a friendship/relationship with someone other than my partner can develop in whatever way seems natural, without worrying if every action has crossed the line. This freedom allows me to get closer to others in my life, even if their gender allows some sexual tension, which brings me more fulfillment and happiness. In my experience, even though I like this other woman a lot, it has not in the least diminished the love I feel for Amanda, and experiencing that helps me see that it is probably the same for her when she is with someone else. In fact, since she has asked me for more reassurance now, I am verbalizing why I love her more, thus reminding myself and strengthening my sense of love for her. Where does the idea that love is a finite resource come from?

These are the reasons why polyamory makes sense to me as a way of conducting myself in relationship. It leads to more honest communication (and therefore more integrity), more mutual understanding and respect, and ultimately a stronger relationship. I see traditional monogamy as a way to defend yourself from scary thoughts of abandonment, but the cost is a dynamic in which it is possible to justify a sense of ownership over your partner, controlling them and taking away their free agency. Is that really worth it?

1One reason is that I get to have future relationships without first ending this wonderful one.