Monday, September 6, 2010

A Teaching Quandry

Sufjan Stevens--"I Walked" (mp3)

A teaching friend of mine is strongly supporting a former student of his who is running for office. He is quite gung-ho about it, pushing the candidacy, wearing the buttons, trying to find the younger man speaking engagements. The problem is that my teaching friend has political positions that are diametrically opposed to the former student he is supporting. At least, that's a problem for me. I don't think my friend sees it that way.

So let's bring the specifics of the situation in quickly and then take them out again: my friend was a rabid Obama supporter two years ago. That is still the way he leans, I'm quite sure. His former student is running in defense of the Constitution, against assaults on the Constitution. "Assaults from whom?" I ask. "Well," he responds, "that is never overtly identified," but he says it with the kind of grin that allows me, who knows him well, to verify that we are talking about Obama. Okay, enough.

This is more universal than that, anyway. This is Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker in a galaxy far, far away and every place and time in between.

How does a teacher support a student whose values are counter to his own? How does a teacher who realizes that a student's values are counter to his own not see his student as unethical or immoral?

It is quite a quandry.

Most of the time, those of us who teach don't have to deal with it. But, then, when you expand the discussion, almost all of us teach--our children, our Sunday School classes, the kid next door, an inner-city child we mentor through a Big Brother-type program, the younger employee to whom we try to share advice or wisdom. And that means that all of us have probably been in this situation.

The choices are fairly perplexing. Either you start to discover or you've always know that the person that you are working with has some unsavory beliefs (unless it's yours that are unsavory, which isn't really a circumstance I'm dealing with here) and you are in a situation or a profession where your support is expected, so you have to decide what to do. Do you tell the student he's wrong? Do you try to change his mind? Do you give him a poor grade for what you consider to be an unethical stance? And what do you do if he ever becomes an adult who is on the "other side," whatever that may be? Do you cut him off? Do you keep challenging him? Do you help him based on some professional principle?

As a young teacher, I took on every student I disagreed with. I had parents calling the Academic Dean because I had hammered their son on a weak (I thought) anti-abortion argument. As an older teacher, I give those positions, when articulated, a nod, and then I try to find another student who will argue a counter position closer to mine so that I can be more the clearinghouse than the opinionator. I'll hear positions that I know are being reiterated from parents and I'll still keep my mouth shut.

I'm not sure my younger self was wrong, but he did run a more divided classroom on a lot of days. And my older self, while not avoiding controversy, has decided to love the student first and to hope that he will come around to different perspectives. Based on what, I don't know. Maybe on the one student I knew who was incredibly conservative but who has moved to the center, at least, as he has gotten older.

Because, eventually, the "student" moves beyond our care with his own opinions. And, at that point, it's probably harder to tell ourselves that he might become something different when he has already become something.

But I don't think that we can endorse something that we don't believe in. At least, I don't think I could. Maybe I could congratulate my former student on his latest endeavor, offer to talk through his positions with him and be a sounding board, maybe challenge his positions or let him know that I don't agree with what he's doing, maybe even go so far as to make a nominal contribution.

Ultimately, I think that, in that position, we do our best with love and support, and that he knows that we offer love and support without agreement, not that we wholeheartedly jump onto a bandwagon when we don't want to take the ride. After all, Obi-Wan reminds us, through his actions, that we only enter into battle with a former student reluctantly, when there is no other option. But we have to confront him, don't we?

Sufjan's latest has nothing to do with my post. He's just so damn good.

1 comment:

cinderkeys said...

I think the older teacher's approach is better. It's fine to hammer students for weak arguments as long as you apply the hammer equally to weak arguers who happen to agree with you.

If students get better grades by parroting the teacher's beliefs, what are they really learning?