Are we bending under the oppressive rule of children? Do kids have too much power?
There are days, I think, when every teacher wonders this, even at the college level.
Dennis Jerz posts a good response to this idea, particularly in terms of catholic teaching, as raised by Joseph Epstein in his recent lament about the Millenial generation in the conservative journal, Weekly Standard. It’s given me a lot to think about, because I often have mixed emotions about inappropriate student behavior and obvious expressions of immaturity, which sometimes conflicts with my drive to treat all students as adult thinkers and learners.
Epstein grossly broadens this idea to suggest that we’re living under a “Kindergarchy.” [That’s a neologism; as Michael Gilleland points out, the correct term is “paedarchy”]. Epstein has used this term before — in a Wall St. Journal article celebrating Thanksgiving (because, of course, it is the least kid-centered holiday) — so I think it’s safe to say his suspicion of children is something of a leitmotif for him, if not a future book topic.
He’s not alone: Time magazine even did a fascinating cover story on the topic a few years ago, “Do Kids Have Too Much Power?”
And it’s an interesting question, though when it comes to college teaching (which both Jerz and Epstein mention in exempla), I think we need to be careful not to fall for such widespread generalizations about “kids today.” Kids today are just like kids yesterday, but they have different cultural frames of reference, different ways of reading the world. And even while parents seem to be playing a larger role in the academic life of their offspring, I refuse to think of my students as “children” let alone “kids.” (No one old enough to wear a military uniform is a child. A better word would be “initiate”…students are “uninitiated” into our learning communities and undergoing a transformation to join them.)
The adult/child divide is not only an issue of parenting, but — particularly when pushed into abstractions such as “generation” gaps — also a power relationship, complicated by fears of aging and the desire for eternally youthful vim. Often what seems to be a “grumpy old teacher” engaging a “hostile youth” is really a status game of some kind. In some classrooms, the assumed power position of wisdom (only earned by years of disciplined brain training) butts heads against the assumed power of the youthful physique (usually unearned, though it can be earned through disciplined body training); the classroom is a bastion of the mind, so I can understand why it makes instructors angry when, say, a student-athlete cops an attitude of superiority and refuses to “play along” with a teacher’s classroom work. Yet how many teachers channel and project their hostility about their own aging out on the youthful students they have to contend and spar with? How many dream of eternal youth, aligning themselves with their students rather than owning up to their own aged wisdom and experience? To what degree do such psychological hang-ups and unconscious wishes get in the way of teaching and learning?
While it may be true, as many of my colleagues note, that today’s students have a strong sense of unearned “privilege” that earlier generations did not, this does not mean that these students are tyrants who rule us. Unfortunately, however, we’ve all probably heard of — or personally dealt with — students who act like they “pay our salaries” and therefore should not have to follow our rules but in fact can direct us to do their bidding (when most of the time, it’s their parents or the government’s loans and/or scholarships that are “paying” us). The marketing of college campuses as commodities may very well have something to do with this attitude (as Jerz also obliquely suggests). And this, perhaps, is at the root of the problem: students are still “children” in the eyes of their parents and thus they become so to those who market to those parents. To us, on the front lines in the classroom, students need to be treated as adults. Or in the very least, adults-in-progress.
But I always believe it’s a good idea to talk about these things openly; if there is a “power struggle” in the classroom, even when it’s between me and a student, I’m all for calling attention to it. People at a particular stage of development — say, 18-24 year olds — will almost universally be coming “of age” about the world, and will have the same sorts of quirks, assumptions, hostilities, resistances, curiosities, presumptions, and drives. Good college teachers probably recognize or intuit the ways that people of this age group process the world, and can tap into it in order to generate learning. Often this requires dismantling the assumptions that a person of this age group has unwisely settled upon too soon in life, while also remaining skeptical of one’s own assumptions about that age group. This is why I always enjoy teaching “education” as an outright topic when I am running a freshmen level course. It is a good way to get these assumptions about “privilege” out into the air, to be tested and challenged in a collaborative open discussion. Once students see that not everyone has the same economic background and different motivations for attending college, they usually modify and reflect on their own background and motivation and, ideally, how these are influenced by outside forces beyond their own organic will.
In Epstein’s “Kindergarchy,” he slips into a reflection about teaching literature that reveals his persistent struggle against the idealism of the young in his classroom:
…often in my literature classes students told me what they “felt” about a novel, or a particular character in a novel. I tried, ever so gently, to tell them that no one cared what they felt; the trick was to discover not one’s feelings but what the author had put into the book, its moral weight and its resultant power. In essay courses, many of these same students turned in papers upon which I wished to — but did not — write: “D-, Too much love in the home.”
Call me a softie, but there’s no such thing as too much love, anywhere. This is a primary example of the “power struggle” I was talking about above. Epstein’s secret desire to punish students for being loved as children by their parents sounds awfully sadistic to me, but I have to admit that I have felt a similar twinge of frustration before. (Especially when teaching film, which students are trained to think of as “entertainment” not “art”).
While it is true that an affective response to literature is not wholly relevant to a conversation in a literature classroom, and that literary professionals truck with reason not emotion, these feelings still exist in any reader response and a skilled teacher can — and often must — train students to see how those emotions are constructed by the text, manipulated by the book and its packaging, their own assumptions, etc. Our very job, I think, is to wean students in lower division classes away from “settling” for emotional reactions as a telos for judgment. Yet this emotion is a stepping stone into criticism, and our job is to point to the river and say: look there, a stone that can help you cross over to my side. But of course, sometimes the teacher too must be willing to cross over toward the students side once in awhile too… but there are many rivers to cross.
[Besides, I challenge Epstein’s assumptions about the goal of teaching literature generally: When Epstein says that the focus should be “what the author had put into the book” I would ask how one could possibly know that intention and why not just focus on the “book” not the author’s effort; when he refers to “its moral weight” I would question how he “weighs” morals and if they are really as pertinent as he suggests; and when he mentions “resultant power” I would ask if he does not here mean the very emotion he was hoping to quash in the first place, albeit an informed one?
[And I wonder if in the memory he recounts, they were responding to a Dickens novel? Muhahah.]
Another way to get into this matter is to discuss the very notions of “childhood” and “adulthood” in the classroom and to unpack how the meanings of these terms are socially-constructed. A child in one country is not a child in another (just think of the drinking age or legal marriage age in some countries, and you know what I mean). Some are afraid that childhood no longer even exists. I teach an advanced lit course — when I’m lucky — called “Childhood in Literature” in which we discuss cultural issues like these, while surveying the representation of the child historically and culturally, across a wide range of fiction and poetry (yes, including Oliver Twist!). The course begins with theory by having the class analyze and discuss Neil Postman’s excellent book, The Disappearance of Childhood. Postman argues that childhood is a social construct that operates only in relation to what we think it means to be an adult. For Postman, to be a child is not just an organic age bracket — it means not yet having literacy — which gives one “access” to adult “secrets.” For Postman, the mass media of TV has erased the need for literacy to have this access, producing adultified children and child-like adults. When we teach literacy, we are teaching adulthood.
In another article on aging, Epstein himself seems to recognize the cultural paedomorphism — that is, the extension of juvenile tendencies into adulthood — that Postman has lamented when he writes:
I also grew up at a time when the goal was to be adult as soon as possible, while today–the late 1960s is the watershed moment here–the goal has become to stay as young as possible for as long as possible. The consequences of this for the culture are enormous. That people live longer only means that they feel they can remain kids longer: uncommitted to marriage, serious work, life itself. Adolescence has been stretched out, at least, into one’s 30s, perhaps one’s early 40s.
Many — if not the majority — of the college teachers I know are in their 30s and 40s. Many don’t have “kids.” You might leap to the assumption that these young teachers are perpetual adolescents who are so much “still in school” that it’s become their entire career. (And anyone who wants to be quick to judgment can summon examples easily enough of some teacher they’ve met who dresses too young, or acts too juvenile, or goes out drinking and dating with students beneath their age bracket, or still loves comix, or plays games, or writes horror stories, or relishes stuffed animals in their offic, or watches Disney cartoons, or plays with coloring books and action figures, or does any number of activities that one might associate with youth culture. Does this make them perpetually juvenile, or simply interesting people who actively know where their pleasures lie?)
We as teachers need to be conscious of our outward expression of “age affiliation” as well as our students, but it should not control us or fill us with shame. The psychology of identity behind age affiliation is intriguing but very complicated, and the distinctions between childhood and adulthood are often false binaries. What Epstein might fail to recognize is that the “serious work” of academia is neither to “become adult as soon as possible” nor to “stay as young as possible for as long as possible” but rather to have a more consciously realized life, period. That’s how I prefer to think of it. Shine light on behavior, perhaps even share one’s own feelings, but ultimately let students judge it for themselves. To lash out at students with poor grades for “too much love in the home” is probably fighting childishness with childish behavior. It is not always what we do, but how we do it, that separates children from adults. Thus, we need to treat college-aged students like adults, perhaps most of all when they are acting like children.