What One Person Can Do, Another One Might

January 31st, 2011 by Sergio de Biasi

Probably the single most severe limitation to improvement and success – be it in education or in anything else – is not found in the environment or in lack of competence but rather in the arbitrary psychological barriers that individuals impose on themselves.

Of course we all face objective, concrete impediments to achieving our goals, and some of them might be difficult or impossible to get around. Additionally, it’s obviously the case that we all have different abilities and strengths – as well as circumstances and opportunities – and not everything that one particular person can do is an option for everyone else. However, and without any contradiction, I would say that in most contexts the options that are indeed available to us are almost universally broader than we perceive at first, and after we succeed, we frequently see in hindsight how many opportunities we had which we didn’t even realize were there all the time in front of us waiting to be seized. One of the most important factors that stop great ideas in their tracks is not knowing or not believing that you would in fact succeed if you just tried. Thus very often the greatest impediment to progress is not that people don’t have the means to succeed, but rather that they don’t know that they do, or don’t feel entitled to do it. What they need most is to be encouraged to take the initiative, and to be shown how to do it.

In spite of that, when discussing student improvement and success in the context of teaching and education, the emphasis in practice tends almost always to be on how to make the student the passive object of education. It tends to be on how one can most effectively upload a certain set of skills and information to the minds of human beings whether they want it or not. It oozes of a caricatural behavioristic mindset in which students are to be trained to automatically display certain responses when exposed to certain stimuli instead of being helped to developed the cognitive tools to be better equipped to understand what their options are when facing a variety of situations.

I propose that besides this being an inherently violent and invasive approach, besides the fact that this is borderline (or even downright) immoral, I submit to the reader’s consideration that this approach simply does not work, or works very poorly, specially in a day and age where the high-level skill sets that are going to be needed for being a productive member of society even next year are not necessarily clear or even understood by those in charge of teaching. And one of the main reasons it doesn’t work is because it squarely misses the point above – that unless education is set up to empower people instead of bossing them around, it will be worse than useless if we want students to actually understand anything.

I suppose I don’t have to argue very arduously to convince the reader that the current systems of traditional education are completely out of synch with the needs and expectations of modern societies. This should be obvious; if there’s still any doubt, compare what the syllabi for most courses say students should be learning and what they actually know if asked one year later. Most of them wouldn’t be able to confess the most basic facts about math, physics, chemistry or grammar to save their lives. So even if we (boldly) assume that the syllabi are adequate and accessible, it’s still a huge waste of mostly everyone’s time. But how can we fix it?

Again, what I am arguing here is that the single most severe limitation to improvement and success does not arise from lack of opportunities, resources, infrastructure, investment or – I cringe at the notion – more and stricter rules, assignments, hours. It’s not that all those things don’t make a difference, but in the overall scheme, what a student could do even with very limited resources by today’s standards hugely exceeds what they are actually doing – if they only felt motivated to do so, if they only knew that they could do so. But instead, we are breeding whole generations of underachievers, of people whose achievements greatly lag behind their potential.

Is that happening because we were not implacable enough in forcing them to “learn” stuff? Or maybe we need to give them even more “information”? My take is that unless we change our perspective from bossing them around to actively empowering them, we’ll still have a system that is not only unable to help prepare autonomous critical self-motivated human beings, but actually works against that goal.

Now, don’t get me wrong here, I agree that some degree of structure is fundamental for the formation of a balanced personality, but having more of something that is not working won’t fix a broken system. In fact, it will probably make it worse. Unless there are fundamental changes in the overall attitude and paradigm, it will be more of the same, like in the old joke :

- “Waiter!”

- “Yes, sir?”

- “This dish tastes awful! It’s inedible! Improper for human consumption!”

- “I’m sorry to hear that, sir. We won’t charge you for it then. Is there anything else I can do?”

- “Well, yes, additionally the portions are too small!”

The current state of affairs in some supposedly educational contexts is so corrupt that one would be best served by staying home and watching re-runs of Scooby Doo. For many people this would at least mean that they wouldn’t have their self-esteem squashed and their respect for the value and usefulness of academic pursuit permanently shaken.

For average victims of failing educational systems, the lessons they actually take home have little to do with feeling (or being) empowered to better reach their full potential, their personal goals, or even to be prepared to match their abilities to the needs of society in a mutually beneficial and constructive fashion. No, no.

Instead what they actually “learn” or at least come to believe is that “academic” knowledge is something separate and divorced from actual knowledge. It doesn’t have to make sense, it doesn’t have to be useful, it doesn’t have to be relevant, it doesn’t even have to be true. But it does have to be mimicked and repeated to the satisfaction of the authorities in charge, who will check your ritualistic performance for an adequate level of conformance. It’s perceived as mildly useful only insofar as it helps them get an official license to enter a restricted job market – i.e. a degree. The overall mindset that spontaneously emerges is often that academic knowledge is something arcane and byzantine that you have to hold in your hands just long enough to get a degree and which you then gladly drop like a hot potato when the ritual is done.

On top of that, they also learn that challenging authority and questioning established practice is dangerous, costly and best avoided.

Most unfortunately, these are precisely the bizarro world nonskills whose opposite is desperately needed in a society that changes at an increasingly faster rate.

So when students are told in effect and for most purposes that their ideas don’t matter (or matter only in a “oh that’s cute” way), that they should listen instead of asking questions, that they should repeat instead of create, that they should fit in instead of diverge, that they should follow orders instead of taking the initiative, that they should not ”’rock the boat”, that is precisely the opposite of what they need to succeed. Again, of course I’m not saying that anarchy and condescendence are the way to go; what I am actually saying is that the most empowering and valuable result that a good education could bring about is to give people tools to rock the boat in a constructive way. People who are going to excel in almost anything need to know how and when to rock the boat, and need to know what they are talking about when they do so, and they need to develop the very complex ability (which involves much more than knowledge) of  looking at themselves and being able to judge and determine if they actually know what they are talking about. They need to develop justifiable and justified (as opposed to none or delirious) trust in their own judgment.

Realistic awareness of what is actually the case, or rather, developing the mental tools to better distinguish what is actually the case from what is not – and that includes self-awareness – is immensely more useful than memorizing any list of facts or formulas or skills picked by someone else. Even if the learning process often depends on a certain level of trust and “suspension of disbelief” if you are to pay attention to this source of information instead of that one, this should be a filter that acts on your attention budget, on the amount of effort you are willing to spend to decode and evaluate the data stream coming from that source of information. It should not instead be encouraged that information is blindly taken at face value from any source. The idea that the average citizen should believe a professor or teacher blindly “because I have a degree and a position of authority” is as ludicrous as the same claim coming from any other source accompanied by similar arguments. What one says and wants you to believe has to make sense.

When the system is set up in such a way that most students – even those who originally cared and were engaged – eventually just give up trying to make sense of what is being told to them, and shift gears to “ok, let’s just try to do whatever will most efficiently result in getting institutional approval”, that’s when the possibility of a quality education starts to die. Then the whole process becomes worse than useless – it actually encourages intellectual confusion and a fragmentation and compartmentalization of what should be a unified identity. Your mental model of the world is, in several important senses, who you are, and tinkering with it and forcing people to relinquish the requirement that what you say you believe and what you hold to be true should make sense to you results in weak, insecure, manipulable individuals. So unless that is actually the desired and expected result to be obtained from educational systems, important changes in attitude are essential.

And among the changes, probably one of the most fundamental is bridging the psychological / emotional / human gap between those who are teaching and those who are learning. Once again, I’m absolutely not saying that “Oh we all know the same things, you know, it’s arbitrary that some people are professors and others are not”. This would be disingenuous, condescending and not empowering at all. Yes, professors do know more about what they are teaching than their students – or at least good ones should. That’s precisely why it’s a good idea to listen to them. But – and that’s a big but – how do you know who to listen to if you don’t yet have the foundations to question what they are saying? Now, there comes the crucial step. The final and most crucial step of really learning anything happens when you understand something which you didn’t before. And after you manage to do that, you don’t need to cite or refer to anyone else in order to justify your new beliefs. You can refer to your own judgment instead of the professor, the textbook, the authorities or any other socially accepted source of knowledge. So that’s what you should be aiming for – to acquire this sort of solid interlocking grid of insights which anchor what you believe to your own judgment – or at least that’s what you should be going for in the areas in which you hope or desire to have a serious level of understanding. And that’s what a good teacher, instructor or professor should be trying to help you achieve. They can show you the way, show you where the pitfalls are, give you tools to help you understand. But in the end, the eventual goal should be to make you able to throw all crutches away and think for yourself.

Unfortunately, that’s absolutely not the prevailing attitude in many educational (and other) settings. One of the most perverse and destructive myths that is instilled into the minds of students – and of society in general – generation after generation is that “knowledge” equals revelation and that there’s no way to achieve it except through surrendering your own judgment to those who magically have supernatural access to it. Besides all the social, political and intellectual damage that this paradigm nurtures, this idea cripples the very identity and sense of autonomous self of those who buy into it. It’s psychologically, emotionally and even morally damaging to live your life under the belief and assumption that you are helpless, weak, unable to distinguish true from false, reality from fantasy, right from wrong, that you can’t hope to develop and cultivate the ability to do it yourself, that you need someone to constantly tell you what it is that you should believe.

But to avoid encouraging this mindset, one must make changes not only to the “objective” aspects of the system, to the syllabi and hours and course structures and assessment methods, etc… but most and above all to the human aspect of education. If professors, teachers and instructors in general present themselves as prophets instead of as learned but fallible guides who are telling you tales about what they think they know, if textbooks are seen as sacred texts instead of as personal attempts to call the reader’s attention to what the author hopes are some aspects of the truth, if the current academic consensus about a subject is described as being the ultimate and unambiguous reality instead of a snapshot of our most current and (for most subjects) probably (historically speaking) fast moving guess at what reality might actually be, then education will fail at its most important purpose, which should be empowering people to think for themselves.

Learned academics do have a lot to tell us, but we should not be encouraged to “believe” them because of their prestige, title, degree, position or power. We should instead be encouraged to listen to them, and then try very hard to figure what it is that they are talking about, and why in the world this should be true, relevant to us, or even make sense. And it seems to me that the most difficult and insidious barrier to that is fueling a psychological divide between those who hold the sacred books and the power of prophecy and those who are mere acolytes and whose heretical questioning should be met with scorn or punishment. Of course students are in many cases not in a position to seriously challenge a teacher’s knowledge or opinion on a given subject (although more often than most teachers would be prepared to admit they in fact are), but unless they ask themselves “why should this be true?” and voice their doubt when they can’t come to a satisfying answer, and are encouraged to do so, we switch from promoting learning to promoting ritualistic reverence.

So before and as a prerequisite for any learning to actually happen, the student must see that however learned the professor is, this only means that a lot of effort and time and study was put into understanding whatever is now being taught, and the professor may and frequently does deserve attention and respect because of that, but no mystical powers or revelation were involved. It’s however unfortunately the case that many academics don’t want to relinquish the mystique that derives from being “the learned one” in subjects that nobody understands and they instinctively fear or believe that they will lose their prestige, respect or value if their mastery of difficult subjects is not seen as something that only they have the superpower to conquer. So too many times instead of trying to make their teaching accessible and as crystal clear as possible, they will go the opposite route and (often even without noticing, but sometimes deliberately) go out of their way to make it obscure, mysterious and unintelligible. They will try to make it seem harder than it actually is so as to implicitly elevate their own value and standing. They will encourage students to believe them instead of acquiring the mental tools that will allow student to reach similar conclusions by themselves. They fear that if they teach too well, the student will no longer be at a position of disadvantage and hierarchical subordination. And in a sense, they are correct. That is the best result that could be expected of education – successfully elevating followers to masters of themselves.

Thus, I propose that orders of magnitude more important than the information that teachers provide to students – which in objective terms is all easily available in libraries and online nowadays anyway – and possibly more important than even the objective intellectual coaching and feedback and orientation, the single most important relevant role a teacher can play in education is effectively conveying the psychological message that “Here I am, I am a real person, I am doing this, thus maybe so can you.” It’s effectively expanding the student’s expectations to the possibility that whatever is being studied, it’s something that if one person can do, another one might, and maybe you can too, so give it a try.

3 Responses to “What One Person Can Do, Another One Might”

  1. Caroline says:

    I think that there are two sides to the proverbial coin… I agree with you about Professors’ (and this extends to TAs and graduate students’) attitudes towards undergraduate students. I can recall some instances where I had Professors who would rather be anywhere but teaching us at that moment. Their actions would speak loudly. I just started working as an Adjunct at a local university this semester and was kind of surprised (in a negative way) at the poor attitude and low expectations that the head of the department had towards students. In so many words, he insinuated that the students were “dumb”. I recall a similar explanation given to me by a TA at X University when I was also TA’ing a few summers ago. They wanted their students to be like sponges that absorbed information passively. Tertiary education is structured this way. It’s about delivering the material, not bothering to make it relevant, and then blaming or criticizing the students for not understanding it because they’re not “smart enough” or “apt enough”.

    Now here is the flip side of the coin (I speak from experience in Secondary education). What if you work your heart out and many students really don’t appreciate what you do for them? What if a student said “give me a 0, I don’t care.” or “What do I need to do to pass with a D”? The first reaction might be “ok, fine. it’s your grade, not mine.” But deep down inside it hurts because you really want to help this student learn. You really want to make things relevant in order to motivate them into learning. You want them to put in an effort in order to help them see that it’s not so much about content but about important skills that one takes with them later on in life? It hurts because you care and because the age-old saying is clear: You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. What to do then?

    Nevertheless, be it very discouraging and disheartening as it may, I think that I would rather be the educator that feels hurt by apathy than feel like a god with an ego.

    • Well, I don’t want to feel like either. :-)

      The main difference between early college and secondary education, I would say, is that people in college (most than secondary students anyway) *chose* to be there. And that makes all the difference. In my personal opinion, a very important step towards fixing secondary education, radical as it may sound, is more or less the *opposite* of “not leaving anyone behind” or anything like that, but instead to *stop making it mandatory*. Those who don’t want it, feel free to walk out and deal with the result. And for those who argue that having uneducated people hurts society as a whole (a point with which by the way I agree), notice that these people who would rather walk out are already not only not learning anything but they are also breaking the system and preventing others from learning. The fact is, it’s impossible to force people to learn anything. This totalitarian mentality of “let’s impose education on people because it’s good for them” has to go. Brainwashing is brainwashing regardless of how well meaning one is. If you are giving something for free and still people don’t want it, maybe you have to rethink what you’re doing. The best quality control that we can hope to have is not imposing artificial standardized measures of quality or progress, but actually opening the doors and letting people choose if what you’re offering is worth their time. If one can’t engage them enough that they would *choose* to stay and listen, dude, coercing them to stay and “listen” is not going to help. Now, I am all for trying to *convince* those people who would walk out to stay, and trying to reach out to them, and trying to create special programs or classes or methods that would maybe have more appeal to them, but simply legislating that getting an education is mandatory and thinking that this is a solution is turning the whole thing upside down and doesn’t actually solve anything. It’s like trying to solve the problem of hunger by making not eating illegal. Providing *access* to education to all those who want it might be a very worthy cause. Trying to reach out to those who don’t realize that education is crucial too. But the proposition that “we’re going to educate you mercilessly whether you want it or not” can only end up in the things we see every day.


  2. Caroline says:

    There is a Brazilian educator named Paulo Freire who believed in equal educational opportunities for all regardless of socioeconomic status. I, too, believe in this (which is why I went from working in a “rich” neighborhood to an urban school.) However, the reality is that not everyone wants to be educated. In fact, people put up a big resistance to it. NCLB works behind this idea that all students should have the equal opportunity to become “doctors, lawyers, etc.” by forcing students to go to college thus eliminating vocational and trade programs at the high school level.

    What the right wants to do (for instance, the governor of NJ) is establish Charter schools in poor neighborhoods. Charter schools operate as public schools with government funding. This type of system attracts the best and brightest of the poor and puts them in the top Charter Schools, which makes these students as competitive as their suburban counterparts. They go on to competitive universities. Students that do not enter these top performing schools go to other schools (vocational schools, which NCLB took away).

    I agree with both points of views. Paulo Freire’s ideas sound great… but in practice it has been abused to the point where now teachers are forced to pass students to keep lower performing students “at par” with higher performing ones. Charter Schools are great in that they identify the best and brightest among the disadvantaged and give them the opportunity to be among the best of the best. However, I imagine that it is very difficult to move up from a vocational or lower track school up into a higher track. Tracking determines student ability at an early age and it can be comparable to an Indian Caste system where it is virtually impossible to move up.

    So, what is the answer? I mean, from an Educator’s point of view, perhaps Paulo Freire’s idea is the way to go. It gives everyone an equal opportunity. From a parent with a child in the school system, one would want the best and if they really cared, would do everything possible to get their child into the best school. I would also imagine that the tracking method would also limit bullying because it would automatically group the “brainy” kids together, the lower performers in another group, etc. Like-minded people with similar ambitions would be grouped together. But is tracking fair?

    On a slight tangent: This day and age, I would say that it is lack of parental involvement starting at a young age that is the #1 inhibitor of student success. Across the board, regardless of socioeconomic status, students *generally* do well and want to learn when there is encouragement at home. Then, there is the question of the media – specifically MTV and its brand of pop culture – and how that negatively influences impressionable children and adolescents. They have the power to do the most good and in reality do the most evil. Where else do you find a group of talentless young adults famous for not having any talent at all? What about their reality shows where people engage in stupid, amoral, degrading behavior that brings out the very worst in everyone? (Jackass, The Jersey Shore, and other reality shows among others.)
    All of this reminds me of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”. People are ceasing to do thinking for themselves. People rely on prescription drugs to forget problems. It is becoming acceptable for young adolescents to use sex as a means of controlling others or gaining something material. Everyone blames each other for problems and no one stops to look within themselves and acknowledge that they are the source of their own problems. Few seem to question what’s really going on.

    I think that Education solves these issues. I think that it is everything: it is birth control, it is a better quality of life, a better standard of living, and the list goes on. What bigger threat could people pose to its government than having an educated public?

    Sometimes I want to give up, but I still see hope in our society. I see a handful of teens who care and who will do well. (I try to keep in touch with them after HS.) If we can get young people to think more for themselves and give more value in their education, then when they grow up and become the decision makers, things will begin to fix themselves….. or will they?

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