Actions and Consequences

‘I think we all owe Howard a debt of gratitude for coming up with the solution to all our difficulties,’ said one of Kirk’s [university] colleagues.

Kirk took this as his due and nodded, ignoring [the] accurate observation that all the difficulties had been created by him.

The assembled academics had all just tunnelled through the service area under the student picket lines which had been brought into being by Kirk and had surfaced in a conference room to deal with problems which had been fomented by Kirk and had finally got around to passing resolutions in conformity with the wishes of Kirk.

— Clive James, review of 1981 TV adaptation of Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man, from Glued to the Box, 1983

I am sure all teachers have been in that student disciplinary meeting that suddenly goes all Kafkaesque in a manner reminiscent of the academic conference described by Clive James above: what begins as a formal gathering to address the many difficulties created by the student, challenge the obfuscations and untruths put in place by the student, and alleviate the problems fomented by the student; suddenly and inexplicably, often at SLT’s behest, turns to passing resolutions in conformity with the wishes of the student. For example, Kayleigh gets to come off Red Report and SLT will have a serious chat with her teachers about their “questionable attitudes towards her” because, after all, “Kayleigh wants to do well“.

I started thinking about actions and consequences in response to the Quirky Teacher’s provocative post Is Hardship Really So Bad?

TQT argues that perhaps people today are too insulated from genuine hardship. While I think he has a point, I would argue (as in the example above) that, although Kayleigh may well have hardships enough in her life, what the education system as it stands is insulating her from are the long-term, serious consequences of her actions — until it’s too late.

It seems to me that there is, or can be, a widespread acceptance of misfortune and hardship — although perhaps it can often be characterised as sullen rather than stoic. What is different from the world I remember being raised in, is the precipitate rush to don the holy mantle of victimhood; as if the fact that that other individuals or institutions were involved in creating the unfortunate situation absolves the “victim” of all responsibility whatsoever.

At times, of course, the victim is truly the victim and, in all fairness, no portion of blame can be attached to her.

That given, what I am attempting to highlight is an unfortunate trend in modern culture that seems to hold that if one has been sinned against, then by definition, one cannot have sinned: in other words, victimhood = sainthood.

This is, I think, the mindset behind the demands that students cannot be “allowed” to fail and that it is entirely the responsibility of the teacher to make sure that every student not only passes, but achieves their over-inflated “aspirational” (dread word!) target grade.

I disagree: of course, the teacher has a responsibility to ensure that every student in her care is as well prepared as possible. But the student is also responsible for her own preparation and I am concerned that the balance of responsibility has shifted too far towards the teacher (and, to be fair, towards the school and SLT — which is why the pressures are passed down the line management structure).

It has been said that a pennyworth of example is worth a pound of preaching. I cannot help but feel that having more students (and parents) being aware that failure is an option and that success is not a birthright would result in a healthier educational culture.

You must reap what you sow. There is no reward, there is no punishment, but there are consequences, and these consequences are the invisible and implacable police of nature. They cannot be avoided. They cannot be bribed. No power can awe them, and there is not gold enough in the world to make them pause.

— Robert Green Ingersoll, Ingersoll Again Answer His Critics IV, 1891

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5 Comments

Filed under Education, Society

5 responses to “Actions and Consequences

  1. ijstock

    Very right, as usual. The problem is, what else might the human race aspire to apart from the release from trouble and suffering? We ought to realise by now that this simply isn’t possible and that the aspiration may even be counter-productive, but modern society (a.k.a. the market) has become very good at hoodwinking people it *is* possible, so that’s what they expect. You just need to buy into whatever product is on offer (including education) in order to soothe your pain…

    So there is every inducement to relax and lay all your troubles on your ‘service provider’. The provider also has an interest in promoting this myth as it allows him to sell more. But as well all know, the life of the mind isn’t like that; often it does involve struggle – even pain – to make real progress. But I don’t fancy the chances of any business that tries to sell pain.

    I read somewhere recently of the need to ‘triangulate’ education – the emphasis on the teacher has caused many to ignore the roles of the pupil and the parent in whatever outcomes are forthcoming. I would add, wider societal forces too. But once again, try making a successful business of telling people that they are going to have to provide for themselves…

    • “Send your children to Acme Academy for them to get the grades they deserve!” Ah! — the marketisation of education. One cannot help but wonder if Pandora has anything left in that particular box…

  2. chrismwparsons

    Don’t know how I missed this last week – great post.

    Some thoughts:
    Yes – in agreement with QT, I think that attempts to insulate pupils from hardship in the here and now have stripped the fibre from their diet – hence the need to invent ‘character education.
    Yes – in agreement with yourself, I think our attempts to ‘carry the burden’ of responsibility for the child ends up with a long-term knock-on for them (as well as us of course).

    Here is an additional thought…
    A huge number of us inevitably play some role in the eventual outcomes for a child in life… they themselves, their parents, their siblings, their teachers, their friends, their education secretary, their dad’s employer… and so on and so on. Perhaps we could view seeing their eventual educational ‘outcomes’ as being a swimming pool being gradually filled with cups of different coloured water by each of these people. The eventual colour of the water could be viewed as the success or otherwise of the child’s overall upbringing and education. Of course, the pool will keep being added to throughout their life, and whether the colour indicates success or not will be up for debate at different times throughout their lives.

    What I’m driving at however, is that – whilst all of us could be said to have had some responsibility towards the outcome of the pool colour, none of us could be said to be ‘accountable’ for this – EXCEPT FOR THE CHILD. They are the only one for whom the buck can truly stop later in their lives – either through the high-paid job, the prison sentence, whatever… they pick-up the pieces. It’s pointless when they’re in the dock for embezzlement to point the finger at their Year 8 chemistry teacher, although that person’s way of being will have subtly coloured the child’s outlook on what life is all about (another brick in the wall etc.)
    .
    The really powerful thing here however is that, for every cup that someone else pours into the pool, this is matched by one from the child, and the strength of the die in this is much stronger than anything we can provide.

    What we are in danger of driving towards is a situation in our pupils of ‘learned helplessness’, where the shape of their lives is just something that they sit back and watch emerging without realising their huge potential agency in shaping things. We’re effectively teaching them to match the colour of the water that everyone else pours in; to hand over all responsibility.

    I might build this metaphor into a blog post 😀

    • I am haunted by the thought that much of what we do in terms of “interventions” may contribute to the vicious cult of “learned helplessness”. I think the analogy is apt and I hope that you do expand it into a post. I have always been terrified that for some people, what happens in their lives is like the weather: that it is not a consequence of their actions, but something to be enjoyed or endured. I’d like to believe that I am the captain of my ship, the master of my fate.

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