"Do no harm"
It was always my intention and ambition as a teacher to honour the basic tenant of the Hippocratic Oath: “Do no harm.” It sounds simple enough, and I assume most teachers feel as I do, but for people with sadistic impulses the classroom must seem like a tempting playground. Since the oath was intended for doctors, much of what it proposes would not apply to teachers, but even some of its tenants like honouring gods and mentors, not using a knife on patients, and not providing abortions seem odd promises even for ancient Greek doctors. On the other hand, the proscription of having sex with patients or revealing their confidences could and should also be applied to teachers with their students. (These proscriptions, in my mind, go hand and in hand, and will be discussed in a future post.)
"Spare the rod and spoil the child"But I’ve never been able to get passed the basic “Do no harm.” It is a burden and a challenge for any teacher once you start thinking about it. Are all your students better off because of the experience of having been taught by you? Have you ever hurt a student? As a student in the 50s and 60s, I certainly witnessed a great deal of corporal punishment, but those were the days when a sadistic streak was consider a necessary requirement for high-school (and even elementary) teachers. Even the enlightened educator of today is likely to have done some harm or injury to a student without ever being aware.
"You've just been wasting my precious time"Under the rubric “do no harm,” I also find myself asking if I have ever wasted my students’ “precious time.” (Hope you get the Dylan allusion . . . Zimmerman not Thomas.) If your answer to this question is that if students weren’t in your class, they probably wouldn’t be doing anything worthwhile anyway, then you shouldn’t be teaching. The human instinct is to learn. No matter what environment you put a human being into, the human reaction is to satisfy curiosity, to try and learn something. (Have you noticed that when people talk about “drug education” or “sex education,” what they mean is teaching young people not to take drugs and not to have sex, even if this "education" means spreading misinformation?) My biggest preoccupation with educational systems is that so often they seem designed to ensure that students learn less rather than more. The frequency with which I encounter educators who have tacitly surrendered to this conclusion shocks me. The school is a prison, outside the school is a jungle; the only debate seems to be about which one is worse.
The Best way to spend three hours and learn somethingThe most typical scenario within which I taught was the three-hour lecture. It’s a tough question to ask but I did ask myself: Is my three-hour lecture the best possible way these students could be spending their time? They could be at home in bed catching up on three hours of much needed sleep. Making love. Reading a book. Browsing the internet. Making progress on a challenging video game. Day dreaming about the future. Taking care of loved ones. Having a conversation. Exercising. Taking a walk. Watching a blockbuster movie that cost 40 million dollars to produce. Inevitably they would be learning something, even if it were only about each others’ navels, or how easy it is to waste 40 million dollars. The 40-million-dollar blockbuster movie-- that was my competition and I always thought I had the advantage because I could use a film in my class, but no Hollywood producer had requested my skills as a lecturer. Actually, that’s not quite true. When I requested a 16-dollar budget so that I could show six minutes of Romeo and Juliet in a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre from the DVD version of Shakespeare in Love, my request sent shock waves through the department, the faculty, the library and upper echelons of the financial administration. The department did not have a “pedagogical budget,” but a section of the library agreed to purchase the DVD if I promised not to show it to students (no, I’m not kidding), because group showings would, according to the library, contravene copyright law. The moral of the story is that if you want to “do no harm” to students, if you want to teach well and insure that they learn something that sticks with them in every class, there is a pretty good chance that you are going to have to break somebody’s rules to do it (the subject of another future post), not to mention forking out the cash to buy your own DVDs.
Triggering past traumas or helping the healing?I remember once having the privilege of teaching a class that was small enough that I could invite students to introduce themselves in the first class. One of the students explained that he had only recently discovered that he had been an orphan, had been adopted, and that he had met his biological family for the first time over the summer. It was a striking revelation; one that stuck with me throughout the course. The student was very upbeat, but it seemed obvious to me that he was still processing his recent discoveries. The problem for me was to suddenly realize that every second text on the course I was giving seemed to involve an orphan. The infant Oedipus is left on a mountain top to die, but survives, is adopted, and returns to Thebes unwittingly killing his father and marrying his mother in the process. Earnest Worthing is left in a hand bag at a train station and grows up not knowing his own identity. And, in the short story, “Who am I this time?” by Kurt Vonnegut, Harry, the central character, is a brilliant actor but is incapable of developing a “real” personality or social life because he was a foundling. I remember hoping that the texts would prove beneficial to him, that they would give him the opportunity to consider the significance of being an orphan from a distance and from varying perspectives, maybe allow him to laugh about his orphan-hood, or consider himself lucky that he was no Oedipus. In fact this idea, the possibility of a distanced and even disinterested or ironic perspective and the opportunity for calm reflection on the world’s and one’s own personal problems became for me, however unfashionable, a justification for the study of literature.
Romanticizing suicideI live in an area where the second most frequent cause of death for young people is suicide. This fact certainly got me thinking about the number of literary works I have taught which romanticize suicide. Romeo and Juliet is the most obvious and influential example. Actually, our unwitting romanticization of suicide was brought home to me when I was teaching Margaret Atwood's novel, The Handmaid's Tale. Atwood's novel tells of a near-future dystopia in which young women were required to become birth mothers for powerfull, infertile couples. In the middle of a classroom discussion of the novel, one student, a bright and always charming young woman, announced very earnestly to the room that she would never accept to live in the circumstances which the Handmaid was enduring. No doubt, in her mind, the student was simply sharing her feelings, but at the same time she was implying that suicide was the right thing to do and criticizing the central character, the Handmaid, for her decision to survive--a decision which Atwood makes explicit in the novel. Since that day, I have found myself repeatedly arguing against the grain of certain literary works, or at least popular interpretations of those works, which present suicide as the logical and even heroic consequence of dramatic events. While I think I have demonstrated sound pedagogy and sound interpretations of the literary works by demonstrating how fictional suicides are to be interpreted as misguided, short sighted and cowardly, I can't help but think of all the years I taught these literary works without stopping to say the obvious.
I didn’t want to be the butterfly that caused a hurricane (yes, there is a future post coming on pedagogy and chaos theory). I also believe, as Malcom Gladwell underlines in The Tipping Point, that “the people who die in highly publicized suicides—whose deaths give others ‘permission’ to die–serve as the Tipping Point in suicide epidemics” (224). By the way, if you see a sign that someone is contemplating suicide, call 911. It sounds obvious, but people don’t do the obvious. I understand why . . . perfectly. The first reaction is that if it were true, someone else would call. Then you call, and you feel foolish, because of course you really don’t know, in fact, the more you think about it you become convinced that the person really isn’t seriously contemplating suicide. You will tell yourself that you sound foolish, hysterical. 911 will ask you questions that you can’t answer. But 911 will take your call seriously. The police will respond. When it’s all over, the student will tell you that it was all a big mistake. You will never be able to say you prevented a suicide, but your student will thank you anyway, and praise you because you were the only person to react. So call 911.