Presence or numbness

by Yule Heibel on September 22, 2003

Interesting article in yesterday’s Iocal paper, Hope voiced for native children. Since the link will decay soon, I’ll quote:

British Columbia’s aboriginal leaders are facing a historic opportunity to heal their youth in traditional ways and help the next generation stand on its own, a Native American studies expert told child-care advocates in Brentwood Bay Saturday. (…)
(…) On Saturday [Martin Brokenleg, a professor of sociology and Native American studies in Sioux Falls, ND] addressed about 100 child and youth advocates at a two-day conference called Collecting Wisdom…. (…)
After the fall of apartheid in South Africa, Brokenleg worked closely with Nelson Mandela’s government, using his Circle of Courage teachings to transform the child welfare system there.
The philosophy is based on the fundamental needs of children: to have a sense of belonging, mastery, independence and generosity.
Research supports the loving, caring and respectful aboriginal way of treating children and rejects the North American philosophy in which children are less important in society, he said. He used the pay differential between a professional athlete and a school teacher as an example of the way children are valued here.
He also said North American tough-love and zero-tolerance forms of discipline and teaching have been a ‘miserable failure.’
He also stressed that children most need ‘human presence’ over anything material. He referred to an American study that says the average female guardian spends three minutes a day engaged in active conversation (not giving orders or directions) with her child, while the male parent spends an average of about 45 seconds.
‘The power of presence… it’s the most significant factor in the lives of successful children,’ said Brokenleg. ‘Too many children are living without that contact.’

Compare this with the competitive philosophies that determine modern, anxiety-riddled “good” schools. Compare it also to Nicole Nolan’s slightly tongue-in-cheek piece in the Globe and Mail, New lessons in true Canadian grit. (This article, too, first found via Wood’s Lot.) Nolan’s article is delightful, and without a doubt true. She writes,

When one begins to teach, one inevitably seeks guidance in one’s own experiences as a student. Thinking back carefully on my Canadian teachers, I realize there can be no doubt at all on the matter: they were harsh. Whether it is because of our history as hewers of wood and drawers of water, or the stiff-upper lip influence of British culture, Canadians prefer that life — even the life of the mind — have a certain bracing quality to it. There is no benefit at all in writing a philosophy paper, the theory seems to go, unless the experience bears some resemblance to jumping naked into Georgian Bay in early summer.

Nolan’s telling it the way it is (or was, in my day back in the 14th century). When I came to Harvard from the University of British Columbia, I was appalled at the grade inflation, at the shallowness of the papers accepted by professors, and at the general lack of real work that was required. At UBC, my professors competed as to who could be the biggest sadistic pain in the butt. But do I endorse that for children? No way. And I even have my doubts about applying the psychological abuse that goes with that kind of regime to young adults — that’s the kind of nice person I am. (And no, it’s not the case that I’m still secretly plotting to kill some of my former UBC profs.) It’s as Brokenleg says: presence matters. And regimes work toward eliminating presence in favour of numbness and abstraction. The more numb — the number? — you are, the better you’ll adapt to becoming a functioning cog (a number) in the machine. On that note, too, see Elaine Frankonis at Kalilily Time and her excellent rant against Bill O’Reilly’s 10 Rules for Effective Parenting (gah, another fucking list!!!). Here’s Elaine:

— Discipline is essential, but no parent should inflict FREQUENT physical or mental pain on a child.
— A good parent will ensure that home is a refuge — a place where a child feels protected and loved. There will be no RANDOM violence, intoxication, sexual displays, UNCONTROLLED anger or vile language at home.

Does the first mean “occasional” pain is okay? And the second that “planned” violence, etc. and “controlled” etc. are okay?

Faced with a choice between O’Reilly and Brokenleg, it’s a no-brainer to choose the latter. But he expects you to trust to love, while the former trades on fear and anxiety, and our outsourced economies and homegrown anxieties unfortunately leave too many people yearning for the pain that O’Reilly advocates.


Yule Heibel September 24, 2003 at 3:29 am

An annoying PS from me:

The paradox that US secondary schools (universities) are simultaneously more competitive and plagued by “declining standards” might be considered not just in the relentless light of “problems” with the quality of the students, but rather in light of the pressures on instructors. I’m talking only about North American, specifically American, schools. An American university professor is under enormous pressure: s/he has to win a popularity contest every semester, and this is a competition, no doubt about it. S/He has to be competitive against others in the faculty and in the discipline — a competitive aspect that’s encouraged — and s/he also has to accomplish this winning strategy through intensified personal popularity with the students. “So-and-so is such a great prof!, she teaches the best classes ever!! I just loved her!” At Harvard, for eg., it starts with the Teaching Fellows (teaching assistants), graduate students who do all the teaching for the big research-oriented profs. TFs are evaluated at the end of each semester, and those who score well with the students receive awards from the Bok Ctr. for Teaching. The scoring is really problematic, because if a TF is tough and gives out Bs instead of As, the student(s) can retaliate with low evaluations. (BTW, I got an award for teaching, so this isn’t sour grapes.) But you learn to toe the line. It’s not necessarily an evaluation based on teaching skill or even on deep understanding of your topic, because if there’s even one vindictive kid in a group of 10-15 evaluations, it skews the statistics, too, and you end up with a much lower evaluation. (You might have around 40 or more students in your sections, but it’s rare that all of them will “vote,” hence the 10-15.) Talk about pressure! But before you know it, the system has you sucked in, and you’re scampering on the bloody hamster wheel like everyone else. “Look at me!, Look at me!, Like me!, Love me!!” You have to perform, but it’s a performance with a very prescribed parameter, based as much on popularity as on anything else. And armed with an award or two from the Bok Ctr., you’ve improved your chances in the job market when you graduate. Hence the connection between competitiveness and popularity, which continues once you become an assistant professor and more.

This scenario also shows that every fix or cure is two-sided, bringing dis-ease, too. Evaluations were developed to provide a feedback mechanism for teachers, feedback from the students themselves. This is a great idea: students should be empowered, and they should be able to reward good or redirect bad teachers, and offer criticism to show them how to improve. But what was entirely left out of the design of these evaluations — which simply reduce the teacher’s efforts to a range of numbers — is how they will contribute to creating a potentially even worse problem, namely strengthening the omnipresent prostitution game. Back to regime again.

jr September 25, 2003 at 10:23 pm

So it this a precursor, postcursor or parallel to a universities athletic win at all costs mentality?

Yule Heibel September 26, 2003 at 12:32 am

You know, I hadn’t thought of athletics at all, being such a retard as regards team sports, but you have a point there, to bring up the fact that sports has become big business on campus.

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